Jack DeJohnette: Painting With Sticks
The name Jack DeJohnette is synonymous with modern jazz drumming. Many know him for his years spent with the Keith Jarrett Trio, but he first came to prominence with Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis in the '60s. He's always in demand as a sideman although you wouldn't call Jack DeJohnette to merely be a sidemanhis musical contribution to any project is such that he is always a collaborator. He has many albums as a leader; his most recent release is Live at Yoshi's (Golden Beams, 2010) a project which yours truly is privileged to appear on along with Rudresh Mahanthappa, David Fiuczynski, and Jerome Harris. This interview was done while we were touring Europe in May of 2011. I think we were in the airport, waiting for one of the many flights we took during our three-week excursion.
GC: So you were talking about how you develop your foot technique...
Jack DeJohnette: Ok, for developing the bass drum technique, at least for my type of practicing, I play with ride cymbal beats, letting the right foot follow the right hand, practicing slowly, always practicing slowly and gradually build it up. You determine what speed and intensity you can do it, so you don't overdo it. You have to develop this technique utilizing the spastic muscle. You're doing this off of your toe, so your heel is up. You can also try and do it flat footed, heel toe heel toe heel toe, doing it that way, or doing both ways. But you get more power out of it when the foot is up, using the heel toe. And then the other thing to do is play triplets, utilize the triplets, and then playing with accents, you can either use your ride cymbal to follow, and just play independently. Then the next thing to try is to play things, ideas that you know, between the hand and foot, or play ideas with the foot that you normally play with two hands, or one hand. It takes some time to build it up. I'm still working on developing it. It depends on the solo I'm doing whether I'll utilize... sometimes I'll take a whole solo with the foot. And you know that's a whole other kind of concept, but doing it in the way so that it communicates something musically. Yeah, its a challenge, but fun.
GC: How would you describe, if there was a way to describe it, your general concept of drumming?
JD: I would describe it like I did in a video recently. It's called musical expression on the drum set. That's what I do. I see myself as a colorist, not as a drummer, per se. I always though, "I want to do on drums what somebody like Keith Jarrett does on the piano." The drum set is a musical instrument like guitar and everything else. You tune them, you tune the set, like you tune a guitar or bass, and I tune my drums in such a way so that no matter what I play, whatever I hit on it is a melody and that makes me think differently, it makes me think more melodically. And you know, you play drums, so you've played my set,so when you play it, no matter what you play...
JD: You'll always find melodiesI find melodies. It leads whatever or me to compose melodies, like if I'm soloing. I tune the drums differently every time. The eight and 10 inch drums really sound more like a high bongo and then I have 12, 13, 14, and 16 inch between mid and low you know so it makes for an interesting array of tones. Any drummer who sits down at my kit is automatically playing melody.
GC: It's true. I heard E.J. Strickland one night play on your kit, that time after the set at Birdland. You remember that?
JD: Yeah! And there was Jeff "Tain" Watts, Billy Drummond, and all of those cats sat down and each one of them because of the way my drums were tuned. They sounded different, and they played different because of the way they are tuned. Oh, it makes you think, it really makes you think, because you could be more aware of melody, melodic structure, you cannot get away from it because you will be playing melody anyway.
GC: What made you decide on your current cymbal set up? You have the hi-hat, two crashes on the left, and then on the right the one ride and then the china cymbal.
JD: Yeah, I might be retiring that china, and maybe I'll put another 3- point ride in it's place. I mean right now I'm using the 3-point ride series, which is a Sabian-Jack DeJohnette cooperative undertaking, and it's under the Vault series of cymbals. It's geared more toward more of a mainstream drummer. It can be wet and dry cymbalso its hammered and lathed, but not lathed in one place like by an inch; you play with the stick on that unlathed part, you get a flat ride cymbal sound, a drier sound. You play beneath it towards the edge of the cymbal you get more overtones. You play above, you get sort of in between a little. I also now have 3-point crashes and hi-hats in research and development at Sabian. They're not available publically, but the ride Vault 3-point ride is available to the public now. The hi-hats and crashes, hopefully we are introducing them next year. We're having a marketing meeting about that. There is a quite a bit of excitement about that. So these ridesthe crashesyou can ride them too, there [are] 3- point Vault crashes. So they're great because most crash cymbals when you try and ride them, they open up too much. These crash cymbals, don't do that. When you lay into the crash, it gives you that crash you want, and they come down fairly quick so you don't obscure the rest of the band.
GC: I personally was a fan of the original Jack DeJohnette Signature Cymbal series. I have one of those, a 20-inch ride that I actually put tape on it.
JD: That's already a really raw, dry cymbal!
GC: Yeah, it's already dry, and I made it drier! [laughs] And then I have a DeJohnette Encore 20- inch that is wetter. I also have a Zildian 16-inch crash that I like, but those are basically the cymbals that I play and I feel like some people you know, they think, "Oh this is too dry for me," but I've also had drummers who use those cymbals on recordings and EJ Strickland was one of them.
JD: Oh, really?
GC: And he loved the way they sounded!
GC: Yes, he was thinking about trying to buy the cymbals from me. I didn't want to sell them... While we are on the subject, why do you prefer dry cymbals?
