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Jack DeJohnette: Bill Evans Legacy

Franz A. Matzner By

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I certainly hope people enjoy the music [on] this recording and am glad that it was captured. Bill will be celebrated some more.
—Jack Dejohnette
Modern Drummer Hall of Fame inductee, drummer and pianist Jack DeJohnette has shaped jazz drumming for decades. A compatriot of illustrious players like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Scofield, and many more, DeJohnette helped shape a new conception of what the drums could bring to ensembles, including adding color, detail, and fluid interplay. His contributions to the music are legendary and could fill volumes. Reinforcing this impact, Resonance Records has been releasing a series of never-before heard live recordings of the Bill Evans Trio with DeJohnette and bassist Eddie Gomez. The trio existed for a very short stint of one month and has become the stuff of legend. Recorded at the famous London club Ronnie Scott's, the third Resonance release Bill Evans Trio: Live at Ronnie Scott's (Resonance Records, 2020) provides a window into a turning point in Evans' trajectory. More than a member of the trio, DeJohnette has been instrumental in supporting Resonance Records project, including the latest two-disc package. Below DeJohnette provides insight into the documented concert and his time with Evans.

All About Jazz: First, let me thank you for doing this interview today. You have had a deep impact on my appreciation of jazz.

Jack DeJohnette: Thank you. Thank you very much.

AAJ: I could ask you a million questions, but I'd like to focus on the new Bill Evans Trio release. What motivated you to put this material out at this time?

JD: Well, the music. The music and the historical significance.

AAJ: The performance at Ronnie Scott's has become legend. What made it so special?

JD: We were at one place for a month. We could play every night so we could develop the music. As with most groups that play together or a while, like Miles (Davis) at the Cellar Door (Legacy Records, 1970) or Live Evil (Columbia, 1971). A compilation of consecutive nights.

AAJ: What does that allow the musicians to do that is different?

JD: It allows the music to expand, to develop. To try new things. New ideas. That is what it does. [It] gets tighter, gets closer.

AAJ: The trio was only together for a short time. How did you meet Evans and become part of the trio to begin with?

JD: He held a rehearsal and tried out different drummers, you know? I went and tried out and that is how I got the gig. FM: Is that the same with Eddie Gomez? Had you played with him previously?

JD: Yes. We'd played at record gigs and stuff like that.

AAJ: Evans was already an established name and older. Were you ever nervous playing with him for the first time?

JD: Not really. (laughs). I was excited to have the opportunity to play with him, but not nervous.

AAJ: I think a lot of people would have been nervous. I know I would have been nervous as hell. What do you think accounted for that lack of nervousness? Just knowing who you were and how you played?

JD: Yeah. I had played with a lot of good people already. And I'd had good experiences. Also, I knew the concept of playing with Bill. That broken trio way of playing that was pioneered by [Evans] with the trio with Scott LaFaro, and later with my friend Gary Peacock.

AAJ The history is there about how groundbreaking that trio innovation was at the time. Can you speak to that from inside the music, as a player?

JD: You know, it freed the rhythm section and how you approached the tune. Rather than playing straight ahead 4/4 all the time before, you went in [and] you broke the time up.

AAJ: Did that give you as the drummer more ability to be a colorist, to develop the creative, spiritual energy?

JD: You answered the question! Yeah, you answered it the way you asked it. (laughs)

AAJ: Personally, one of the things I love about the release is the way it captures the feel of a live club atmosphere. There are at least two opinions on that though. On the one hand folks say that clubs are really the native environment for jazz. On the other, people argue jazz was relegated to clubs by racism and other factors and should move beyond those venues. Where do you come down on that?

JD: You need a combination of both. Concerts are great. They give you a chance to work and to travel. And make more money. (chuckle) The clubs give you a chance to develop the music. If you are playing consecutive nights. Both are relevant.

AAJ: Both historically and currently?

JD: well, currently no one has work because of COVID-19. Our work is canceled.

AAJ: Do you think COVID and what has happened to the music industry is going to have lasting impact?

JD: Definitely. [But] Not just music. Everything. Everything is suffering... because we had a government that didn't govern and [still] is not governing

AAJ: And overlooked a whole lot of Americans.

JD: yeah. And the shit is still going to get worse. It's a business of clubs and clubs are really suffering now, as well as restaurants and bars. Its financially and artistically damaging.

