Jack DeJohnette: Time and Space

John Kelman By

Sign in to view read count
I like to mess up the rhythm--agitate it, shake it up, transform it, morph it, do different things with it--because time is space, so we're dealing with time and space; we're taking time and making it spacious, expanding it.
It begins with the sound of a resonating bell, followed by a gently cascading piano solo that gradually assumes shape and form, hovering around two chords and creating an inviting ambiance that resolves with another ringing of the bell, segueing gently into the groove-heavy "Salsa for Luisito." The track is "Enter Here," and the album is Sound Travels (Golden Beams/eOne, 2012), Jack DeJohnette's first hard CD as a leader since 2009's Music We Are, also on the drummer's Golden Beams imprint, though he did release Live at Yoshi's 2010 in 2011 as a download-only album, featuring his Jack DeJohnette Group.

"That was on purpose," says DeJohnette, referring to "Enter Here." "That bell is a resonating bell that I created with Sabian, and there's a healing intention with that bell when it's played. 'Enter Here' is a perfect title: you enter here in a neutral state, you tune up, and then we take you on a traveling journey, a Sound Travel."

Though he may be known primarily as a drummer, as he approaches his 70th birthday in 2012, Chicago-born DeJohnette has been involved in hundreds (maybe thousands) of recordings across the broadest possible spectrum of jazz. He first emerged in saxophonist Charles Lloyd's renowned mid-'60s quartet with pianist Keith Jarrett, moved over to trumpeter Miles Davis in 1969 and ultimately became a defining voice on two well-known labels in particular: Creed Taylor's CTI imprint and, perhaps more significantly, Manfred Eicher's 43-year-old ECM, with which DeJohnette still shares a close relationship. But DeJohnette is also an exceptional pianist, and if he has contributed some piano to many of his own recordings, including Album Album (ECM, 1984) and The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers (Golden Beams, 2006), and electric keyboards to albums like Audiovisualscapes (Impulse!, 1988) and Music for the Fifth World (Manhattan, 1992), it's been literally decades since he made an album that featured his piano skills so prominently.

Chapter Index
1. Sound Travels
2. Growing Up Eclectic
3. Relationship With ECM
4. The Jack DeJohnette Group
5. Musical Mentoring and Doing Good

Sound Travels

"The catalyst for Sound Travels was Chuck Mitchell [of eOne, formerly Koch], at least for the piano aspect, though the catalyst for making a special record was my wife and business partner, Lydia. Chuck is a good friend of ours, and he's been involved in the music business, from being a radio programmer and working on television, to projects with people like Herbie Hancock. We have our label, Golden Beams, and everything being as it is in the world today [chuckles], Chuck had told us, 'If there is ever anything I can do to help, don't hesitate to ask.' He's been a big supporter of mine over the years, starting with Compost (Columbia, 1972)— he was a DJ at Princeton [University], and a lot of stuff that I was doing, he was into.

"So we had a meeting with him," DeJohnette continues. "The other catalyst was my winning the 2012 NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] Jazz Masters Award, and the ceremony happens in January, 2012, so Chuck thought it would be a good idea to do something—a special project—and have it come out in January to coincide with the event. So he said, 'OK, I know you can come up with something special, but my one request is you've got to play some piano on it.' I didn't balk, and said, 'OK, why not? We can do some of that.'"

But unlike earlier recordings like the Japan-only Jackeyboard (Trio, 1973) and The Jack DeJohnette Piano Album (Landmark, 1985), where he either played piano exclusively—or, at least, primarily—Sound Travels almost completely balances kit work and piano. It's also a record that teams the veteran artist with a group of younger players, most of them leaders in their own right and, in one case, a rapidly rising star. "One of the goals I'd set for myself on this project was to write some pieces that had some grooves, some nice melodies and some beautiful atmospheres," says DeJohnette, "and I had a personnel in mind that I thought would be really great—people I'd enjoyed working with, younger musicians who are making their mark in the world.

"And so I suggested the people I wanted. Chuck asked, 'Who would you like to produce?' and I said Bob [Robert] Sadin, who's a fantastic producer—he gets great results, and I've worked with him before. So Bob was great. We sat down and had a meeting, and I mentioned the names I wanted: [bassist] Esperanza Spalding; [guitarist] Lionel Loueke; Ambrose Akinmusire, the trumpet sensation; percussionist Luisito Quintero, who I've been involved with in some Latin projects that I've put together; and [pianist] Jason Moran.

"[Saxophonist] Tim Ries came on board after we'd started recording," DeJohnette continues, "because Bob and I thought the music needed another voice. Tim was in Budapest, and it was his birthday, so I called him and said, 'Hey, man, can you come and play on my record?' He said, 'Wow, that'd be great. I'm just finishing up in Budapest.' He got here as soon as he could, and did a fantastic job. I made a record with Tim—I'd met him in New York and knew of his work—and we did an album which has not come out yet, but he did some Rolling Stones things [Stones World: Rolling Stones Project II (Sunnyside, 2008)]. I really like Tim's playing; he's really well rounded and got his own voice, so I thought he would be perfect for this. And so he plays all the horns, and some exotic instruments, too.

