Jack of All Trades

Jazz drumming, at its most advanced, is a set of tensions: between the physical and the ethereal, between action and reaction, between timekeeping and transcendence. This has been especially true over the past 40 years, in the wake of the polyrhythmic ecstasies of Elvin Jones and the slipstream progressivism of Tony Williams. And it has never been truer than in the work of our era’s most expansive percussive talent, Jack DeJohnette.

Not that DeJohnette himself would put it that way. Tension is far from the center of his aesthetic, which tends toward a profound and seemingly natural elasticity. To hear him playing with, say, Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio is to encounter a slippery sort of pragmatism. His feel for time, regardless of tempo, suggests the same unselfconscious grace that marks his loose-limbed gait across a concert stage.

Yet like his mentor Roy Haynes-who guest appeared on The DeJohnette Complex (Milestone), the younger drummer’s 1969 debut-DeJohnette is drawn to explosive actions. Consider his part in a pair of recent archival releases: Song X (Nonesuch), the landmark Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman confab retrofitted with six feverish new tracks; and The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Columbia/Legacy), a six-disc smorgasbord of Miles Davis’ band strutting toward funk and psychedelic rock.

Davis was a major catalyst for DeJohnette, but the drummer had a serious career before Bitches Brew. He came up in Chicago in the late-1950s and early-’60s, spending the early part of his professional life fielding calls as both a pianist and a drummer. His relationships with area experimentalists like Muhal Richard Abrams and Joseph Jarman made him privy to the early stirrings of the AACM. In 1966, he thrashed alongside Rashied Ali in John Coltrane’s band; that same year, he joined a distinctly Coltrane-flavored Charles Lloyd Quartet, which initiated his bond with Jarrett. Also in those pre-Davis years were several blazing Blue Note sessions for Jackie McLean, and in a brief but equally inspired alignment, a stint with the Bill Evans Trio.

DeJohnette’s lyrical yearning-hardly the most common trait among drummers-may be the reason for his reign as the rhythmic heartbeat of ECM Records. Manfred Eicher’s Munich-based label, with its luminous sonic signature, became a home to the drummer while he was still in the employ of Davis; he teamed with Jarrett for the electro-acoustic duet album Ruta and Daitya in May 1971, a full year before On the Corner. Over the next 35 years, DeJohnette would play on more ECM sessions than any other musician, supporting artists like the Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal, the British saxophonist John Surman and the New England-based guitarist John Abercrombie. Late this summer, ECM reissued Trance, a 1975 album by pianist-composer Steve Kuhn that provides a neat platform for DeJohnette’s personal blend of abstraction and groove.

At times, the drummer has seemed intent on trance in a literal sense. This year he kicked off his own label, Golden Beams Productions, with Music From the Hearts of the Masters, a duet collaboration with the Mandingo griot and kora player Foday Musa Suso; during a May performance at Joe’s Pub, with the welcome addition of Jerome Harris on acoustic bass guitar, DeJohnette and Suso maintained a hypnotic pulse. Golden Beams also issued the less compelling Music in the Key of Om, an hour-long meditation aid featuring DeJohnette’s custom-designed resonating bells. On that release, the drummer sublimates his technique almost entirely in the service of spirituality; he’s a flamethrower aspiring to the condition of a candle.

DeJohnette’s solo discography on ECM maintains a more moderate position, somewhere between floating immateriality and strenuous avant-gardism. His self-selected mixtape in the label’s :rarum series is predictably catholic, encompassing material from Gateway, a collective trio with Abercrombie and bassist Dave Holland; his group with trumpeter Lester Bowie; and Oneness, a quartet with Harris, pianist Michael Cain and percussionist Don Alias. The collection also spotlights DeJohnette’s Special Edition, which formed in 1979 with a frontline of the saxophonists David Murray and Arthur Blythe. On that self-titled debut, and on subsequent releases like 1984’s fine Album Album (with Murray, John Purcell on alto saxophone and Howard Johnson on tuba and baritone saxophone), the drummer pursued a rough-hewn but disciplined approach to Afro-centric experimentalism. It’s the same sensibility he now brings to his Latin Project, an exuberant ensemble that includes the percussionists Giovanni Hidalgo and Luisita Quintero, and clarinetist Don Byron.

In the past few years, DeJohnette has recorded extensively outside the ECM matrix; recent sideman gigs include Byron (for Blue Note), Geri Allen (Telarc), Alice Coltrane (Verve) and Wadada Leo Smith (Pi). His own new Golden Beams release, Hybrids, documents a collaboration with John Surman’s son Ben, a sound engineer and producer; DeJohnette calls this project the Ripple Effect. It’s an electronic record with an organic core, primarily composed of remixes of the album with Suso. The resulting music is impressively postmodern, although at times one wonders whether the music wasn’t already sleek enough; “Worldwide Funk,” one of the original kora-percussion duet tracks, features a gently trippy world-beat pattern that could be mistaken for a calibrated DJ loop. The irony is that DeJohnette’s earthy, elliptical groove, particularly on Bitches Brew, set an early template for the electronic dance music he now sees fit to adapt.

Ultimately, DeJohnette is at his best unmediated, with room to breathe. Openness describes the best of his solo work, as it does Always Let Me Go (ECM), the spontaneously composed concert recording by the Jarrett trio. And it’s the reason that a solo drum recital in Philadelphia, some seven years ago, remains so vivid in my memory. DeJohnette began that performance with a tonal wash of cymbals and then developed an imperceptible crescendo, like the shifting of tectonic plates over time; by the end of his unbroken hour-long improvisation, he had summoned an unfathomable frenzy of ricocheting cross-referenced rhythms. He finished triumphantly, to a roaring five-minute ovation. Then, mopping his forehead with a towel, he asked if there were any questions.