671

Soundtrack to a Legend: Jack Johnson & Jack DeJohnette in London

Daniel Spicer By

Sign in to view read count
The 63-year old DeJohnette astonishes with a pounding, relentless funk-rock attack, proving that, if nothing else, his stamina remains undiminished.
Jack Johnson: Soundtrack to a Legend
The Barbican
London, UK
May 30, 2005
Drummer Jack DeJohnette was a driving force in helping to take Miles Davis's music into interesting realms in the 1970s, providing a fluid yet powerful backbone that somehow combined funk, free jazz and rock on such overdriven masterpieces as 1970's Live Evil. Thus, though DeJohnette is not credited as playing on Miles's album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, his presence here tonight lends a certain authenticity to the project in hand: live accompaniment for a rare screening of William Cayton's legendary 1971 documentary charting the life of the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, for which Miles provided the original soundtrack.
This one-off performance sees DeJohnette teamed up with four of the British scene's hottest young musicians - saxophonist Jason Yarde; trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Byron Wallen; David Okumu on guitar; and Neville Malcolm holding down the bass - playing the results of three days' intensive wood-shedding in London.
Of course, much has already been made of how Miles's enthusiasm for boxing and admiration for the flamboyant and indefatigable Jack Johnson helped provoke some of his punchiest playing and led to the creation of a crunching jazz-rock masterpiece. With all this history behind them, DeJohnette and his collaborators wisely choose not to attempt to recreate Miles's classic themes, but rather to take them as a jumping off point, the essential spark of inspiration from which to push further in re-imagining and augmenting Miles's canonical work. In fact, for the most part, this band respectfully drops out for the sections of the film in which Miles's pieces come to the fore, often picking up the threads and moving the music forward as the recording fades out. So powerful is the influence of these original jams, however, that the newer interpretations mostly maintain the gritty, open-ended, rock inflected feel of the originals.

But there's more to it than simply jamming for 90 minutes; throughout the film, there are a whole range of interesting arrangements, designed specifically to complement the action. Most obviously, DeJohnette has a nice line in tumbling drum rolls to accompany the plentiful fight footage, a technique that helps to emphasise the devastating effect of a heavyweight attack, with a cymbal crash backing up each stinging jab, the percussive barrage building to a crescendo as Johnson's opponents invariably hit the canvas.

Elsewhere, the band launches into a galloping hard-bop sprint for some horse racing footage, and a crashing, free-jazz cacophony for a motor-racing sequence. Most satisfyingly, Neville Malcolm kicks off a brief but very deep modal stomper on the double bass to back up a short sequence featuring Johnson playing his own 'seven foot bass fiddle.' While these interpretations are fairly obvious and irresistible, at the other extreme, the band also understands the use of restraint - lapsing into chilly silence when the screen carries the eerie images of Klansmen burning crosses in the Deep South night.

The point is that it works: the soundtrack performance moves the action along at an exhilarating pace. It doesn't even seem to matter that the odd line of commentary gets lost - the film manages to maintain a dramatic tension thanks to the inventive and entirely apt improvising taking place. As a piece of cinema, the film is already an adrenalin fuelled, hallucinatory oddity: by turns a documentary, a dramatisation, a history lesson, a biography, a sports flick and a great mythologising of an African American hero; it rarely stays in one place long enough to be pinned down. With this new soundtrack to pep it up even more, the story just flies by, making its inexorable way towards the poignant deflation of Johnson's legend, as old age and poverty take hold and the spotlight moves on to newer heroes for different times.

Tags

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read The Songs of Scott Walker (1967-70) at Royal Albert Hall Live Reviews The Songs of Scott Walker (1967-70) at Royal Albert Hall
by John Eyles
Published: August 19, 2017
Read Bryan Ferry at the Paramount Theater Live Reviews Bryan Ferry at the Paramount Theater
by Geoff Anderson
Published: August 19, 2017
Read Newport Jazz Festival 2017 Live Reviews Newport Jazz Festival 2017
by Timothy J. O'Keefe
Published: August 18, 2017
Read FORQ at The World Cafe Live Live Reviews FORQ at The World Cafe Live
by Mike Jacobs
Published: August 18, 2017
Read Mat Maneri and Tanya Kalmanovitch at Korzo Live Reviews Mat Maneri and Tanya Kalmanovitch at Korzo
by Tyran Grillo
Published: August 18, 2017
Read Kongsberg Jazz Festival 2017 Live Reviews Kongsberg Jazz Festival 2017
by Henning Bolte
Published: August 17, 2017
Read "Lewis Nash and Steve Wilson at JazzNights" Live Reviews Lewis Nash and Steve Wilson at JazzNights
by David A. Orthmann
Published: April 18, 2017
Read "Adrian Belew Power Trio at Ardmore Music Hall" Live Reviews Adrian Belew Power Trio at Ardmore Music Hall
by Geno Thackara
Published: May 10, 2017
Read "Punkt Festival 2016" Live Reviews Punkt Festival 2016
by Henning Bolte
Published: October 1, 2016
Read "Tallinn Music Week 2017" Live Reviews Tallinn Music Week 2017
by Martin Longley
Published: April 16, 2017

Sponsor: JANA PROJECT | LEARN MORE  

Support our sponsor

Join the staff. Writers Wanted!

Develop a column, write album reviews, cover live shows, or conduct interviews.