Jack DeJohnette: Relishing the Here & Now

The legendary drummer celebrates his past and finds inspiration in new collaborations

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Jack DeJohnette at the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters awards
By Michael G. Stewart
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Jack DeJohnette at home in the Catskills
By Chris Griffith
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Jack DeJohnette
By Chris Griffith

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Because they honor an artist’s entire career, lifetime achievement awards can be tricky. They’re especially gratifying, for they imply that you had more than one or two peak moments, and sustained excellence over a long period. But they also come with the unspoken implication that maybe your career is over, or at least winding down.

One could tell that Jack DeJohnette was genuinely pleased to be named a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, just such a lifetime achievement award. Five days before the ceremony, the 69-year-old drummer sat in the New York offices of his new label, eOne, and beamed with both satisfaction and astonishment when the award was mentioned. But he was also quick to emphasize his current projects: his new album and his young road band. “They called to tell me last summer when I was in England visiting my mother-in-law, who was very ill,” he said, wearing a blue-knit pullover and rimless rectangular glasses as he leaned back in a conference-room chair. “I was very surprised; it took a minute for it to sink in. When I hung up and told my wife, Lydia, I realized what an honor it was, especially when you think of all the Jazz Masters who came before me. I thought, maybe someone was paying attention after all.”

On January 10, the day of the award ceremony, DeJohnette found himself surrounded by his peers. As part of the concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, he joined his fellow 2012 inductees—vocalist Sheila Jordan and trumpeter Jimmy Owens—and 1998 NEA Jazz Master Ron Carter onstage to play Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave.” The tune began with an unaccompanied drum intro in which DeJohnette’s precisely tuned toms rang like bells to suggest the theme as well as its groove. As he had so often throughout his career, he provided both the blood and the bones for the music.

Earlier in the day he had encountered Roy Haynes, a 1995 Jazz Master, in the lobby outside the awards luncheon at the Jumeirah Essex House. The two drummers greeted each other with an impromptu tap-dancing showdown, slapping the white-marble floor with their street shoes. The bald-domed Haynes chopped up the time with duplets, triplets and pauses using nothing but the palms of his hands and the soles and heels of his shoes—and he put a period on the solo by stepping forward with a right-foot stomp. DeJohnette, his own short Afro speckled with gray, leaned back and laughed, then answered with a mind-boggling combination of his own. Back and forth it went for several minutes until the exhausted old men fell into a bear hug.

But DeJohnette is not content to hang out solely with other long-established legends. Although he spends a lot of each year with one of the most stable, most productive small groups in jazz history—Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio with Gary Peacock—DeJohnette continues to pursue his own recording projects and tours. And he continues to hire the best young musicians he can find to keep his music fresh—just as he once did with David Murray, Greg Osby and others.

His new Sound Travels album, for example, features two twentysomethings: bassist Esperanza Spalding and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Also on the session were two thirtysomethings: guitarist Lionel Loueke and pianist Jason Moran. On the album’s nine tracks, all written or co-written by DeJohnette, you can hear these young musicians pushing the leader not just with their energy but also with a vocabulary gleaned from a different era of pop music and jazz. And you can hear the leader pushing right back at them. “Jack for me is always surprising,” says Benin native Loueke. “He’s always going into the unknown zone, into the thing I don’t expect. I can’t think, ‘He’s going to play this; he’s going to answer this way.’ It’s almost as if whatever I’m thinking, he’s going to play the opposite. I play differently with Jack, because he gets me excited. The accents he puts behind what I’m doing make me react differently. For me he’s African, because of the way he answers me instrumentally, I can tell he’s checked out a lot of African drummers.”

***

Two nights before the awards ceremony, DeJohnette brought his regular road band to the Blue Note in New York’s West Village. This was the quintet featured on the digital-only live album, Live at Yoshi’s 2010: DeJohnette, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, keyboardist George Colligan, guitarist David Fiuczynski and bassist Jerome Harris. For this special “70th Birthday” show—DeJohnette hits that milestone in August—the quintet was supplemented by three musicians from the Sound Travels session: Akinmusire, percussionist Luisito Quintero and saxophonist Tim Ries.

