Saxophonist and composer Darius Jones is at one of the fieriest, most mercurial players on New York's massive jazz and improvised-music scene—he's a freedom seeker with a strong sense of history but a healthy disregard for orthodoxy. In brutally precise noise-jazz juggernaut Little Women, a group he cofounded, Jones blows serrated fury alongside Travis Laplante (Battle Trance) over postpunk guitar and drums, and in 2014 he released an album called The Oversoul Manual on which he didn't play at all, instead enlisting four skilled vocalists to sing his emotionally intense work of post-opera.
Another singer, French vocalist Emilie Lesbros, was involved in Jones's most recent recording project, last year's Le Bébé de Brigitte (Aum Fidelity), which features his superb working quartet (pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Sean Conly, and drummer Ches Smith). Lesbros can sing jazz, but she does a lot of other things on the record too—French-language spoken word (she cowrote four of the album's six pieces with Jones), meticulous wordless lines in unison with the saxophone, and elegant melodies closer to art song than jazz.
I saw the band from the album, sans Lesbros and with Nasheet Waits subbing for Smith, last September at the Guelph Jazz Festival, and it was one of the most soulful, incendiary sets I caught in 2015. I especially loved the tune "Universal Translator," which rolls on a circular figure from Mitchell and a stuttering groove—it connects 60s free-jazz fundamentals to the present with a fresh gospel-fueled alto-saxophone attack and a subtle R&B undercurrent. It's the kind of piece that reminds me all over again why I was sucked in by jazz in the first place. You can check out the equally powerful album version below.
Jones doesn't make it to Chicago very often as a leader. In fact, he last did so in 2012, when be fronted a trio with Adam Lane and Jason Nazary (who plays with him in Little Women). He was here as a sideman last summer in a band led by drummer Gerald Cleaver, and five years ago Little Women played the Hideout. But Jones is back in town on Saturday to lead a strong group of Chicago players at Constellation: cornetist Josh Berman, bass clarinetist Jason Stein, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Mike Reed. Their sets will focus on Jones's compositions.