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 Barna century-old wooden structure-turned-concert venuethat 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
, 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" soundas 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 percussionall those hammers slamming into all those metal stringsbut 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 Impressionisticcloser 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.