With drummer/keyboardist Jack DeJohnette entering his eighth decade on planet earth, he's managed to accomplish what few other drummers have. Recipient of the 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Award, there are few jazz drummer s alive today who can cite as many recordings as the Chicago-born DeJohnette can, nor are there many who have been on such a diverse stylistic cross-section. DeJohnette, now a legend himself, was picked up by a large number of then-high profile musicians in the early days of his career, artists like trumpeters Miles Davis
But as extensive and stylistically far-reaching as DeJohnette's recordings as a sideman/guest have been, his own discography is equally broad and, at approximately 30 titles, is certainly large enough to demonstrate his compositional skills and an ability to put together groups to realize his own ideas. While he'd released a handful of recordings prior to coming to ECM in 1973first, for the duet recording with Jarrett, Ruta and Daitya (1973)from that time until 1984, the vast majority of DeJohnette's output as a leader (and certainly his most significant work) was affiliated with producer Manfred Eicher
During those 11 years, beyond Gateway and the Standards Trio, DeJohnette led three groups that have remained important and influential in the drummer/keyboardist's career. First, Jack DeJohnette's Directions, featuring John Abercrombie, saxophonist Alex Foster
, and the even better New Rags, the following year. Then came New Directions, a quartet that retained Abercrombie, but shifted considerably with the recruitment of bassist/Bill Evans partner Eddie Gomez
, releasing New Directions in 1978 and In Europe in 1980.
But it was DeJohnette's next group, Special Edition, which emerged as his most long-lived group, with four recordings on ECM before the drummer moved to Impulse! for two more plugged-in recordings, followed by recordings on other labels, culminating in 1995's Extra Special Edition (Blue Note), which featured an expanded lineup and a purview that was, like the previous Music for the Fifth World (Manhattan, 1993) and Earth Walk (Blue Note, 1991), even more electric and eclectic.
Three of DeJohnette's four Special Edition recording on ECM have been available, at one time or another, on CD. The first, 1980's Special Edition, was even reissued as part of the label's budget-line Touchstone series, which began in 2008 to celebrate the label's pending 40th anniversary in 2009 by rereleasing 40 seminal recordings over the next two years, but the others1981's Tin Can Alley and 1984's Album Albumhave been unavailable for some time, making the four-disc box set, Special Edition, a most welcome addition to ECM's Old and New Masters series.
With detailed liners by Bradley Bambargerwhose career includes being staff critic for The Star-Ledger, Executive Editor at Billboard and contributor to magazines including Rolling Stone and StereophileSpecial Edition brings those three titles back into print, newly remastered; but the real carrot of the set is the inclusion of 1983's Inflation Blues seeing CD release here for the first time. While these four CDs saw Special Edition, the group, undergo a series of personnel changes over the course of the five years beginning with the recording of the group's debut in March, 1979 and ending with Album Album's June, 1984 sessions, there was a consistency across the set that became somewhat diluted when DeJohnette moved to other labels and began to move into a more electric arena.
respectively that originally comprised the original LP's first side. Two pieces that the drummer has revisited more than once in subsequent years, bands and albums, they also demonstrate DeJohnette's ongoing strength for finding and supporting up-and-coming players. David Murray
and for a string of albums under his own name, most notably for the Black Saint label, but the 24 year-old reed player turns in an early career-defining bass clarinet solo on "One for Eric," a tune that also demonstrates DeJohnette's ability to inject a wry sense of humor into his music. An initially rapid-fire melody, which Murray shares with alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe
setting up a slow, visceral pulse for Murray's register-spanning solo and turning more up-tempo for Blythe, whose solo ends, leaving a bass-drums duo that belie accusations that ECM recordings don't swing.
"Zoot Suite" opens as another swinger, with Murray switching to tenor, with DeJohnette sitting out completely but showing his compositional chops with a middle passage of rare beauty that utilizes two horns and Warren, at this point on cello, in a way that suggests a larger ensemble, a quality that ultimately shows up again and again on this and subsequent records. With the piece's repeating pattern of 4-4-3-3-4, DeJohnette finally enters near the half-way mark, driving a hard -edged pulse with Warren that bolsters Murray's gritty tenor and Blythe's frenzied altoat times alone, other times together in an absolutely free approach to playing structure that DeJohnette had already defined on earlier recordings like New Rags.