The first set began with three tunes from the Yoshi’s album: a Dolphy-inspired “One for Eric” built around Mahanthappa’s brisk intro vamp and his solo on a slower second theme; a “Soulful Ballad” that rose with DeJohnette’s rumbling mallets and subsided with his colorful brushes; and a “Tango African” that began with a tuneful drum intro and climaxed with a synth/soprano sax duet. The set’s last two songs came from Sound Travels: “Sonny Light,” a Rollins-inspired bop calypso that provided a flattering showcase for all three hornmen, and “Salsa for Luisito,” a Latin workout highlighted by a long percussion duet/duel between the leader and the song’s namesake. “‘Salsa for Luisito’ has a Latin groove,” notes Loueke, who played guitar on the recorded version, “and of course Luisito does that great, but so does Jack. It’s like Jack is wearing a different jacket on that tune, but the guy inside is the same. That’s what I love about great musicians; whatever they play they leave their fingerprints all over it.”

“Luisito and I enjoy listening to each other,” DeJohnette says. “We’re always smiling. We do a lot of call and response, which can turn into a friendly competition. But the secret is dynamics. You can’t play at the same level the whole time; you have to come down, rejuvenate and build it up again. Luisito reminds me of Don Alias, who I also had a great relationship with. Both of them are hand drummers who know jazz drumming because they have big ears.”

It was fascinating to watch DeJohnette, with his weathered face and salt-and-pepper hair, surrounded at the Blue Note by much younger musicians. After all, between 1966 and 1968, he got his start as the new kid from Chicago hired by John Coltrane, then Charles Lloyd, then Bill Evans and eventually Miles Davis to give those established musicians a shot of adrenaline. From recordings and videos back then, you can hear his irrepressible energy and unquenchable fountain of ideas being shaped and directed by his more experienced leaders. Now, in a role reversal, he’s the bandleader hiring bright talents at the beginning of their careers and molding their outpourings.

“Miles was once the young guy who played with Charlie Parker and Monk,” DeJohnette points out, “and Charles had played with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley. But Miles was also interested in Sly Stone, the Beatles and Hendrix. Charles had started playing for Bill Graham at the Fillmore on bills with the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. But while Miles saw the Beatles and Santana as a different generation, those groups were my age. As younger musicians we had a connection to those bands that the older guys could never have.

“Ambrose and Esperanza stimulate me the same way I once stimulated Miles. Miles would always challenge us to come up with new ideas, and when we did he would come back with something completely different to challenge us. It was a two-way street.”

Bill Frisell, who recorded a duo album with DeJohnette in 2001 that was released as The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers in 2006, still recalls the first time he heard the drummer with Davis. Frisell was just 19 in April 1970, when he visited New York and went to the Village Vanguard. Davis’ Bitches Brew, featuring DeJohnette on drums, had just come out, and the club was playing it before every set. “It was like an earthquake was happening,” Frisell recalls. “I realized I was witnessing history in the making, and Jack was at the center of that. I never dreamed I would ever get to play with him, but when the chance came, I had done all my homework by listening to him all those years. The first time was on Don Byron’s [1999] record, Romance With the Unseen. Don and I were like, ‘Man, I can’t believe we’re getting to do this.’ We’d get to the last chord of the arrangement and we’d just keep playing for another 20 minutes. There’s no reason to stop the music when you’re playing with Jack; it’s just such a joyful experience.”

What makes the experience so delightful is DeJohnette’s personal sound on the trap kit. He uses more toms than most drummers, and he is fanatical about tuning them to the exact pitch he wants. That still doesn’t give him enough notes to cover a chromatic scale, obviously, but he can fill in the gaps by creating overtones by striking different areas of the drumheads and cymbals. But it wouldn’t do him any good to have all those discrete sounds if they all blurred together into a wash of cymbals and an ongoing power roll. So he works hard to keep each hit distinct enough that you can hear the intervals in between. To do that, he shifts some of the snare drum’s job to the toms, and he plays cymbals with a short decay. “He doesn’t have just two toms; he has six toms, each tuned to a different pitch,” Colligan marvels. “You can tell he’s thinking of a melody that will go with what you’re doing. He tends to favor very dry cymbals, which allow you to hear the music more than you can in a wash. Wet, washy cymbals allow drummers to cheat, because they can cover up a lack of focus. Jack has nowhere to hide. His approach is loose, but his timing is very precise; that’s what makes him such a pleasure to play with.”