JD: I have a very defined stick beat, and so when I first came out playing drums, I wanted to have a cymbal that emphasized that rather than get obscured by overtone buildup. It's funny, because it was who I was I introduced a whole range of sets high hats crashes china type for the signature series, and they were a hit they took off and then Bob Zildjian said to me, "I'd have to see it to believe it," he said, the only way these took off is because I played them.
JD: And a lot of drummers bought them, I made a good taste in royalties and they made a good sale. It was easy to produce them because they didn't have to hammer and lathe them. They were basically a raw cymbal, but the way they were cut, they were bowed and shaped that made a big difference. I used those quite a bit, and then we had variations on those. We did another prototype of hammered but not lathed raw cymbal, which I have at the house, and they're pretty nice too, but eventually I moved to Encore to move to a wetter sound. Those had a satin finish and they opened up a little bit more. Now I'm moving to more of a mainstream cymbal with the Vault 3-point series cymbal because I wanna appeal to a drummer who is working more diverse musical settings.
GC: When I first started teaching at the University of Manitoba, I had to teach eight drummers, , and I was trying to give them something concrete to practice, like some rudiment exercises. We did the Alan Dawson Rudiment Ritual first semester; I was just trying to feel out what works for them. And then we played that gig at Birdland in January of 2010. It was like really our first time playing together for an extended period of time. But the whole week I was thinking about my students, because what you were playing was so musical, and it was so free... and it just made me think, "Wow, how can I get my students to do that!" Because rudiments are one thing, but rudiments [are] not music, in the same way the scales are not music or arpeggios are not music.
GC: So what would you say if you had a bunch of students in a room - you know, drum studentsthat want to know, "How can I go to that next level where I'm thinking like a musician?"
GC: I would encourage them to take up a melodic instrument although the drums themselves are melodic, if you learn how to tune them in such a way that they are melodic. But I would advise them to learn harmony, play guitar or piano, or vibraphone, and develop their reading skills. Learn the basic rudiments but then learn how to play music. The whole idea is that rudiments and scales are merely tools to help you develop your own language, and the possibilities are only limited by your imagination. It's unlimited. The biggest thing is to challenge yourself to come up with something different that you never played before that you won't play again. I realize that everybody has their vocabulary and voice and kind of lines that they play or rhythms that they play that you can tell their signature, but in that you come up with something different if you try.
JD: Like Miles Davis, or Wayne Shorter for example; they have their style, but within that style, they manage to come up with new ideas out of it. And that's the challenge, not to be cliché but to play something and say, "Oh man, that's something different."
GC: There are so many jazz students that are learning jazz only in a school environment, but earlier generations didn't learn everything in a jazz program. They learned by playing local gigs or hanging out with older cats, [and] listening to records. Do you think that the aesthetic of doing your own thing was part of the environment back then?
JD: Well, that's what was inspiring, hearing those guys like Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane and the freshness with which they played. Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, etc... They're continuously coming up with new ways of expressing their creativity through the music and I think that's still present today. I think the challenge for musicians is to have the courage to maintain their own voice. Now people can get more work if they play like somebody else.
JD: And they might work less if they play like themselves and that's when I think musicians have to be more courageous. It's your voice, you know? That's how you sound. That's you. That's your identity, and try to develop that and make that work in different situations. That's how you get hired.
GC: Is that something you always had, that confidence? You were always comfortable with your own sound? I think that's how a lot of younger players understandably have problems with that. It's not being like an egomaniac; it's just sort of being comfortable on stage, comfortable with your own voice.
JD: Well, it has to do with your environment, like the environment I came up in; we hung out at each other's houses. There were a lot of jam sessions, so you got a lot of on the job training playing before an audience, getting feedback from musicians and the audience as to whether you were doing good. I spent a lot of time with a tape recorder. That and a mirror helped me a lot, a tape recorder playing the records and listening back to myself and then doing research and development on myself.
JD: Like, "Oh, that's too harsh, oh let me change that, oh my touch is too harsh, its too forceful." So that helps, you know, you're listening back to yourself for critical analysis. I think that's important, as far as playing the drums, any instrument; just watching how your body is when you play, see where the tension is. Because the whole thing is to have the right balance of relaxedness, relaxation and tension in your body when you play and be totally there in the moment, and not somewhere else, but focused on the moment. And, if you're focused, you don't have to make yourself be focused. In this band, everybody's focused because this is a player's band, and it's a listening band, so everybody really listens intently to each other, and I think that's what helps. Everybody in this band has their voice, which becomes a unified collective voice in the music. Although it's my compositions, it's our music because everybody's bringing their ideas.
GC: That's why you assembled this band of myself, Rudresh Mahanthappa, David Fiuczynski, and Jerome Harris. You wanted everybody to contribute in their own way?
JD: I got that from Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, to get musicians you can trust to govern themselves. I think the one thing that made musicians play well for Miles, and for Herbie; the musicians always knew Miles was listening to them, so they were playing for him.
GC: Many of the musicians who played with Miles that I have been around say that Miles rarely said anything about the music.
JD: No, unless there was something specific he wanted to hear. Otherwise, everything was cool if he didn't say anything. And he expected you to come up with something different every night, not play the same licks. You were expected to play what you don't know, not what you already know. It's easy to sit home and play all kinds of great ideas, great, but then when you're playing with an ensemble, you can't play that shit. You gotta react with the musicians, and sometimes that may require you just keeping time and not playing all the hip stuff. It doesn't work, because now you are part of a team.