Warren's two recordings with Special Edition make it curious that, while he'd already recorded with artists as diverse as violinist Jean-Luc Ponty
, after his time with DeJohnette he continued to work but never retained the visibility that his tenure with Special Edition provided. A double threat on bass and cello, his arco work is especially lovely on a quartet version of saxophonist John Coltrane
's ballad "Central Park West," for two saxophones, cello, and melodica (played by DeJohnette). In some ways, placing Special Edition on CD alters the mood created on the original LP by making "Central Park" run consecutive to "Central Park West," which set a completely different mood for the original second half of the album. Another Coltrane piece, "India," follows, with DeJohnette switching to piano for the first half of the tune, only moving to drums partway through Murray's gritty bass clarinet solo, turning even more aggressive during Blythe's similarly focused yet unshackled alto solo.
The album ends with "Journey to the Twin Planet," initially abstract but then shifting into some of the group's most scorching passages of collective interplay of the set, building to a potent climax before being cued to a sudden stop and leading to a coda that's an early example of what DeJohnette referred to, in a 2012 All About Jazz Interview, where he said, " The thing about free jazz, and I explain this to people: people will go sit and listen to classical musicsomething written that sounds like free jazz, and they'll listen to it. There's a contextwritten versus something played spontaneously which, if it was written, people would listen to in a different way. It amazes me. 'Oh that's not jazz, it's free jazz; they don't know what they're doing.' And yet, if someone transcribed it and put it in a classical context and said, 'This is so-and-so, and it was written by so-and-so,' people would sit down and listen to it seriously."
While Warren is back for Tin Can Alley (1981), the frontline has changed entirely, with Chico Freeman
and John Purcell replacing Murray and Blythe, respectively. But what each new member brings to the table is more voices, with Freeman adding flute in addition to tenor sax and bass clarinet, and Purcell tripling on flute, and alto and baritone saxophones. Purcell also brings some stability in the frontline, remaining with the group for the remaining three discs of the set and, at various times, including soprano saxophone and alto clarinet.
All this doubling, tripling and quadrupling gives DeJohnette a much broader palette, though the opening title track, which begins with an unaccompanied tenor/baritone duet but ultimately leads to a knotty, stop-start theme and ambling swing from Warren that leaves DeJohnette plenty of freedom, even as he effortlessly maintains the pulse, feels like it could easily have been included on Special Edition. "Pastel Rhapsody," however, begins to assert this incarnation's voice, with both Freeman and Purcell on flute in a trio with Warren's arco bass. What also makes this track definitive is what comes next: an a cappella piano solo from DeJohnette that, in its gently pensive, ultimately lyrical nature, is an early indicator of just how talented he is. This is no drummer doubling on piano; were DeJohnette to, for some reason, be unable to play drums, he'd still have a strong career available to him as a pianist. It also explains how DeJohnette is able to be so creative when it comes to composition, and in how he voices the various instruments available to him.
"Riff Raff" provides another ambling context for some extreme interaction amongst the quartet, but in particular Freeman, on bass clarinet, and Purcell, on baritone. But, not unlike the closing of Special Edition, Tin Can Alley's closing two tracks help to further demonstrate DeJohnette's ongoing growth. "The Gri Gri Man" is a four-minute, multi-layered solo piece, where DeJohnette combines drum kit, congas, timpani and organ for an abstract miniatureat just over four minutes, a far cry from rest of Tin Can Alley's seven-to-fifteen minute tracks. And if that weren't enough of a variant, the closing "I Know" is a piece of rhythm blues grist that, beyond opening up into a middle section where the saxophonist's shift seamlessly between the driving riff and some powerful tenor/baritone interplay, even as DeJohnette and Warren pliantly move into a double-time swing before coming back to its funky origins. DeJohnette makes his ECM debut as a singer (though he'd sung on earlier, pre-ECM releases), screaming "I know" repeatedly before taking the dynamic down and asserting just what it is he knows: "When she holds me close and says, 'Daddy, you're the only one for me,' I know, I know...," mixing in some applause from a live performance in Willisau, Switzerland to bring what originally began as an on-the-spot encore with made-up vocals that differed each timeand Tin Can Alleyto a fadeout close.
Making its first appearance on CD, with 1983's Inflation Blues Special Edition continues to move forward with a couple of significant changes: Freeman and Purcell are back in the frontline, with Warren replaced by bassist Rufus Reid
. Opening in freedom, with Freeman's extended technique and circular breathing making his bass clarinet sound more like a didgeridoo, the quintet gradually coalesces around Carroll's burnished tone and careful choices, as he moves from plangent, long-form lines to bright, long-held notes. Freeman, a less overtly muscular player than his predecessor David Murray, nevertheless engages in some empathic interaction with Carroll before taking over the spotlight. It's a significantly different opener than the previous two discs which, while relying on the group's ability to freely interact and interpret, worked with more clearly defined structures.
