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Jack DeJohnette: Colors, Grooves, Golden Beams

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I love to play grooves. Aside from swinging, and being abstract, I also love to be in the pocket and make a groove something substantial.
Jack DeJohnetteWhen you hear Jack DeJohnette's playing, you know it's him. No living jazz drummer is more accomplished, better-known or more technically equipped than the 64-year-old, Chicago-born DeJohnette, and no other drummer plays with his particular blend of unerring time, power and groove. After some years as a Chicago musician (as much in demand as a pianist there as a drummer), and associations with AACM players like Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams, the second half of the 1960s saw DeJohnette come to national—and international—prominence as a member of the wildly-popular Charles Lloyd Quartet (which also included perennial collaborator Keith Jarrett).

That prominence has never waned. DeJohnette's played with Freddie Hubbard, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Joe Henderson, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and of course with Miles Davis, who hired him in 1968, just in time for the musical upheaval of Miles' electric period and the epochal Bitches Brew. DeJohnette still occupies the drum stool in Keith Jarrett's so-called Standards Trio (which also features bassist Gary Peacock), a monumentally important and esteemed band that, in its 23rd year, somehow seems to be getting even better.

Then, of course, there's DeJohnette's sizable body of work as a leader of such groups as Directions and New Directions (the latter band including guitarist John Abercrombie and trumpeter Lester Bowie, two important collaborators), and classic, essential recordings like Album Album (ECM, 1984), Sorcery (OJC, 1974), Oneness (ECM, 1996), often on the ECM label. Really, one struggles to include all of his major projects—the collaborative trio Gateway (with Abercrombie and bassist Dave Holland) and the DeJohnette-led, rotating-cast Special Edition come immediately to mind.

DeJohnette formed his own record imprint, Golden Beams Productions, in 2004. The imprint has released four CDs to date including the new The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers (Golden Beams, 2006), a superlative collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell. This year also saw the release of Saudades, (ECM, 2006), a two-CD live recording by Trio Beyond, a group composed of DeJohnette, guitarist John Scofield and organist Larry Goldings. While the band was ostensibly formed as a sort of homage to the late drummer Tony Williams and his band Lifetime, Trio Beyond is a good deal more than a tribute act, and the album contains some ferocious playing—the group's format and attack give DeJohnette considerable freedom to play and he uses that freedom eagerly and thrillingly.

It's an exciting group. I called DeJohnette at home in Woodstock, New York to discuss Trio Beyond, the Golden Beams label, and more.

All About Jazz: You've been very busy with a bunch of different musical projects, some of them on your own label. I think we should start with the Trio Beyond project, and move back from there. This is a band composed of yourself, John Scofield and Larry Goldings. It pays tribute to Tony Williams and his group Lifetime, and has the same guitar/drums/organ configuration as that band. But on your new live set Saudades, which was recorded in 2004, you actually touch on all sorts of things: you do some great Lifetime numbers, but you also do other songs written by Tony, or stuff associated Tony or Lifetime organist Larry Young. It's about Tony and a lot of other great people. "If, for example, is a song from Larry Young's Unity (Blue Note, 1965) album and makes me think about Elvin Jones, who drummed on it, or Joe Henderson, who wrote it and played on it.

Jack DeJohnette: It's kind of a tribute to a lot of different directions. And we have more material, our own original material; it just didn't get on there. But the basis of the idea started when I heard that group Lifetime. John heard it also, and it had a profound effect on us both in terms of that setup of organ, drums and guitar. But we realized, when we started touring and playing, that the music began developing organically in many directions of its own. But also, we didn't want to be locked into being a cover band or a tribute band. Instead, we wanted to use people like Tony as a composer and drummer, and Miles, Joe Henderson, Larry Young, John McLaughlin, Coltrane, as sorts of satellites, as a basis for improvising. It also immediately gave us a great selection of repertoire to choose from, so we didn't have to really write a lot of music right away.

AAJ: An immediate book.

JD: Yeah. I mean, I've got some songs, John has some tunes—we're all composers, but we figured gradually, as the band develops and we find time to come together and play, with our busy schedules, we'd add more original things. But it's fun; the big aspect of it is the chemistry between everybody and the high level of creativity that happens, which inspires everybody to go full-out and challenge themselves and challenge each other. It's a lot of fun.

AAJ: It sounds fun on the record. People might talk about chemistry a little too much, but I do think the chemistry of this band is special. It sounds like everyone's pretty invigorated.

JD: We just did a gig—well, two gigs. We did a gig in Europe at the Coutances Jazz Festival and then we flew out to L.A. to do a gig, which was John's gig. They told him he could come out with any configuration he wanted, and he said he wanted the Trio Beyond. So we flew straight out there from France to play the U.C.L.A Jazz and Reggae Festival. And you know, since the last time we played, the development [laughing] has just shot up a lot faster. Everyone's just psyched to do it, and I can hear the growth of everybody since then.

