Tony Jones Puts Out a Fascinating, Hypnotic New Album
Tenor saxophonist Tony Jones has a new album out, prosaically titled Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness. It’s a clinic in how fascinating, and listenable, and intelligent free jazz can be. Jones’ co-conspirators in pitch, rhythm and consciousness – accent on the consciousness – are Charlie Burnham on violin and Kenny Wollesen, the latter of whom employs every inch of his drum kit and other various percussion instruments in some mysteriously ingenious ways. Available only as a vinyl record and a download, the album cover shows a high-rise building – the Marcy Houses in south Williamsburg, Brooklyn, maybe? – at night. It’s a simple yet quintessentially urban and metaphorically loaded image that makes a good fit with the quiet, thoughtful tunes here. Most of these still, suspenseful, frequently magical pieces have a nocturnal feel, casually exploring brief, memorable riffs and ideas. Most of them don’t go on for more than about four minutes apiece.
The first track, Dear Toy kicks off with a noir understatement, Burnham’s violin taking on an acidic, harmonica-like tone against Jones’ up-and-down flutters, Wollesen beginning with a rattle and bringing up the closing, reverberating crescendo with what sounds like a gong. The second cut is basically a violin solo, suspenseful and tense, working minute shades against a central drone note. A car horn motif introduces a casual duel between sax and violin and ends on a ghostly tone. As with most of the other works here, there’s no central rhythm, although individual members often will latch onto a consistent pulse as Burnham does early on in this one.
Wollesen gets his cymbals shimmering with a minute, masterful focus on the third track as Jones builds to a distant hint of swing: as close-miked as this obviously is, it feels as if you’re inside the drum kit. The fourth, Bits, is a conversational study between sax and violin, gingerly working its way up to an animated crescendo as Wollesen rattles around, Burnham finally taking it up to a fluttering, somewhat anguished fast staccato as Jones prowls underneath.
Howlin Wolf doesn’t offer much if any resemblance to the great bluesman, building from honking and insistent to spacious tradeoffs between Jones and Wollesen. The only number here where the volume raises above conversational is Billie, Burnham shifting artfully from pizzicato, to apprehensively ambient, to finally a series of deftly tangoish drumlike motifs as Jones anchors the conversation and Wollesen works otherworldly overtones from his cymbals. Division and Kent – a south Williamsburg intersection which is usually deserted, but could be a setting for potential conflict – is a study in contrasts, Wollesen’s drumhead whooshes panning back and forth for an ominous stereo effect, Burnham sounding various alarms while Jones plays his usual calm, collected role.
Finally, on the eight track, Wollesen gets a slinky groove going – with what sounds like a gong or tubular bells. Who knew they could be so funky! Casually, almost secretively, both Burnham and Jones join in the steady parade. The final track, Four Nights, wobbles and whispers and finally joins the sax and violin together in a dark chromatic melody over a keening cymbal overtone. Those are the mechanics of what’s happening: what those dreamy, occasionally nightmarish sonics evoke is left to your own imagination. Even for those who don’t leap at the chance to hear jazz improvisation, this is worth a listen. As a bonus, the sonic quality of the download is remarkably good: one can only imagine what the vinyl sounds like. Count this as a dark horse contender among the best jazz records of the year.
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