"Ebony," however, reiterates DeJohnette's allegiance to form, a set of five ascending triplets acting as a melody that opens up into a gentle, Latin rhythm, DeJohnette's instrumental choices even more astute than usual, as he pushes his front line to quickly alternate instruments, combining flutes, clarinets, saxophones and trumpet in myriad ways to intimate a far larger ensemble, and with Freeman's first solo, on soprano, introducing yet another texture to the group. While earlier Special Edition recordings utilized overdubbing, here it's much more dominant, with DeJohnette layering piano over his drum kit to provide clear harmonic movement throughout, whether it's for Freeman, Purcell delivering an impressive flute solo, or Reid, taking his first solo of the set and demonstrating that, while more often than not thought of in more mainstream contexts, his robust tone and clear ability to shape-shift into any context suggests DeJohnette may well have known something about the bassist that others did not.
While the title of "The Islands," might suggest something more overtly danceable, like a calypso, DeJohnette continues to work more with implication, this bass-less quartet track driven by the drummer's undeniably forceful, celebratory rhythmsinformed by the Caribbean without being anything quite so obviousa foundation for some engaging free play between soprano saxophone, trumpet, flute...and the occasional wordless vocalizing from DeJohnette, buried deep in the mix.
Ultimately dissolving into a four-minute drum solo that slowly fades out, it's a perfect segue to DeJohnette's a cappella drum intro to the title track, another surprise from both the drummer and the labelor, perhaps, it's time to stop being surprised and accept that, for both DeJohnette and ECM, there are no boundaries, no hard and fast rules. "Inflation Blues was, in fact, the closing track to DeJohnette's first album as a leader to feature a touring band, both called Compost (Columbia, 1972), but instead of that album's soul-driven groove with slicker productioneven female backup singersthe title track to this ECM disc is defined by a booty-shaking reggae pulse, with Reid switching to electric bass and DeJohnette overdubbing clavinet. With Freeman, Purcell and Carroll acting truly, for once, as a horn section (though there are solos throughout), it's an even better spotlight for DeJohnette the singer than Tin Can Alley's "I Know." And when it comes to subject matter, it's clear that, with the CD release of Inflation Blues three decades later, some things change, others stay the same: "A dollar's worth about thirty cents / you're workin' your behind off and you still can't pay the rent / the more money you make, the more Uncle Sam takes / and the union still cries for more dues," DeJohnette sings with an attractive, blues-drenched voice. Clearly, "Inflation Blues" is a song whose lyrics remain sadly relevant.
The final album of the box, Album Album retains DeJohnette's decision to expand Special Edition into a quintet, but with Reid and Purcell remaining onboard, the drummer returns to a largely reed-driven frontline with the return of David Murray (replacing the departing Chico Freeman) and, in Carroll's place, baritone saxophonist Howard Johnson
, who occasionally doubles on tuba. But after the broader palette of Tin Can Alley and Inflation Blues, with their flutes and clarinets, here Murray sticks solely with tenor, and Purcell plays only alto and soprano saxophones. It takes things, to some extent, full circle back to 1980's Special Edition, in particular with the opening "Ahmad the Terrible," a dedication to pianist Ahmad Jamal
, though it speaks clearly with DeJohnette's compositional voice, in an unmistakable cousin to "One for Eric," "Zoot Suite" and "Tin Can Alley."
"Ahmad" is another tune that's survived the years, appearing in the set list of the drummer's current Jack DeJohnette Group" that delivered two powerful sets at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival in the summer of 2012. That group, with keyboardist George Colligan
, toured a repertoire that also includes "One for Eric"which also appears on its digital download-only Live at Yoshi's 2010 (Golden, Beams, 2011)along with other DeJohnette compositions from back in the day like "Blue," from Gateway 2 (ECM, 1977), proving that DeJohnette, the composer, was every bit as fresh and relevant as DeJohnette the performer in the year that he turned seventy.
