I would love to say that my introduction to Jack DeJohnette was his playing on Miles‘ Bitches Brew, or maybe his work with Charles Lloyd. I’d sound so hip! The honest (and somewhat less hip) truth, is that it was at the very end of the cover of Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” done by Pat Metheny on his album 80/81. DeJohnette had just snapped off some powerfully kinetic kit work, to which Pat exclaimed (in his best Tommy Chong voice), “Wooooooooo!!! Jack DeJohnette, man!!”
Metheny’s enthusiasm was warranted though, as Jack’s spacious rhythmic contributions made that album truly something special. Well sure…Brecker, Haden, and Redman were no slouches, but you get my idea.
The fact is that that sentiment applies to nearly every recording DeJohnette has been a part of. And now that ECM Records has re-released (and re-mastered) all four Special Edition records for their Old & New Masters series (including Inflation Blues, available on CD for the first time), it is time to revisit the unique concept that Jack brought to that group. DeJohnette indicates that he wrote keeping in mind the musicians who he’d be working with. That he also plays the piano, clavinet, organ, and the melodica seems to inform his rhythmic constructs, making him one of the most musical drummers out there.
If you get a chance to listen to all of these releases back-to-back, what’s striking is the level of cohesion despite the ever-changing lineup. And that is accomplished without even a hint of sameness: the Eric Dolby tribute that opens Special Edition, with David Murray and Arthur Blythe’s horn lines tangling and untangling, feels connected to Album Album‘s “Third World Suite,” this time with David Murray joined by John Purcell (alto, soprano) and Howard Johnson (baritone sax, tuba). Recorded five years apart with a strikingly different lineup and yet they feel somehow “together.”
This “conceptual glue” makes sense on a micro level as well. The chamber jazz-meets-sonic freakout that is “Journey To The Twin Planet” feels right at home alongside “Zoot Suite” even though the latter, being a tribute to Duke Ellington, is somewhat tamer (as it should be). Both compositions are presented as linked episodes, giving them a kind of storytelling quality. Similarly, “Pastel Rhapsody,” a pretty Tin Can Alley tune featuring DeJohnette’s piano talents, is bookended by the burly opening title track and the randy horn strut of “Riff Raff.” Great stuff.
Going further in, the searching quality of DeJohnette’s writing makes is possible to juxtapose seemingly unlike elements to form a perfect whole: Inflation Blues‘s “Starburst” begins with a long section of tension-inducing atmospherics with bursts of percussion and dissonance, setting up a launch into skittering bop that makes absolute sense.
Yes, Pat Metheny had it right. Jack DeJohnette killed it on “Turnaround,” and that was just the beginning.