"Then [singer] Bobby McFerrin joined, and that kinda rounded everything out—this great combination of people. The other icing on the cake was kind of a fluke—Bruce Hornsby, who I made a jazz record with [Camp Meeting (Legacy, 2007)]; he's been a big fan of Keith Jarrett and would always come around. So I said, 'Bruce, maybe we can write something together.' I'd written all these pieces on my Korg M3 synthesizer—it has a 16-track sequencer in it, so I can play all of the parts exactly and spell out what I really want, so that the producer and the musicians know what I am looking for. I played some of the pieces for Bruce, including a composition that was originally just called 'Seven-Four,' and I said, 'Do you want to write some lyrics?' He said, 'Yeah,' and he took it, worked with it, and the result is 'Dirty Ground.' Bob and our engineer, who works with Bob a lot, Dave Garlington, did a great job with production on this recording.

Sound Travels was recorded live in the studio, for the most part, with the entire group putting down its tracks together in real time. One of the album's most surprising aspects, considering DeJohnette plays both drums and piano on five of its nine tracks, is how seamless and live it all sounds, despite the necessity of overdubbing one of the two instruments. "Some [tracks] were done with the piano first," DeJohnette explains, "because we had Luisito, who could lay down a great groove for everything, and then some of them were done with drums first, like 'New Muse,' where the piano was put on afterwards. Same with 'Sonny Light'; that was one with me on piano with everybody, and then I overdubbed hi-hat and bass drum. But most of it was done live, and the solo piano stuff ['Enter Here,' 'Home'] and the track with Bobby ['Oneness'], they were done real time."

With the spontaneous nature of jazz, it's sometimes easy to overlook the importance of pre-production—or production, period. But Sadin's role was to find ways to stretch the musicians, to push them out of their comfort zone while helping them to become absolutely comfortable when recording together. "One of the things Bob did was to get us all to sit around in a room, with me at the piano, Luisito with his drums and Esperanza on her bass, to create this village kind of atmosphere, so we could get the grooves, playing the grooves over and over, to get the rhythms just right. We were sitting around, real close, to get the feel of everything with the piano.

"I wasn't thinking about having Esperanza singing on it," DeJohette continues, "but one day, when we were taking a break, Bob took Esperanza aside, spent some time with her, and got this amazing vocalese from her on the salsa ['Salsa for Luisito'], and then the backup voices. It was my idea to come up with the chants for 'Salsa for Luisito,' and Luisito gave us the Spanish lyrics to sing in three-part harmony over the drums, which is nice, 'cause it celebrates the drums, back and forth, and then you have Ambrose coming in, saying, 'OK, here I am [chuckles].

"One of the things I really would like to point out about Sound Travels is that it's a celebratory record," DeJohnette concludes. "It celebrates me hedging up on my 70th year, and it celebrates not only the piano and the drums, it celebrates the voice as an instrument. You've got Esperanza at one end, you've got Bobby on the other, and you've got Bruce, the singer/songwriter, in the middle. I've never heard Esperanza do [what she does], though it's not a surprise that she's capable; but it is different, and the quality of her voice has definitely improved—it's gotten warmer, it's got a vibe. She really has a vibe."

DeJohnette isn't the only one who thinks Spalding has a vibe. Seeming to emerge almost overnight (though in reality it's been a gradual climb over the past five years or so) Spalding's Chamber Music Society (Concord, 2010) made such a splash that the bassist/singer won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best New Artist—not Jazz Artist, but Artist, period—beating out megastars like teen heartthrob Justin Bieber. As Spalding's own career heats up even further, with her follow-up, Radio Music Society (Concord), due out in February 2012, the only downside is she won't be available when DeJohnette's Sound Travels group hits the road. "Yeah, we talked to everybody about touring, once the recording was done," DeJohnette says, "and the only person that may not be able to make it is Esperanza, 'cause her new record is coming out (I'm on two tracks). She's a rising star, so I think she's going to be real busy. But I think we're trying to get Christian McBride to fill that spot."

From the appropriately titled "Salsa for Luisito" to the bookending piano solos of "Enter Here" and "Home"—described by DeJohnette as "kinda church and kinda South Africa"- -Sound Travels covers a lot of territory. Afro-Cuban pulses mix with African highlife on "Sonny Light," while "New Muse" swings with a simmering, modal intensity beneath Ries' soaring soprano solo, and the pulse-laden title track provides a more intimate workout between Loueke, DeJohnette and Quintero. "Oneness," McFerrin's improv-heavy tune, with Quintero and DeJohnette (on piano), contrasts with Hornsby's singing on the funkified, irregular-metered "Dirty Ground," while a new look at an older tune, "Indigo Dreamscapes"—first heard on DeJohnette's 1990 set with Hancock and guitarist Pat Metheny, Parallel Realities (MCA), harks back to some of the drummer's late-'80s/early-'90s Special Edition recordings.


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles