It’s easy to lose your bearings in the career of Jack DeJohnette. He has seemingly played everywhere with everyone—from the AACM, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Miles Davis to Bruce Hornsby, Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Frisell and Esperanza Spalding. None of those references cover his work on ECM, where he has accumulated more recording credits than anyone in the history of the venerable label. And they certainly don’t include curveballs like the soundtrack for a video game he did on synthesizer in duet with Lester Bowie, or his varied, multiple-album forays into relaxation music, world-music fusion or cutting-edge electronic music technology.
Nor have we broached his most frequent and popular association, with the pianist Keith Jarrett. Then there are well-received bands such as Gateway, New Directions … you get the point.
If you had to plant a flag anywhere among his voluminous catalog to designate a Jack DeJohnette primer, this four-CD box featuring the work of his group Special Edition on ECM would be a wise choice. It contains the best material from DeJohnette’s longest-running, most multifaceted and critically acclaimed ensemble. There are no outtakes or previously unreleased tracks, just four brilliant, complete records released between 1979 and 1984. On each succeeding disc, the Special Edition lineup underwent small but significant personnel changes, creating distinct personalities (or, ironically, “special editions”) for each album without sacrificing the group’s core identity.
That identity was in large measure boldly derived from DeJohnette himself. In Special Edition the master collaborator gave full rein and prominence to his own musical skills and vision. Within these four records is not only his quintessential solo-drum work—“The Gri Gri Man” on Tin Can Alley—but his extensive and ear-opening use of piano, melodica, clavinet, organ and even some vocals. There are songs that harken to the foundation of the blues and the pioneer jazz spirit of New Orleans, and fiery, discordant songs that take jazz “outside” and then up into the heavens, as on “Journey to the Twin Planet” from Special Edition, where apocalyptic chaos ultimately yields to new-age serenity. There are covers of Coltrane and Monk, a head-nodding reggae workout clearly inspired by Bob Marley, and rich, resplendent tributes to Eric Dolphy, Duke Ellington and Ahmad Jamal.
And yet, over this sprawling terrain encompassing nearly three hours of music, there is a remarkable coherence and guiding sensibility. In the liner notes, Bradley Bambarger quotes DeJohnette as saying these discs are “storytelling records,” composed and played in the spirit of cultures that “don’t necessarily separate folk music from art music.” DeJohnette adds that he wanted to tell his story in a manner that would communicate with people, but also “come up with something that was different,” in a manner that could “satisfy both the musicians and the listeners.” This, of course, is the essence of DeJohnette’s entire career.
By happenstance or design, each of the four albums here speaks with a different tone and texture of voice. Special Edition features the turbulent reeds of David Murray (on tenor and bass clarinet) and Arthur Blythe (alto) in a quickening prime of their respective careers, together with the bass and cello of Peter Warren and DeJohnette’s drums, piano and melodica. Tin Can Alley features a new frontline of Chico Freeman on tenor and bass clarinet and John Purcell on alto and baritone—and, distinctively, both play flute—while drummer DeJohnette adds congas, organ, timpani and vocals to the mix. Inflation Blues is a quintet outing with the addition of trumpeter Baikida Carroll, a marvelous injection of brass further complemented by swapping out Warren for Rufus Reid (who demolishes his reputation as a merely straight-ahead bassist) and DeJohnette adding clavinet to his previous arsenal. And Album Album brings Murray back in place of Freeman, and trades Carroll for the heavier brass of Howard Johnson on tuba and baritone.
It adds up to a tour de force with 30-year old surprises looming around different turns of phrase in every song-story—a place where you can get lost and trust that DeJohnette and company will take you home.