Jack DeJohnette – Sound Travels (2012)

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Jack DeJohnette, the ferociously talented rhythmnist, opens and closes this project at the piano, all alone. There’s a quiet grace about it that belies everything we’ve come in expecting from, you know, a jazz drummer’s record.

DeJohnette, of course, has been playing piano on his own records at least as far back as 1979’s New Directions on ECM — and he memorably recorded The Piano Album for Landmark in 1985, too. Still, it remains a wonder to hear a drummer perform at the keyboard with such an unusual command of space and stillness, to play (let’s just say it) with so little percussiveness.

Don’t get too settled in, though. Just like that, DeJohnette opens up a rumbling conversation on the Latin jazz-inflected “Luisito Serena Salsa,” establishing a loose-fitting creativity that all of a sudden has bassist Esperanza Spalding vocally improvising over the changes during the first solo section. A salute to DeJohnette percussionist Luisito Quintero, the track moves like a darting bird between soaring romanticism and brooding mystery, powered along by this lithe call-and-response of polyrhythms. Later, there’s “New Muse,” a bright blast of straight-ahead jazz formalism that provides the perfect platform for a series of intriguing explorations — first by saxophonist Tim Reis and then trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, as DeJohnette (who wrote or cowrote every track here) adds colors and shadings like a master painter.

It’s that kind of record, a bunker-busting delight that is neither rock nor jazz, neither soul nor pop. Sound Travels, you see, is very aptly named.

DeJohnette, for instance, indulges in an ingratiating calypso for “Sonny Light,” something very much in the West Indian-inflected wheel house of the legend it’s dedicated to, Sonny Rollins. But then guitarist Lionel Loueke leaps in with a fluttering aggression that gives the tune a tribal feel. The project’s title track subsequently delves deeper into these African atmospheres, though it serves more as an prelude for “Oneness” — where a haunting wordless vocal by Bobby McFerrin is answered phrase for phrase by DeJohnette, who plays with a stunning empathy.

“Indigo Dreamscape,” a remake from DeJohnette’s 1990 “event” recording Parallel Realities with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny, succeeds in a way that the original never could — slowed, as it was, by an of-the-moment keyboard bass. This time, there is a more effortless exchange of ideas; the pieces fit together better.

The centerpiece on Sound Travels (out today via Golden Beams-eOne) is another moment of collaborative genius: “Dirty Ground,” a song co-written by featured vocalist Bruce Hornsby — with whom DeJohnette recorded 2007’s Camp Meeting alongside Christian McBride. Created over a bubbling 7/8 roux, the track has the soulful grit and reckless emotional abandon of the best stuff by Levon Helm and the Band — right down to its honking Big Easy-style saxophone signature from Reis (who’s played with the Rolling Stones) and some finger-licking Delta plucking from Loueke.

Yet DeJohnette never gets lost in the flavorful humidity of this good gumbo. Instead, just as Helm would, he bobs along at the very center of an undulating amalgam — effortlessly fashioning a groove so deep it threatens to swallow up his able sidemen.

By then, DeJohnette has made his point. There is little he can’t do, after so many travels, and do very well.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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