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Jack DeJohnette at the Byrdcliffe Barn, Woodstock, N.Y

Peter Occhiogrosso BY

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Jack DeJohnette
Byrdcliffe Barn
Woodstock, NY
August 13, 2016

When the lights went out, the power came on.

Drummer Jack DeJohnette was scheduled to give a solo piano concert at the Byrdcliffe Barn—a century-old wooden structure-turned-concert venue—that had been part of the original Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in Woodstock, N.Y.—but ten minutes before show time, following an ear-splitting crack like a boxful of M-80s exploding at once, the barn was flooded in darkness splintered only by the dim glow of an occasional cell phone. After it became clear the power wasn't going to come back, the host asked DeJohnette what they should do. "Oh," he replied, "I'll play in the dark."

Even a classical combo would have had problems performing without lights to illuminate their scores, but for a veteran jazz pianist the darkness was no obstacle, and a seven-foot Yamaha semi-concert grand obviated any need for amplification. To be clear, it wasn't totally black: A beam of light from an emergency exit sign at the opposite end of the hall from where the pianist sat provided enough illumination for patrons to continue going to the makeshift bar for drinks, and outside the barn's back window flashes of lightning illuminated the trees and an adjacent structure with a kind of De Chirico eerieness. A member of the staff sought to reassure the crowd as loudly as he could without benefit of a PA system. "The Byrdcliffe Barn is 114 years old," he said. "You're safe."

We were better than safe; we were at home in the darkness. This was a night of Zen jazz, the more so as DeJohnette's choice of an opening number itself was clearly improvised. "After the Rain" is not only one of John Coltrane's most verdant compositions, but its melody has the lush, refreshed resonance that makes its title seem almost programmatic. Coltrane is still largely associated with his high-energy free improvisations and the mystical themes of albums like A Love Supreme and Meditations, so it's easy to forget that he could write and perform the most earthean of ballads. It hadn't stopped raining by any means as DeJohnette played, but he evoked the lushness of Coltrane's tenor by settling into the lower registers of the keyboard and bringing forth the ode to nature's serenity that the composition was intended to be. Underpinned by low grumbles of thunder, and with strobes of lightning occasionally visible through the barn's open doorway and windows, it was impossible to forget that we were still at the mercy of nature. Jack is an ardent environmentalist, and early in his career he played (although never recorded) with Coltrane's quartet; but this music was all about the moment and the interconnection of a new piano gleaming even in the dark; a venerable, artist-built wooden structure; and the primordial elements. Following the opener, DeJohnette delivered a mostly Impressionistic set of low-tempo pieces, which made for a reflective evening that the shadows and sense of danger only heightened.

Known not merely as a drummer, but as probably the world's most recorded and influential living percussionist, long associated with New York City and now Woodstock, DeJohnette actually began his career playing piano in Chicago, where he was born. There he came under the tutelage of the legendary pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, who co-founded the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and became both a musical mentor and spiritual influence. For some years now it has been almost a cliché of jazz criticism to say that the best pianists have a "percussive" sound—as if that somehow makes the instrument more "African," rather than confined to the tradition of the European tempered scale. But that would deny the essential reality that the best jazz has always been a vibrant interaction of African and European rhythmic and tonal systems. A piano does have an element of percussion—all those hammers slamming into all those metal strings—but it also has something called a soundboard that resonates with the strings and expands the music as it bounds up to reflect off the lid and out to the audience. One might be tempted to say that a drummer should have a naturally percussive attack on the keyboard, but DeJohnette has consistently referred to himself as a colorist—"a drummer who colors music like a painter, with shading, dynamics, and electronics," was how he once put it. Besides, he never does anything the standard way, and one of the best things about his piano playing is that it tends to be subtle, gentle, and subtly Impressionistic—closer to Debussey or Ahmad Jamal than Cecil Taylor or Randy Weston. Which isn't to say lacking in rhythmic verve and freshness, simply that his use of coloration and his soft touch are the dominant forces.

Although DeJohnette has made the piano an occasional part of his performances and recordings for years, he released his first solo piano album this past April—and it was a throwback in more ways than one. Return was issued by Newvelle Records, a new French company that releases only vinyl records, and this concert was clearly a way to promote the LP as well as a benefit for the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild. Still, he played only a couple of compositions from the record, including his original "Ode to Satie," an appreciation and evocation of the "eccentric" French composer and pianist. Although Satie died in 1925, he wrote his short "Gymnopédies" in the late 1880s, around the time Debussey began composing, and DeJohnette adroitly captured their atmospheric flavor. Before playing his next piece, he announced a kind of test, refusing to give the title but only the hint that Nina Simone had recorded a memorable version of the song. Somehow, though, you had to believe that in Woodstock almost everyone knows Jerry Jeff Walker's tribute to his one-time cellmate, "Mr. Bojangles." DeJohnette caught the swaying lilt of the original and spiced it with Simonesque legato stylings for a low-tempo number that swung in its own insouciant way. "Bojangles" might have seemed an unusual choice for solo piano, but it effectively showcased how DeJohnette can combine the rhythmic strengths of the piano with his lightly percussive touch.

And then he ranged all over the musical landscape to bring in pieces from different idioms and locales. On standards like Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" and Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are," both composed in the 1930s, he improvised the way jazz masters have been doing for close to a century now, although his ability to mingle classical rhythms and harmonies with jazz-and blues-inflected ones gives his pianism a unique resonance: easy to listen to without being "easy listening," mesmeric and dreamlike more than conventionally swinging. DeJohnette's treatment of Manuel De Falla's "Will o' the Wisp" (from his opera El Amor Brujo but immortalized by Miles Davis and Gil Evans in Sketches of Spain), stretched the tune and the harmonies even further than the original recording while still capturing the when-will-it-end delicacy of this gossamer gem.

Something about the tension between the danger of the storm—many in the audience were aware that the power to their own nearby homes had probably also gone out—and the disorienting darkness indeed felt dreamlike. Whether the performer was feeling that tension or simply channeling the audience's mood is hard to know. But while the music DeJohnette made at the piano was adventurous harmonically and rhythmically, it never extended into high volume or rapid-fire showmanship. The closest he came to an up-tempo number was a straight blues that was as soulful and heartfelt as it was lustrous and classic.

DeJohnette closed out the magical evening with a tune written by renowned Brazilian percussionist and composer Milton Nascimento, which also closes Return. Its childlike melody and drifting rhythm have elements of lullaby, in the most energizing sense of that word. By the time he finished and we emerged from the still powerless barn, the rain and thunder had stopped, but the audience left exhilarated rather than sleepy.

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