Even when looking back, Jack DeJohnette forges ahead
May 17, 2015
For the featured jazz story in today's Summer Arts Preview issue of the Boston Globe, a brief but event-filled article about jazz drummer, bandleader, and composer Jack DeJohnette, who brings his legend-studded quintet Made in Chicago – saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, and bassist Larry Gray – to the Newport Jazz Festival on Saturday, August 1.
In a quick yet generous conversation, we talked about Chicago and the seeds of the AACM, which DeJohnette helped to plant; his crucial work alongside Miles Davis, the 60th anniversary of whose Newport debut is being celebrated in this year's festival as well as a terrific 4CD box set due in July; and the band that he really wants to talk about, his trio with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and electric-bass player Matthew Garrison, with whom he'll be recording and touring this fall.
It's always tricky to get to interview longtime heroes, because the temptation to lapse into fawning is great. But there is no question at all that DeJohnette is among the most important figures in my personal development, starting with my "what the hell was that?" response to "Journey to the Twin Planet," a track from his ECM album Special Edition, which I heard in 1980 on one of the last releases in the enlightened and enlightening Warner Bros. "Loss Leaders" double-LP sampler series: the ECM-centric volume Music with 58 Musicians, Volume One, a set that changed my world in manifold ways. (At left, the ad through which the set could be ordered, which I'd have seen in Rolling Stone.)
A few years later, fairly freshly into my training as a percussionist, but still in the throes of a jazz-drumming obsession that started when Peter Criss proclaimed that Gene Krupa was among his foremost influences and teachers, I received as a birthday gift a copy of Tin Can Alley, the second ECM LP by Special Edition. The dear friend who bought it for me didn't know anything about the record or its makers; she'd simply asked for a strong example of modern jazz drumming at a local record store, and somehow had encountered a salesperson wise enough to select this album. I wore it out then, and the music still holds up.
Time passed, players moved on from Special Edition, and ultimately the group parted from ECM, signed away by MCA to help that corporation relaunch the fabled Impulse! label in 1987. Irresistible Forces, recorded with a lineup that included young-blood saxophonists Greg Osby and Gary Thomas, veteran guitarist Mick Goodrick, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and special guest percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, was slicker and smoother than any of the Special Edition recordings that preceded it. But it was still a stellar example of DeJohnette's vital drumming, perceptive knack for assembling a band, and enviable skill for composing memorable tunes. (This set revisited one of DeJohnette's all-time best tunes, "Silver Hollow," and added a few new ones to the stack; the newfangled CD version added "Third World Anthem" as a bonus track.)
It would have been late in 1987, or possibly early in 1988, that I finally got to see Jack DeJohnette play live for the first time, when I drove from San Antonio to Fort Worth to catch the Irresistible Forces lineup of Special Edition (minus Vasconcelos) at Caravan of Dreams. At this distance, I recall the playing as having been superb, DeJohnette's presence as titanic, and his generosity in granting a fleeting personal audience to a starstruck, tongue-tied admirer above and beyond the call of duty.
And now, almost 30 years later, it's nice to have had a chance, once the formal interview had concluded, simply to thank DeJohnette for the potent and meaningful jolt of his early work.