DeJohnette/Coltrane/Garrison: In Movement (ECM 2488)

In Movement

In Movement

Jack DeJohnette drums, piano, electronic percussion
Ravi Coltrane tenor, soprano and sopranino saxophones
Matthew Garrison electric bass, electronics
Recorded October 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 6, 2016

This groundbreaking session presents drummer Jack DeJohnette alongside saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and electric bassist Matthew Garrison. Having played with their legendary fathers—John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison—DeJohnette understands that repeating history is easy, but that only someone of his patience and experience can reform it. Says DeJohnette of his bandmates, here making their ECM debut, “Ravi and Matthew are aware of their heritage, but part of the intention of their music is to be recognized for who they are—and that’s already apparent. That’s why I play with them, because they have their own voices.”

In Movement is nothing if not a tribute project. That said, it’s a tribute to many things—some more easily definable than others. When playing the music of the greats, the musicians open their hearts and minds in equal measure. Coltrane the father, for one, gets a serious nod with the trio’s take on “Alabama,” a tune overwhelmingly pregnant with retrospection and taking on a feeling of such historical significance that it feels more like a prayer than a social statement. Coltrane the son lends it visual urgency, dipping his fingers into the ashes of modern discontent and forming an image not unlike the album’s cover art, while Garrison engages in thick description amid DeJohnette’s splashing cymbals.

The title track rests on a bed of electronics (courtesy of Garrison), listing through its changes like a boat along water. Coltrane’s soprano dances, a restless exegete who communicates in gestures rather than words. A brilliant dive inward that acts like a doorway into the alchemy of “For Two Jimmys.” Dedicated to Jimmy Garrison and Jimi Hendrix, it glistens like the ripest of fruits on the vine. With ritualistic abandon, it charts one mystery after another, plotting fresh strata in DeJohnette’s mastery.

Trio In Movement

The Miles Davis/Bill Evans gem “Blue In Green” pairs DeJohnette on piano with Coltrane on soprano for a nocturnal meditation before the Earth, Wind & Fire classic “Serpentine Fire” emerges as if freshly washed in the one element missing from the band’s iconic name. DeJohnette’s funky snare evokes a bygone era in futuristic grammar, while Coltrane unleashes one of his most inspired cadenzas on record.

All of which seems like a preamble to “Rashied.” Bearing dedication to Rashied Ali, this tune documents Coltrane’s first studio excursion on the sopranino saxophone, an instrument that feels tailor-made for his temperament and resonates powerfully alongside the drums in a duo setting. This fiery pieceearned a standing ovation from the crew at New York’s Avatar Studios, where the album was recorded, and rightly so: it’s revitalization incarnate. In the wake of this extroversion, “Soulful Ballad” returns DeJohnette to the keys for a somber farewell. As with “Lydia” (named for DeJohnette’s wife), it adds a dash of sweetness to an otherwise savory program.

Bassist Henry Grimes once said that being an innovator means coming out the other side another person. And in that sense, each of these musicians has come into his own, apart from who he once was. The difference here is that we know them through their creative action, instantly and irrefutably, and can only shake our heads at the planetary alignments working in their favor.

DeJohnette/Grenadier/Medeski/Scofield: Hudson

Hudson

Although Hudson derives its title from the valley of the same name, don’t expect the swaths of greenery shuffled across the album’s cover. Its influences are less environmental than musical, the 1969 Woodstock Festival being a central theme.

Of all the greatness at play, most organic is the balance of backward and forward glances. Jack DeJohnette’s drumming references Tony Williams— honored by John Scofield’s original “Tony then Jack”— even as it ignites fresh hearths with that same torch. Larry Grenadier draws on the electric bassists who inspired him through his acoustic wonders, building an anticipatory language distinctly his own. John Medeski on Rhodes hints at electric Miles Davis even as he maps uncharted atmospheres at the piano. And guitarist Scofield, who recorded with Davis, brings that classic vibe into the 21st century, pulsing with abiding love for rock and blues. His other contribution, “El Swing,” is a modal gem frontlining his restrained fire. DeJohnette pens three: “Song for World Forgiveness” aches with beauty, not least of all through Scofield’s lyricism; “Dirty Ground” (written with Bruce Hornsby) features him singing with gritty sincerity; and in the final “Great Spirit Peace Chant,” wooden flutes, percussion and voices leave us holding a feather of ancient ways.

Much of this album, though, polishes gems of folk-rock until they glisten anew. Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” are replete with masterful exchanges. Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” moves in seamless retrograde while a reimagined “Wait Until Tomorrow” (Jimi Hendrix) emotes with bluesy abandon. On the same level is Robbie Robertson’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” which mixes its ingredients in all the right ways.

Like-minded gravity attracts us first, however, to the opening title track, an 11-minute improvisation that puffs up like four dinner rolls baking in fast- forward. This is musical comfort food, the abstractions of which are butter on the nooks and crannies.

(This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Live Report: Made in Chicago at Cornell

Made in Chicago

Made in Chicago
Live at Bailey Hall, Cornell University
October 4, 2015
8:00pm

In 2013, a year after being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, drummer Jack DeJohnette was asked to perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Given a free choice of bandmates, he convened reedmen Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and bassist Larry Gray on far more than a whim. Their connection runs back to the early 1960s, when DeJohnette was making a name in his hometown of Chicago. Abrams and company would go on to found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM, from whose ranks would arise the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago. By that time, DeJohnette’s career was already taking off in New York City. Still, he never forgot those formative spaces, where Chicago cats would play together for hours on end in the city’s legendary “loft” concerts, performed in musicians’ homes. As frequent host Mitchell recalls elsewhere, “Every time I get together with musicians from the AACM it’s like we are just picking up from wherever we left off.” And so, despite having never recorded before as a quintet, an organic unity abounded when the historicity of the 2013 gathering was captured as Made in Chicago, released this past January on the influential ECM Records label.

If the album can be said to be a feather in the cap of DeJohnette’s already vast output, then by now that same cap could surely unfurl wings and soar of its own accord. His discography reads like a Who’s Who of modern jazz, ranging from untouchables like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman to the brightest stars, among them bassist Esperanza Spalding and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, of the here and now. Although his integrated style is recognizable across a spectrum of genres and cross-cultural collaborations, his open-door policy with ECM has yielded some of the finest projects of his career. Whether in the Gateway Trio with bassist Dave Holland and guitarist John Abercrombie or the pet project known as Special Edition (which included pioneers Baikida Carroll, Chico Freeman, and Rufus Reid), to say little of the enduring Standards Trio with bassist Gary Peacock and pianist Keith Jarrett, DeJohnette has consistently brought an exhale of soul to every inhale of heart that imbues whatever musical organism he touches. All this and more was in clear evidence on Sunday night as Made in Chicago kicked off this year’s Cornell Concert Series on the Bailey Hall stage.

Before a single gesture of the band went live, I had the rare privilege of interviewing Mr. DeJohnette in an open Q&A session the previous afternoon. I asked him about his association with AACM musicians and how it shaped his musical identity. “Back then, we were cultivating an original approach to improvisation,” he told me in his thoughtful yet humble manner. “AACM’s motto was to establish the serious intentions of everyone that came out of its ranks. Jazz wasn’t simply improvisation, but a continuation of improvisation, creation through a process by which everyone and everything in the multiverse is hardwired to do. That concept fuels me and this combination of players that I got together. To play spontaneously is a challenge. You are exposed. The ability to compose on the spot, to create motifs and rhythms and communicate those not only to the other musicians but to the audience … It’s more like soundscapes, painting in sound.”

I asked DeJohnette whether he felt that hanging out with the AACM crowd allowed him to explore spontaneity in ways he hadn’t before. “Definitely,” he agreed. “Chicago prepared me for New York. It was my school. You practiced at home, but you played and developed your consistency to create and improvise fluidly on the instrument by performing. I don’t like the term ‘free jazz,’ because it’s not really free. The real freedom is in the choices we make. That’s why I always prefer to think of it as spontaneous composition.”

Indeed, we do well to remember that DeJohnette is a composer at heart, crafting — whether off the cuff or with more forethought — melodic and intervallic structures with the ease of a lifelong painter at the canvas. The analogy is not ill-chosen, for it is one that DeJohnette shares in reference to his own craft. “I’m not just a drummer,” he said of the capacity in which fans are more likely to understand him. “I’m a colorist who paints and participates in the music both harmonically and rhythmically.” He likewise cites the piano as a central component of his sonic upbringing. It was his primary instrument and one to which the drums were a later addition.  “I used to spend three to four hours a day on each instrument, because I wanted to bring the drums up to the level of my piano playing. The piano helped how I heard the ensemble, tuned the drums and how I approached the cymbals. If you listen to cymbals closely, they have a gong-like resonance, a higher frequency. Both piano and drums, of course, belong to the percussion family, so for me the two instruments have always overlapped one another.” This idea of overlapping is immortal in DeJohnette’s musical worldview, by which the growth of his art comes across with that much deeper inherency.