AAJ: Returning to Ronnie Scott's and generally playing with Evans. From my perspective one of his attributes was playing with trios for an extended period of time. Really building close relationships and musical rapport. Yet you were able to achieve that almost immediately. What about the three of you allowed that to happen?

JD: An understanding and an elemental trust in one another. And Bill's arrangements were so precise and predicable they gave Eddie and I the chance to color the music.

AAJ: Because of that dynamic he set you were able to drop in and feel comfortable immediately?

JD: oh yes...everybody was on the same page. We never talked much about the music. Just played it. Trusted it.

AAJ: Evans is obviously famous for this subtlety and to my ears often a lot of melancholy.

JD: For sure.

AAJ: As a drum lover I'm not always sure drummers get enough attention for their techniques. What were some of the techniques you used to synch up with that subtle approach?

JD: Just listening. Dynamics. Also being a pianist myself I am a good listener. That allows me to color in different ways. Cymbals and mallets, brushes, things like that.

FM: We also should talk about Eddie Gomez. He had his own journey to greatness like you and Bill. What was distinctive about his approach at that time?

JD: The gig with Bill gave Eddie a chance to develop as a soloist because he was featured on almost every tune, soloing. Eddie had the ability to swing really well. He had a very percussive, as well as harmonic and melodic, approach to his style of improvising. So it was fun to play with him, you know? There was a sense of fun playing with Eddie.

FM: He does seem like an ebullient personality. What I hear on that album is Evans in his own space while you and Eddie were able to interact. You were able to create this fluid energy. Was that explicit between you and Eddie or did it evolve?

JD: It was more organic. Something that happened on an intuitive and natural basis.

FM: Do you feel there were lasting impacts on your playing after such a short time with Bill and Eddie?

JD: Maybe just from a piano standpoint. I learned some things playing with Bill. The way play Bill played chords and his touch. I still like that.

FM: Many musicians talk about the process of moving to a different space when they play. They talk about shapes or colors or entering a trance like spiritual place. What happens when you play?

JD: That's actually what happens when I play. What you just described. Altered states, feelings of peace. Letting the music take you instead of trying to direct it. Just be open to co-create with the great mystery.

AAJ: Did Evans ever talk about a similar effect?

JD: Bill didn't talk much about music. Bill was quieter than that. He kept [things] to himself. Quiet and introspective.

AAJ: There's a long history of jazz musicians working with younger musicians to create a direct transmission from generation to generation. Why is that so important in jazz?

JD: It's not just jazz. It should be important for many things where information is passed on to the next generation. I mean, that's part of the tradition. An exchange from the older musicians to the younger and vice versa. I am still doing some of that. I've been doing some Zoom drum discussions, so it still goes on.

AAJ: To go back where we started, are Ronnie Scott's and the other collections Resonance is putting out part of that passing on of tradition?

JD: I don't know. I guess you would call it that—it was something done in the past (chuckles).

AAJ: True, true. To be more precise, is there an important difference between the history coming from studio recorded material and live-club recordings?

JD: It's an imprint [of] what was going on in the music at that time. It is a historical document for those who haven't heard that. It probably sounds fresh to them. At least that is the hope anyway.

AAJ: That's a very important point, to bring those moments back alive again.

JD There are [different], important periods in Bill's development. The trio he had with Paul Motian... Bill played quite differently then. He didn't play all those block chords he eventually got into, which developed the sound and the identification. People could tell right away [it was him]. He didn't use his left hand as much during those early recordings. One of my favorites is Everybody Digs Bill Evans (Riverside, 1958) with Philly Joe Jones and Sam Jones. That's a swingin' trio record right there. I just wanted to add that in in terms of celebrating [other of] Bill's trio recordings. It was also a totally different social, political, and economic time that we were in too. All of that comes into it too.

AAJ: Do you think [those] shifts have made people more open to the music from that period of time? Has it become easier for people to understand its importance?

JD: I think so. If they get the chance to hear it. It's become difficult to sell albums now. CDs just don't sell as much as they used to. But if they get access to it, a chance to hear it, other people [learn] the value of it, that makes a big difference.

I certainly hope people enjoy the music [on] this recording and glad that it was captured. Bill will be celebrated some more. This gives people a chance to hear Bill playing with more dynamics and feeling on the record.

AAJ: What does it feel like years later to be considered a giant of the music?

JD: I feel blessed for the opportunity I've had to play with so many great musicians. And that's a feeling of accomplishment that I really feel good about.

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