If "Ahmad the Terrible" fits perfectly into Special Edition's overall MO of the time, combining form and freedom, aggression and beauty, deeper lyricism and improvisational extremes, "New Orleans Strut" represents yet another major shift for the group. Driven by DeJohnette's modified second-line pulse, the first sign of change comes, during his a cappella intro, when some electronic drums join the mix. And despite being credited solely on double bass in the credits, there's little doubt that Reid's thumb-slapping, finger-popping anchor is coming from the electric variant. Far closer to conventional song form than anything else in the box, DeJohnette also overdubs layers of synthesizers, with some distinctly Jan Hammer
-like, guitar-centric pitch wheel modulations soaring over his synth chord changes. It's the biggest indicator of things yet to come, when DeJohnette moved to Impulse! for Special Edition albums like Irresistible Forces (1987) and the even better follow-up, Audio Visualscapes (1988), two recordings which introduced saxophonists Greg Osby
If anything, Album Album is the bridge that links the acoustic, more free-style Special Edition to later incarnations which, while retaining a certain degree of its defining extemporal aesthetic, also turned both more electric and, to at least some degree, accessible. Still, despite the aptly titled "Festival" and pianist Thelonious Monk
's "Monk's Mood," with its lush intro of alto, tenor and baritone saxophones combined with Reid's mix of arco and pizzicato bass, there's still plenty of idiosyncratic writing and improvisational headroom. "Third World Anthem" may have a singable melody, but over an irregularly metered foundation, and with Johnson's tuba as fluid and fluent as anything he'd recorded with everyone from bassists Charles Mingus
, it was clear that neither DeJohnette nor ECM were making any compromises; if anything, it clarified both artist and label refused to be shackled by any kind of limitation.
Beyond the sound of "Ahmad the Terrible," Album Album brings DeJohnette and Special Edition full circle even further by ending with an abbreviated version of "Zoot Suite," taken at a faster clip andbarring some short but visceral solos first from Murray, then Purcell (on alto) and, finally, on baritone, Johnsonsticking largely to form. Still, it demonstrates that even as DeJohnette was stretching his purviewstylistically, sonically, aestheticallyit was, indeed, about expansion, not elimination.
While DeJohnette would continue to record as a guest/sideman for ECM and, in some cases, as a co-leaderfor example, when Gateway reconvened at the end of 1994 for the recording sessions that yielded the composition-based Homecoming (1995) and more spontaneously composed In the Moment (1996)Album Album would be the drummer/keyboardist's final recording as a leader for the label until 1996, when he returned for Dancing With Nature Spirits and continued, the following year, with Oneness (1997). He came back, once again, in 2004, for Saudades, his tribute to drummer Tony Williams
While recent recordings including Music We Are (2009) and Sound Travels (2012), are on his own Golden Beams label and E1 Entertainment respectively, DeJohnette continues to record for ECM as a member of Jarrett's Standards Triomost recently with 2009's Yesterdays. Still, with this Special Edition box, ECM has, by collecting the drummer's four recordings under the Special Edition moniker, delivered a powerful reminder of DeJohnette's emergence as a bandleader and composer. For those already familiar with DeJohnette and Special Edition, Special Edition will, no doubt, have no shortage of appeal for its inclusion of Inflation Blues; for those new to this group, it's an even greater treasure trove of superb writing, stellar collective interaction and individual solo prowess, and an identity that, 30 years on, remains as undeniable, irresistible and thoroughly recognizable as ever.
Track Listing: CD1 (Special Edition): One for Eric; Zoot Suite; Central Park West; India; Journey to the Twin Planet. CD2 (Tin Can Alley): Tin Can Alley; Pastel Rhapsody; Riff Raff; The Gri Gri Man; I Know. CD3 (Inflation Blues): Starburst; Ebony; The Islands; Inflation Blues; Slowdown. CD4 (Album Album): Ahmad the Terrible; Monk's Mood; Festival; New Orleans Strut; Third World Anthem; Zoot Suite.
Personnel: Jack DeJohnette: drums, piano (CD1-3), melodica (CD1), organ (CD2), congas (CD2), timpani (CD2), vocals (CD2-3), clavinet (CD3), keyboards (CD4); David Murray: tenor saxophone (CD1, CD4), bass clarinet (CD1); Arthur Blythe: alto saxophone (CD1); Peter Warren: double bass (CD1-2), cello (CD1-2); Chico Freeman: tenor saxophone (CD2-3), flute (CD2-3), bass clarinet (CD2-3), soprano saxophone (CD3); John Purcell: alto saxophone (CD2-4), baritone saxophone (CD2-3), flute (CD2-3), alto clarinet (CD3), soprano saxophone (CD4); Baikida Carroll: trumpet (CD3); Rufus Reid: double bass (CD3-4), electric bass (CD4); Howard Johnson: baritone saxophone (CD4), tuba (CD4).