Where in the latter vein DeJohnette brought the wisdom of history, Abrams brought the wisdom of process when, following the Q&A, he led a master class for the Cornell University Jazz Band. Since co-founding the AACM, Abrams has had a formidable career of his own not only as a musician but also as a bona fide composer, his String Quartet No. 2, for one, having been premiered in 1985 by the Kronos Quartet at Carnegie Hall. It was from beneath the shadow of this hat that Abrams addressed the young musicians with poignant, if dense, nuggets of advice. “I’m interested in what you don’t know about yourselves,” he told them. “Allow your imagination to go inside.” Simple words on paper, to be sure, but difficult to embody in practice. In his sagacious, patient manner, Abrams worked through moments of confusion and revelation with equal attention, encouraging students to “give it presence” here or “create however you want to play it” there whenever hesitations manifested themselves. All of this was meant to bring across a central point: Evolving jazz artists feed not on the carrion of others, hunt not for things that have been found. Rather, they dig within and give us something we can carry on into the future.

Nowhere was this so aptly demonstrated as in the performance proper, in which the straight line paved by DeJohnette and Abrams yielded a downright ritualistic pentagon when Made in Chicago gave presence to 90 minutes of uninterrupted experience. No titles were given to the concert’s four long tunes, and perhaps any announcement thereof would have imposed on their continuity. The first piece, which felt more through-composed than improvised, opened where most jazz performances wouldn’t: with a cello solo. Gray’s bow was mellifluous yet robust, trailing a mournful shadow by its gait. Like so much of what followed, it catalyzed a play of frequencies, at once ancient and of the moment. One by one, the rest of the band followed suit. As Mitchell’s full-throated alto, DeJohnette’s selective contacts, Abrams’s starlit keys, and Threadgill’s incanting flute took shape, one could almost feel the molecules transforming in the room. It was, I would wager, a challenging introduction to those who were expecting to tap their feet to something recognizable. But as Abrams surely would have reminded us, it was all about sharing a search for the unknown.

How lucid this philosophy blossomed as the pianist himself introduced the second tune, rippling into Mitchell, whose alto proved a force to be reckoned with. His penchant for circular breathing and complex finger work led to some of the concert’s most arresting developments, contrasting beautifully with Threadgill’s halting pointillism. It was as if both were navigating a rift between dimensions, only one was trying to escape while the other was content to remain where he was. Gray and DeJohnette meanwhile played not so much off as through each other, shifting their densities to allow for Abrams’s extensions. Like a player piano gone haywire, his keys seemed to move of their own accord. From there the band whittled its way down to DeJohnette alone, crisply defining every hue with painterly intelligence, as he did also in the next tune, which found him exploring the possibilities of a full-contact drum synthesizer in a veritable rain forest of utterances, and in the final piece, recognizable as Mitchell’s “Chant” from the quintet’s recent album. Here Mitchell dominated on the shriller sopranino saxophone, keeping step with Abrams’s mounting speed. If anywhere, here was the potential of simplicity to the fullest, a difference through sameness that blew the candle flame of inspiration enough to keep it wildly dancing but unextinguished.

For its encore, the quintet proceeded whimsically, Mitchell (switching between three saxophones) and Threadgill (on alto) playing with expectations over the solid groove laid down by DeJohnette, who demonstrated himself, like the band as a whole, for all a peaceful commander. As the musicians turned on their last dime, strangely evoking a feeling of travel by way of suspension, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what DeJohnette had said the day before: “I just follow where jazz wants me to go, and where jazz wants to go depends on what humanity does with the challenges we face as a species. We have to adapt to our environment, and I think that music and art speak to that. I don’t know if you’re going to have any more John Coltranes and Miles Davises, but there will always be people addressing the times we live in through their music. The actual event of getting together and playing music together is vital. The people who come to listen are instruments, too.” Which is not to say that we as an audience were being played, but invited to join our notes of appreciation to theirs of generation.

Among the handful of albums in the DeJohnette catalog to which I find myself returning with especial frequency is his 1997 ECM effort Oneness. In addition to its moving progressions, this understated leader date boasts one of his most emblematic titles. Oneness is no mere throwaway concept, but a core tenet of this essentially ad hoc collective. It is an overarching expression for what DeJohnette and his peers can do, a testament to their quasi-spiritual quest for unity. As Abrams mentioned in his master class, musicians don’t need to be anywhere else than where they want to be, and neither did the fortunate listeners, as we sought purchase in the increasing density of their comet’s tail. They followed wherever the sounds wanted them to go and, despite the distant past implied in their advancing years, had nothing but the future in their hands.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Jack DeJohnette: Made In Chicago (ECM 2392)

2392 X

Jack DeJohnette
Made In Chicago

Henry Threadgill alto saxophone, bass flute
Roscoe Mitchell alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones, bass recorder, Baroque flute
Muhal Richard Abrams piano
Larry Gray double bass, cello
Jack DeJohnette drums
Produced by Dave Love and Jack DeJohnette
Recording engineer: Martin Walters
Assistant engineers: Jeremiah Nave and Daniel Santiago
Recorded live August 29, 2013 at the Pritzker Pavilion Millennium Park Chicago at the 35th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival
Sponsored by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events
Programming in part by the Jazz Institute of Chicago
Tour manager: Ken Jablonski
Mixed at Avatar Studio, New York by Manfred Eicher, Jack DeJohnette, and James A. Farber (engineer)
Mastered at MSM Studios, München, by Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

As the story goes, when legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and given carte blanche to perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2013, he immediately thought of his old jam buddies from the early 1960s, the founding sessions of which had led to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), whose most hallowed disciples formed the Art Ensemble of Chicago, resolutely documented on ECM. As Roscoe Mitchell recalls, “Every time I get together with musicians from the AACM it’s like we are just picking up from wherever we left off.” To be sure, the conversation between reedmen Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bassist Larry Gray, and DeJohnette himself feels like it’s been going on forever. Despite the fact that these musicians had never recorded before as a quintet, much less played as one, it feels as if they have been plowing through ether on its way to the cosmos all along, and that we can count ourselves fortunate for catching even a snippet of their time on this planet. As if in service of this analogy, the recording is very present in relation to the musicians, while the crowd cheers like some distant panel of stars whose appreciation arrives light-years after the fact.

Made in the Streets of Chicago

Mitchell—who plays alto, soprano, and sopranino saxophones, bass recorder, and Baroque flute—offers two substantial originals to the stage. “Chant” cracks the concert’s outer shell with a sacred tap. From raw, arpeggiated materials it constructs a body from the ground up and, by addition of instruments, imbues it with consciousness. Likewise, every member knows his place in the larger symphony of his setup. DeJohnette pays off his timbral dues with handfuls of Benjamins, especially in his dialoguing with Mitchell, while Threadgill touches off more angular lines of flight. Gray meanwhile appears, stealthily at first but with increasing conviction, to be the psychological impetus behind it all. But it’s Abrams whose torrent of ideas seems most organic. Like a healing energy itself in want of healing, he plays the all-important trickster as Threadgill curls his fist in staunch refusal of suspension. Thus do we return to the center of the spiral, only to find another waiting to be sung. The aptly titled “This” reveals an adjacent facet, fronting Baroque recorder and Threadgill’s bass flute in an excursion of astute reflectivity. Abrams again proves vital to the physical nature of this sound, his pianism attaining downright Beethovenian proportions.

The bandleader’s “Museum Of Time” fuels the Abrams fire. Spanning a gamut from whirlwind to delicacy, its touch provides spatial reference for the reeds and a still larger context for the slippery groove in which DeJohnette and Gray find themselves. Threadgill’s “Leave Don’t Go Away” flips this approach, beginning in interlocking fashion before spawning a lone piano with a mind of its own. Bass and drums jive their way into frame, while sopranino nears bursting from the strength of its inner poetics. And then there is “Jack 5” by Abrams himself. Light cymbals clear the air before late-night sounds ground an alto and all the soulful things it has to say. DeJohnette then takes the reigns and builds his steed one muscle at a time, each part mutually independent of motion.

As the MC of the evening, DeJohnette extols the spirit of brotherly love on which all such jazz must feed. It’s a love you can feel when the band jumps into a spontaneously improvised encore titled “Ten Minutes,” which actually clocks in at just over six. Abrams checks a pulse, reeds exchange powerful mutations, DeJohnette and Gray ride the middle line: these become the markers of giving in. Mitchell saves his best for last this time around, his mind reveling in its own synapsial wanderlust.

A masterpiece? Please. This is more than a piece. It’s mastery incarnate.

(To hear samples of Made In Chicago, you may watch the EPK above or click here.)

Jack DeJohnette: Special Edition (ECM 2296-99)

Special Edition

This treasure trove among treasure troves from the Old & New Masters series is the definitive archive of Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition. The Chicago-born drummer, notes Bradley Bambarger in the set’s informative booklet, has appeared on more ECM albums than any other session musician. But it’s as a leader that his most enduring marks were made, and we can be sure that this re-release will both revive positive associations in anyone who remembers the albums on vinyl and inspire pristine ones for the digital newcomer. Like the project’s leader, Special Edition was about the joy of energy and the energy of joy, spreading love and music in overlapping measure.

