The trajectory of alto saxophonist Arthur Jones’ career is one of the more disappointing stories in free jazz. The sounds of Ornette and Trane attracted him from his birthplace of Cleveland to New York City, and he made his recorded debut in 1967 on tenor saxophonist Frank Wright’s ESP-Disk Your Prayer. The next year, he traveled to Paris as part of Jacques Coursil’s band and became an integral if underappreciated part of the community of musicians hovering around Studio Saravah. He played on seven Actuel records by Coursil, Sunny Murray, Archie Shepp, Dave Burrell, Clifford Thornton, and Burton Greene, and he recorded two albums, Africanasia and Scorpio, as leader or co-leader. After 1970, when Scorpio was released (it was one of the last records that the label released), Jones disappeared from recorded jazz, save for an appearance on Archie Shepp’s live Bijou album, recorded in Paris in 1975. His name basically disappears from the historical record after that, and he died in 1998 in the midst of a return to performing after a long hiatus.
Had things gone differently, Arthur Jones could have been one of the major figures in the loft scene in New York during the seventies. He was a wonderfully expressive player, infusing a bebop sensibility into his expansive solos. Even if he never recorded again as leader, he would have been a valuable member of any ensemble in both live and recorded settings. As he makes clear repeatedly on Africanasia, he was more than willing to step out of the way of his fellow musicians when it benefitted a composition, but he was consistently capable of being the defining voice during any passage in which he played.
Of course, as the cover makes clear, Jones is not the sole leader on Africanasia. Drummer Claude Delcloo, who also composed the piece, co-led the octet, which featured a trio of flautists (Roscoe Mitchell, Kenneth Terroade, and Joseph Jarman) and a trio of percussionists (Malachi Favors on log drums, Clifford Thornton on congas, and Earl Freeman on gong, bells, and other percussion). Delcloo was a crucial force in French free jazz. Not only was he a member of the Full Moon Ensemble (who recorded a two part Actuel live album with Archie Shepp and an album on their own for CBS), but he also wrote for the Actuel magazine and did all kinds of behind-the-scenes work for BYG. Unfortunately, he was something of an inelegant drummer, not known for his subtlety or nuance. That didn’t stop him from playing a part in numerous great BYG Actuel records, including his one date as bandleader.
In spite of his occasionally leaden drumming, Delcloo displays a gift for the quieter end of the free jazz spectrum in his “Africanasia” composition. The thirty-seven minute piece, split over both sides of the LP, is built around a hauntingly simple flute theme that recurs throughout. Delcloo and the other three percussionists get the opportunity to improvise during much of the piece, and while it is Delcloo whose name is on the cover, Favors draws most of the attention for his astounding performance on the log drums.
“Part One” opens with a three minute Delcloo drum solo that lasts for just a bit too long, but things quickly become more engaging when he’s joined by the other three percussionists and the flutes run through the theme for the first time. Jones starts quietly about 4:30 in, playing a variation on the theme before initiating some group soloing. Even with Mitchell, Jarman, and Terroade soloing at the same time, Jones easily commands attention without being even remotely overbearing. While the popular conception of free jazz is of loud, screeching, directionless music, Jones’ solo, especially during the portion where there is no percussion and the flutes simply provide accents, is painfully beautiful. If his playing is any indication, Jones was either an incredibly sad person or he was able to tap into past sadness with a vividness that most other alto players haven’t been able to quite reach. Unfortunately, after his unaccompanied solo, the percussionists return and Jones briefly joins the flutes in restating the theme, but Delcloo’s cymbals rise up like a wave and drown out the four woodwinds. Jones is not heard again for the rest of “Part One,” except for a few bars when he joins the flutes for the theme again. After the incredible quality of his solo, it’s hard to think that he wasn’t underutilized here, but some excellent soloing from the flutes helps get over Jones’ absence a bit.
“Part Two” is very similar to “Part One,” although it skips another extended Delcloo solo at the beginning and instead launches right into the theme. From there, the theme alternates with soloing much as it did in “Part One,” but there is an urgency and a fire to the woodwinds’ performance that wasn’t present originally. I can’t speak so much on Jones’ technical abilities (I’m not a musician myself) but his sense for feel is incredible, and he’s electrifying to listen to. He’s able to channel Coltrane and fiercely overblow a bit without losing his own sonic identity, and he settles right back into the melancholy of his “Part One” solo at the end. Meanwhile, the flutes are absolutely frenzied, or at least as frenzied as such a diminutive instrument can sound. The tonal shifts justify the piece’s long runtime, making for perhaps the most start-to-finish satisfying album that Actuel had released up to this point.
Jones recorded, Scorpio, his other album as leader, sometime in August 1969, and he hung around Studio Saravah throughout the most fertile recording period for BYG Actuel. Information on when he returned to New York from France or what he was doing between 1969 and his reunion with Archie Shepp on Bijou six years later doesn’t seem to be available. Delcloo continued to play with both the Full Moon Ensemble and the Baden-Baden Free Jazz Orchestra for a few years before shifting his attention away from drumming and into producing full time for CBS records. He eventually died in a car accident.
Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 07: Michel Puig – Stigmates
Actuel 08: Burton Greene - Aquariana
Actuel 09: Jimmy Lyons – Other Afternoons
Actuel 10: Alan Jack Civilization – Bluesy Mind
Actuel 11: Archie Shepp – Poem for Malcolm
 The majority of BYG Actuel albums were recorded at Studio Saravah.
 Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of most extended drum solos, something I’ll deal with head on when I cover Andrew Cyrille’s solo drum outing What About? (Actuel 16).
 Sunny Murray’s Hommage to Africa is really the only other contender.
 The liner notes aren’t clear on a specific date.