“He can take each part of a rhythm and give it its own feel,” adds Loueke. “Whatever he’s doing may seem crazy, but his time is always there. If I mute his right hand and just listen to his left hand, that part is so groovy, it gives me a whole other way to hear the tune. If he’s playing 4/4, his left hand might not be playing 4/4; his right hand might not be playing 4/4, and his foot might not be playing 4/4, but when you put them together you get a 4/4 feel—and each part is very strong on its own.”

***

As a kid in Chicago, DeJohnette took classical piano lessons for 10 years before he became the drummer in his high school band. Unlike many keyboard students who switch to another instrument, he never gave up the piano but continued to practice and perform on it. This is crucial not only to his composing but also to his use of pitches and timbres when he’s drumming. He has released several keyboard records and even appeared as a guest on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on NPR. On Sound Travels, DeJohnette plays both drums and acoustic piano on almost every track, sometimes switching between the two, sometimes overdubbing the piano later.

“The drums and piano are closely related,” he argues, “because they’re both part of the percussion family. I think of the cymbals like the pedals on a piano; they can amplify or extend a sound. On both instruments you can create one line with your right hand and a different line with your left. Because the piano encourages the player to think orchestrally, I have the same approach to the drums.”

“In his touch you can hear his piano background,” Colligan insists. “A lot of drummers think rhythmically, but Jack thinks rhythmically, melodically and harmonically. He can bash and crash with the best of them, but when he does it always seems to be for a reason; he never does it just to do it. He’ll do whatever the music calls for. So many drummers work out of books—this is what you play on a bossa nova; this is what you play on a salsa; this is what you play on a swing tune, but Jack isn’t like that.”

DeJohnette learned dynamics from working with singers, he claims. He soon learned that his main job was to make the singer sound good; he could play loud when the vocalist laid out, but he had to downshift in a hurry when she came back in. He played with Abbey Lincoln, Gloria Lynne and Natalie Cole, but Betty Carter was the best teacher; she would conduct the band and control the dynamics with her hand signals. After a while, he no longer had to watch for her signals because he knew what she wanted.

Sound Travels is marked by its extensive use of vocals. “Oneness,” which originally appeared on the 1994 Homecoming album by Gateway (the trio of DeJohnette, John Abercrombie and Dave Holland), is transformed by Bobby McFerrin’s wordless vocal. Though the two men have been improvising for more than 30 years—often as a trio with Chick Corea—this is the first time they’ve recorded a composed piece. “Salsa for Luisito” was written as an instrumental, but Spalding came up with a vocal line that DeJohnette liked so much that he not only kept it but also asked Quintero to create a Spanish chant over the percussion duet later in the piece.

“Dirty Ground” also began as an instrumental, but when DeJohnette felt it heading in a singer-songwriter direction, he called his friend Bruce Hornsby. The drummer had played on the rock ’n’ roller’s 2007 jazz project, Camp Meeting, and knew Hornsby had decent jazz chops. The latter responded by writing lyrics about the recovery from Hurricane Katrina and singing them. “I’m a big fan of Levon Helm and the Band,” DeJohnette reveals, “as well as Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers and the Wild Tchoupitoulas. I told Bruce that I wanted the tune to sound like the Band meets New Orleans. I was so impressed by what he came up with that I sent him another piece to write some lyrics for. We may release that as a bonus track.

“This album is not so much a straight-ahead jazz album as it is a collection of songs,” he continues. “It reflects my varied tastes in music. When I was a kid I loved the Flamingos, the Dells and the Spaniels; I used to sing some doo-wop myself. I used to listen to country-music radio; some of those players are great improvisers. I just bought the CD of Renée Fleming singing standards.”

***

This summer, DeJohnette will spend the month leading up to his 70th birthday playing with the Standards Trio and the Jack DeJohnette Group. And there are always other projects and appearances: He plays, for instance, on three tracks on Spalding’s new album, Radio Music Society. His career isn’t over, not as long as he keeps finding young musicians to challenge him. But he’s not 30 years old anymore, either. “At this point I have to pace myself,” he admits, “so I can do what I do at an optimal level. You listen to your body and learn how to get the most results out of the least effort without shortchanging anything. And you do that by learning what not to do.”

Originally published in March 2012

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