Special Edition

Special Edition (ECM 1152; also included as part of ECM’s Touchstones series)

Jack DeJohnette drums, piano, melodica
David Murray tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
Arthur Blythe alto saxophone
Peter Warren bass, cello
Recorded March 1979 at Generation Sound Studios, New York
Engineer: Tony May
Produced by Jack DeJohnette

There could hardly be a more apt title for the inaugural effort of Jack DeJohnette’s most influential project. As in his formidable collaborations with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, DeJohnette kneaded enough preservatives into this album to keep it as fresh as the day it was baked. Special Edition also served as a launching pad for reedmen David Murray and Arthur Blythe, both onetime members of the World Saxophone Quartet and poster children for the post-bop generation. Their edgy expositions nest seamlessly into the present company. “One For Eric” kicks off the set with a swinging bang as alto sax and bass clarinet inhabit the right and left channels, bass and drums dancing between them with the Neo-Classical ebullience for which the track’s namesake, Mr. Dolphy, was so well known. Jumping from one visceral solo to another (Murray on a notable roll here), the group traces the fine edge between groove and abstraction with the skill of Philippe Petit on a wire. This tasty appetizer prepares us for the largest course in “Zoot Suite,” an instant classic that has since become a touchstone of DeJohnette’s repertoire. A masterful weave of raw horn vamps and somber asides, it is equal parts jubilee and dirge. Peter Warren keeps the beat throughout and makes sure his bandmates never hibernate for too long. “Journey To The Twin Planet” applies heavy mystique to this musical visage, grinding across the skin like the detuned bass at its foundation. DeJohnette introduces a dazzling free-for-all that works its way into mind and body with equal alacrity. The album rounds out with two Coltrane covers. “Central Park West” is a beautiful ode strung along by arco bass and detailed by liquid reeds, while “India” opens pianistically and runs through a stellar turn from Blythe before settling into a smooth rejoinder.

Were I to classify this album, I would unhesitatingly file it under “Zombie Jazz,” for it walks like the living dead, enchanting us with its embodied blend of natural and unnatural movements. There is something hard won about this music that makes it all the more engaging. Agitation has rarely sounded so fantastic.

Tin Can Alley

Tin Can Alley (ECM 1189)

Jack DeJohnette drums, piano, organ, congas, timpani, vocal
Chico Freeman tenor saxophone, flute, bass clarinet
John Purcell alto and baritone saxophones, flute
Peter Warren bass, cello
Recorded live at Studio Bauer, Ludwigsburg, September 1980
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“One, two, you know what to do.”

Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition came up with another winner in this second ECM joint. Most of the blood of Tin Can Alley flows through the work of reedmen Chico Freeman (on tenor sax and bass clarinet) and John Purcell (on alto and baritone). Their voices—one rich with soul, the other provocative—define the title track. With the machine-gunned obbligato of DeJohnette and Warren covering their backs, they unhinge themselves. An epic baritone solo from Purcell drops the heaviest weight on the scale. These dialogues continue down the ramp of “Riff Raff,” even as Warren drops a heavy dose or two of his own. DeJohnette keeps tabs on every shift, all the way to his lusty swing in “I Know,” where a simulated crowd embraces his unbounded vocals. He also has a solo track, “The Gri Gri Man,” a veritable smoothie of congas, cymbals, toms, and organ. The occasional boom of timpani adds chunkiness to the texture.

Our journey through Tin Can Alley would be far from complete without “Pastel Rhapsody.” Another dialogue, this time between flutes, blends into a piano solo, which in its quiet manner paints the darkness with a meteor shower. From this sprouts a brassy stem, unfurling leaves and petals to the tune of something beyond our ken. Downright cosmic, and one of the most direct-to-heart ballads of the entire ECM catalog.

As with each of DeJohnette’s Special Editions, the cover photo is emblematic of the band’s free spirit, making music for the sake of its rewards. So if you happen to find yourself in this alley, they would much rather you stick around and feel what they’re doing than simply drop a dollar and move on.