AAJ: Larry's pretty great on this record. I really love his bass lines, which work so well with your drumming—you each occupy an area that's very complimentary with the other. He's really all over the organ here and his bit of Rhodes on the beginning of "I Fall in Love Too Easily is wonderful as well. Tell me about Larry—what you like about playing with him, what it is he's best at.

JD: Well Larry is quite an eclectic musician. He's also a great pianist and composer. But he's ridiculous on organ; I think he's expanding the role of the organ, the old Hammond B-3 with the Leslie speaker. Getting colors out of it—it's got those drawbars and you can create a whole bunch of colors. Larry's also incorporating electronics; he's using electronic pedals, loops, computers, samples and all that kind of stuff. So that's in there as well. But Larry also swings his ass off! He's one of the swingingest organists around. And he doesn't repeat his bass lines. If you listen to his harmonic sense, which is very astute, he's always creatively changing his bass lines. And he plays very close to how a bassist feels—sometimes you forget you're listening to an organ bass, because his lines are so hip, and his colors and his chords and his rhythmic thing. Harmonically, rhythmically, melodically—the ball gets passed around. So we're always psyched to play, because we're wanting to see what happens next. Somebody'll play something, and it sets off the other two and gets passed around.

AAJ: Okay, then, the third player in the band is John Scofield. I don't think I've ever heard him in such a broad context. He's got plenty of room to solo, but there's more to it than that. He's playing all sorts of stuff: single-note lines, chordal stuff, freeform exploration, heavy riffing, all in a great variety of tones. Any notions about what you like about playing with him here?

JD: Well, John is a unique innovator and also a very, very distinct voice. When you hear John, you know it's him. Nobody else has a sound like that, or that phrasing on guitar. John has this great combination of funk and sophistication. I think that's the chemistry that all three of us have together, actually. Larry's played with Maceo Parker, and a lot of guys like that—a real cross-section of music. We all really love the blues and we all really love funk and electronic music. And, you know, jazz. So there's this spectrum, shall we say, for lack of a better word, of the many different world cultural influences that jazz takes in.

And so John incorporates all of that. But when he needs to be technical, he can do that, too. He has that slippery, kind of laid-back way that he plays, but when we played those last two gigs, he and Larry both were rippin' off lines [laughing] that were really amazing. It's a great combination with this trio, where we get a chance to really just play for the joy of it, and explore. It stimulates me in what I'll play, but it also stimulates everybody in terms of realizing the amount of freedom we have—along with the discipline. John has a balance of all of that, as far as playing lines. Then there's the electronic stuff that he does, which is very great, and the way we use that in this trio is really great as well. I particularly like the way John and Larry utilize that on things like "Saudades, and "Emergency.

AAJ: That's a big part of what this band does. Those places where it goes off the map—the electronics seem like an important tool to push it in that area.

JD: Yeah. So there are all these different colors. I'm glad we captured the band live; this is a great live band. This recording was done on the next-to-last gig of an almost-three-week tour. That's why the music was at such a high level—because we had been playing this music every night. And it's different every night. I think we captured that magic.

AAJ: The band is very tight on that record. There's plenty of freedom, but the way you transition between tunes, and parts of tunes, like on the sequence of "As One, "Allah Be Praised, and "Saudades, displays a tightness that's very exciting to hear.

JD: Yeah, you don't hear it too often! It's true. Not to say that there aren't other creative musicians out there doing the same thing—I've heard some of them. [ECM head] Manfred [Eicher] was excited about the idea of it, and then when I sent it to him and he heard it, he said, "yeah, this is great, and we have to put this out. So it's great; they're really excited about it and there's this big buzz about it. I hope it continues.

AAJ: Well, you've got gigs booked for this year.

JD: We're touring Europe. We may play New York next year—we might try playing the Blue Note. I'm not sure; we're thinking about that.

AAJ: I asked about the other two musicians, but what about you? Is there anything in particular in your playing that this group brings out?

JD: Yeah, most definitely. It gives me a chance to play full-throttle. More than normal. Well, not normal, but more than you hear me, say, with Keith Jarrett or appearing on some other records as a guest artist in a more supportive role. I'm more extroverted here. And here it fits, because the volume level, the dynamic level and the creative level all match. So it's a great place for me to open up, because I don't have to worry about overpowering anything. It's definitely a power trio in that sense. So, yeah, it's great for me, and I'm happy that people can get a chance to hear this side of me where I'm drumming more than normal. People who know I play the drums really well get a chance to hear how well I really play them [laughing].
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