Inflation Blues

Inflation Blues (ECM 1244)

John Purcell alto and baritone saxophones, flutes, alto clarinet
Rufus Reid bass, electric Bass
Chico Freeman bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones
Baikida Carroll trumpet
Jack DeJohnette drums, piano, vocals
Recorded September 1982 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For its third ECM outing, Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition incorporates the robust sound of Baikida Carroll, who lends his trumpet to four out of five tunes, all composed by our gracious frontman. “Starburst” drops us from the sky into Freeman’s didgeridoo-like bass clarinet of Freeman as Rufus Reid stretches his bass like a tectonic rubber band through a steady drum riff. Intriguing crosshatching of tenor (Freeman) and alto (Purcell) saxes makes for a lively combination. Purcell also provides excellent baritone traction in the album’s closer, “Slowdown,” which capitalizes on its promise only in the last stretch and ends in noteless clarinet breath. An infectious twang-and-slide pattern locks us into its groove from the start. “The Islands” is an amalgamation of influences and impressions, the glare of sun and sands healed through the surgery of improvisation. Its abstract couplings of winds and horns lead to a delicate but enraptured drum solo. The title track gives us more of what we might have expected from the last: a smooth Reggae flavor. DeJohnette provides the requisite staccato of a clavinet while singing this timely lament:

A dollar’s worth about thirty cents
You’re working your behind off and you still can’t pay the rent
The more money you make, the more Uncle Sam takes
And the unions still cry for more dues
Poor people stay poor; they’re defenseless and sore
They cry out of frustration against a sad situation
Breeds hunger and strife, and a miserable life
And you know the politicians aren’t even bruised
But they won’t find the solutions to win this confusion
That’s why I sing these inflation blues

Tenor and alto add diffusive commentary to the repeat before playing us out bittersweetly. The absence of trumpet is keenly felt in the ornamental “Ebony,” which lands us in the album’s plushest diversions. Freeman’s gorgeous soprano provides the first solo over DeJohnette’s rims and piano. A rubato structure molds each melodic cell like a bead on a wire, Purcell and Reid turning out a fine solo apiece before closing in the fluted and jaunty fade.

The cover is another classic one and expresses the band’s humility and commitment to its roots. Like the single dollar bill being dropped into Carroll’s hat, the least compensation we can offer is our undivided attention to this consistently engaging set of down-to-earth music. Then again, if the last album taught us anything, our least isn’t worthy enough.

Album Album

Album Album (ECM 1280)

John Purcell alto and soprano saxophones
David Murray tenor saxophone
Howard Johnson tuba, saxophone
Rufus Reid bass
Jack DeJohnette drums, keyboards
Recorded June 1984 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: David Baker
Produced by Jack DeJohnette

An exercise in exuberance in memory of his late mother, Album Album opens with one of DeJohnette’s most sophisticated compositions ever committed to disc: “Ahmad The Terrible.” With an engaging klezmer-like joie de vivre and fantastic sopranism from Purcell, it delights from start to finish. The first of five originals, it leaps from the speakers like a body in motion. As if that weren’t jubilant enough, “Festival” stirs up a crowd’s worth of enthusiasm, made all the more inspiring through spirited drumming. “New Orleans Strut” makes tongue-in-cheek use of drum machine as DeJohnette plays a synth lead (his pianism in the opener is also worth noting). Over this bubbly layer the punchy stylings of both reedmen work their way from the groove in most visible fashion. Such is the case in “Third World Anthem,” another sophisticated peak. Playful whoops from horns add a strong emotional undercurrent toward the elegant, staccato finish. “Zoot Suite” makes a welcome cameo, cut in half from its first appearance on Special Edition. Here it is delicate, but with no loss of groove to show for it. The one compositional outlier is “Monk’s Mood,” in which horns and bass dance cheek-to-cheek as if in an old Hollywood black-and-white. It also engenders the album’s only blatant lapse into unrequited joy through the baritone of Howard Johnson.

The verve of DeJohnette and his bandmates keeps us anchored amid a flurry of glorious activity and, alongside Reid’s tight bassing, allows little time for sadness. Here is a space in which mourning must wear a smile, where the self is always secondary to those one loves.

Inflation Blues
(Photo credit: Karen Schoonmaker)

This is primetime creation with late-night attitude, fantasies turned realities by musicians who care about everything they touch through their refusal of false appearances. By looking into this mirror, we might just see more of ourselves than we know, because the freedom of DeJohnette’s networks far predates the social ones in which we are now so deeply mired. Herein lies a lesson in art: those who laugh only at others know too little, those who laugh only at themselves know too much, and those who laugh along with others know all they need to know. There’s too much badness in the world to ignore the possibilities found in what’s left behind. In this regard, few releases stress the virtue of reissuing as much as this one. A special edition indeed.

John Surman: Free and Equal (ECM 1802)

Free and Equal

John Surman
Free and Equal

John Surman soprano and baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Jack DeJohnette drums, piano
London Brass
Recorded live June 2001 Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Recording engineers: Steve Lowe and Ben Surman
Mixed January 2002 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug, John Surman, and Manfred Eicher
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Free and Equal, John Surman’s furtherance of intermingling genres, is its own animal. Under its original title of That’s Right, it was the culmination of a 2000 festival commission and premiered in October that same year. The performance recorded for ECM comes from 2001, giving the work some time to incubate, as did subsequent mixing in Oslo’s Rainbow Studio under the direction of its composer, engineer, and producer.

Nods to classical and jazz modes are a clear and present danger throughout, for the purpose of their coexistence is not to mash them into some new hybrid but rather to flag their common goal: namely, to move listener and performer alike. Surman is joined by drummer Jack DeJohnette (also on piano) and classical stalwarts London Brass in an atmospheric tour de force that departs considerably from such previous experiments as Proverbs and Songs. The instrumentation alone would seem to imply a big band experiment à la Surman’s robust work with John Warren (see The Brass Project), but such is not the case. Neither should the DeJohnette connection, already well honed on Invisible Nature, foster misperceptions of what’s going on here. For as Surman paints the canvas with his soprano oils amid the swells of “Preamble,” it’s clear that freer considerations are at play. DeJohnette’s pianism, heard only occasionally on disc, proves descriptively apt in the follow-up “Groundwork,” which loops bass clarinet through trumpet in an evolving macramé of melody. Here, as elsewhere, Surman finds seemingly impossible paths for his improvisations through growing mazes of gold. Such balancing of the minimal and complex is no small task, and the establishment of that balance highlights their mutuality. It is in this spirit, perhaps, that DeJohnette doesn’t pick up his drumsticks until ten minutes into the album, working into “Sea Change” with the crash of surf in his cymbals, the heave of ocean waves in the brass choir at his back. His moments of abandon are thus kept within sight.

Soloists among the London players strengthen the marrow of this nine-part suite. The tuba soliloquy that opens “Back and Forth,” for one, gives an edible sense of textural contrast. Punctual and enlivening, it signals the first in a series of hardenings and dissolutions, from which trombone throws streams of light and draws Surman’s low reed into an invigorating trio with skins. Likewise, “Fire” traces the multifarious paths of its namesake through a modified trio of drums, trumpet, and bass clarinet. The latter continues its coppery speech in “Debased Line” with a nostalgia and restlessness of spirit that embodies Surman’s passion as a musician. “In the Shadow” evokes Paul McCandless in its sopranism, which floats over a relatively aggressive waltz in the background and sparks an ensemble-wide reaction in the title portion. Virtuosity is on full display as Surman looses his wilder side and fuels DeJohnette’s closing protraction. The drummer cracks many dams in the “Epilogue,” emptying into an open sea of well-earned applause.

Filled with exciting music that creates and maintains its own standard, Free and Equal represents an evolutionary leap in Surman’s compositional thinking. His uncanny ability to be at once joyful and mournful in a single arpeggio has elsewhere never been so explicit. It is music that begs for dancers or the flicker of a cinema screen—a vast, organic machine that runs on the promise of another listen.

Jack DeJohnette: Oneness (ECM 1637)

Oneness

Jack DeJohnette
Oneness

Jack DeJohnette drums, percussion
Jerome Harris electric guitar, bass guitar
Don Alias percussion
Michael Cain piano
Recorded January 1997 at Right Track Recording Studios, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It’s safe to say that drummer Jack DeJohnette has not only changed the face of modern jazz, but has long been one of its greatest physiognomers. While his earlier and more eclectically minded Special Edition has received due (re-)recognition with an Old & New Masters box of its own, be sure to follow its trajectory to the Oneness of both group name and album title. Fellow percussionist Don Alias fleshes out DeJohnette’s already rich sound, joining Michael Cain, whose lyrical pianism graces his own leader date for ECM, Circa, and bassist Jerome Harris, whose collaborations with Sonny Rollins (through which he first met DeJohnette), Bill Frisell, and George Russell have lent a likeminded universalism to his sound.

The percussion-only “Welcome Blessing” says it all: here, in the heart of music-making, lies an empty floor just waiting for the kaleidoscopic patter of feet and light to make its creaks and imperfections known. These are the spaces that seem to fascinate DeJohnette, who makes of each a full-handed gesture. The brevity of this blessing is also its message: that, in a world where freedom of speech runs rampant, sometimes the shortest statement is the strongest. At the other end of the spectrum is “From The Heart / C.M.A.” This nearly half-hour diptych closes the album with an album, and proves that even the broadest sentiments can have the simplest philosophy. Carrying over some of the delicacies of preceding tracks while also blending the protracted testimonials more familiar to a Keith Jarrett session, Cain’s jigsawed pianism undoubtedly draws influence from DeJohnette’s longtime band mate in characteristic progression from a low, earthy drawl to sparkling dandelions of exposition. If there is oneness to be had, it is here in DeJohnette’s mind-meld with Harris, each providing as much rhythm as melody. The surprise entrance of acoustic bass guitar lends tactile flavor.

In the liminal tracks, we find ourselves first “Free Above Sea.” Evanescent and hopeful, DeJohnette’s steadiness here insures that the roiling pianism finds its path. The free-flowing “Priestesses Of The Mist” reveals the heartbeat of DeJohnette’s craft. It begins with a whisper, a wind, a sweep of the minute hand. The pianism is ever so fragile here, moving weaver’s hands through strings as invisible as they are audible. “Jack In” is a smoother train, gliding along tracks of felt-lined hand drums and cymbals. Cain soars, open-throated, and inspires the album’s grooviest passages, especially in Harris’s picking.

A free and easy session that is equally comforting to listen to, Oneness makes no demands. It is a calm breeze flowing within and a huge step in the progression of DeJohnette’s sound, for it is he who maintains the most color and downright melodic sensibilities. He is the music’s conscience. Thus defined, each piece billows like tattered cloth with stories to tell, histories emanating from every fray.

This is one of DeJohnette’s most personal. You can feel it.

A second look: Pirchner/Pepl/DeJohnette (ECM 1237)

Werner Pirchner / Harry Pepl / Jack DeJohnette

Werner Pirchner tenor vibes, marimba
Harry Pepl ovation guitar
Jack DeJohnette
 drums
Digitally recorded on a Sunday afternoon in June 1982 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Writing these reviews has been as much an opportunity to learn about the many fascinations of ECM (and music in general) as about myself. Part of that learning process involves reassessment. So far in my explorations of the label, there have been only two bumps in the road—no small feat for a catalogue of 1300 releases. One of these bumps was the self-titled record cut by Werner Pirchner, Harry Pepl, and Jack DeJohnette. Recorded on a Sunday afternoon in June of 1982, it came across to my ears as a one-off session that was perhaps better suited to remain in reissue limbo. Yet after posting a rare critical review, I incurred an unexpected backlash. Rather than let this underscore my defensiveness—which is useless, for how can one argue with another’s appreciation of art?—I took it to heart and have, over the past year, returned to this album on occasion to absorb its expressive secrets. The experience also revealed an imperfection in my system: because I am hearing so many of these records for the first time, and in my sometimes-overzealous efforts to reach synchronicity with ECM’s rigorous release schedule, I tend listen to albums only once before reviewing them. While on the one hand this gives (I hope) a freshness of feeling to my attempts at describing the indescribable, on the other it doesn’t always leave me prepared to expound upon an experience that may be a longer time in coming. I am also an ardent, if idealistic, believer that music tends to come into one’s life when it is meant to, but that sometimes its interest requires incubation. I simply did not give this date the attention it deserves.

“African Godchild” opens its eyes to a savannah dawn and draws us into a scene resonant with life. The depth of Pepl’s talent, now that I’m more familiar with it, is immediately evident in the spaciousness of his evocations. Pirchner matches that spaciousness on the inside, so that our understanding of it becomes unified. We can hear from this that the Pepl/Pirchner relationship is the nexus of the trio, the guitarist providing spider webs of support for the mallet man’s acute inscriptions. DeJohnette’s kick drum and cymbals add relief to their subtle crosstalk. The interrelatedness of foreground and background is deftly realized, especially as Pepl steps forth with an echoing solo, sculpting the drama with practiced fingers. “Air, Love And Vitamines” is perfect for an autumn afternoon. It is a prime vehicle for Pirchner, whose Jarrett-like inflections enchant at every turn and constitute the vertical to DeJohnette’s horizontal. The drummer balances the hidden urgency of this tune and blends seamlessly with Pirchner’s chording. After listless beginnings, “Good-bye, Baby Post” Pirchner leads the way into a resonant groove. Pepl acts the bass player’s part, even more so in his solo, before pinpointing the night with far-reaching flame in “Better Times In Sight,” for which Pirchner brings us back to earth but not to land, preferring as he does to skate the limpid waters of a forgotten sea.

I stand by my original opinion that the processing on Pepl’s instrument obscures what is already such a direct voice (compare this to the more organic buzzing of Pirchner’s marimba), yet I can understand the motivation for contrast. Ultimately, his gorgeous sustains and crunchy backing ring true in spite of the effects applied. And while I still think the recording levels could still use some tweaking, I have found a solution: listen to it loud.

This curious little gem may or may not hold you at first listen, but it does have the potential, like anything worth its salt, to endear as it endures.