Sunday, January 6, 2013

And Jack DeJohnette is…?

This was written two months ago for a jazz magazine published in Oregon. I recently recorded a trio record with Jack DeJohnette and bassist  Larry Grenadier. While listening to the rough mixes, I remembered this article and thought it might be worth reprinting here.

A few years ago, a classical musician asked me about my professional activities beyond teaching. I proudly mentioned that I had recently been touring with drummer Jack DeJohnette. "And he is…?" was the reply. I was slightly caught off guard; Jack DeJohnette, at least to jazz musicians, is as known as almost any other major figure in jazz. Indeed, he's a direct link to jazz history; From Baby Dodds to Sid Catlett to "Papa" Jo Jones to Max Roach to "Philly" Joe Jones to Tony Williams to Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette is the next logical name on the list. If you say "Jack" to a jazz drummer, he knows exactly what you are talking about.

I thought for a moment and answered; "Jack DeJohnette is …uh....the Yo-Yo Ma of jazz drumming." "Ah! I see," responded my classical comrade. At least, for the moment, I impressed someone with my affiliation. Now that I think about it, I think comparing Jack DeJohnette to Yo-Yo Ma actually falls short. If you were to draw a correlation between jazz instrumentalists and classical musicians, you would have to think bigger. I would say that DeJohnette should be compared to one of the great composers, like Debussy, or Stravinsky. I justify this by saying that DeJohnette truly has his own "language" of drumming. Yo Yo Ma, while one of the great performers on the cello, still, at the end of the day, plays other people's notes and rhythms and dynamics. DeJohnette, with his through composed, constantly evolving, conversational, interpretive drumming, has created a new way to play music that transcends drums.

Jack DeJohnette's drumming style is in some ways enigmatic, because his sound is immediately identifiable;
 and yet, there are few DeJohnette "clones." This is because DeJohnette's entire conception of music is very spontaneous. You can hear many young drummers play these days and you can say, "Oh, he's playing a "Philly" Joe Jones lick," or "That's an Elvin Jones lick." DeJohnette's playing is more of a philosophy with few preconceived notions. And yet I insist that he has influenced a generation of drummers as well as non-drummers. Again, if you say to a jazz drummer, “play like Jack,” you will get them to play a certain way.

Part of the trick is that Jack DeJohnette began his musical career as a jazz pianist; in fact, we was already doing gigs on piano in Chicago when he decided to switch to drums as his main instrument. (DeJohnette is well documented as a pianist on a recording entitled “ The Jack DeJohnette Piano Album”, which I had on vinyl years ago.) I believe that jazz drumming is perhaps different from other types of drumming because there is so much more of a need for the drummer to “shape” the music as well as keep time. Therefore, the more a jazz drummer knows about melody, form, harmony, and musical emotion, the better they can “shape” the performance. DeJohnette is always listening to what people are playing and supporting soloists and band members with relevant musical commentary. (I remember years ago, saxophonist Gary Thomas told me why he loved playing with Jack so much. “He never lets you down.” Another way of saying this would be that he follows a soloists intensity with complete dedication, as if it were his own solo that he was accompanying.)

As I write this, I am waiting at the gate of my flight from Heathrow to New York City (the second of three legs back to Portland. I started this morning in Tbilisi, flew 5 hours to London, found out my flight was cancelled, and resigned myself to a later flight and a 24 hour layover in New York as my only option), as we just finished a two week tour which was mostly in the U.K., but also included Poland and Georgia. I’m thinking back to some of the great musical moments we had as a band. But it’s also interesting to observe DeJohnette off the bandstand as well as on. Jack is extremely fit for a 70 year old man; occasionally I find myself lengthening my stride to keep up with him as we walk through airport terminals. Jack is intellectually agile as well; on the road in Europe, he’s rarely without a copy of the International Herald Tribune. We talk politics as much as music.Of course, when it comes to music, Jack is into anything and everything from European classical to Indian to Blues to Bebop. He knows a lot of songs from a wide variety genres; you might catch him singing Beatles tunes or Motown classics during a sound check. Furthermore, Jack always seems to be genuinely curious about new music and younger players(which is probably how I got in the band…)

I see this energy and open minded awareness manifesting itself on the bandstand every gig. DeJohnette is pretty easy going as a person, but as soon as he sits at the drums, you know something important is about to happen. You know that when the music starts, he won’t “let you down.” And the nifty thing is that DeJohnette can be really super intense without being overly loud. (One of the many unique things about DeJohnette’s approach is his use of “dry” ride cymbals. His ride cymbals don’t have what we call a “washy” sound, where even after the cymbal is struck, there is still a lot of ringing tone. This actually cuts the onstage volume by a huge margin, and it actually makes it easier forDeJohnette, as well as the other musicians onstage, to hear the music without everything getting washed out.

As a bandleader, DeJohnette leads much like Miles Davis and other Miles alumni who became bandleaders: hire great musicians and let them play how they play. DeJohnette rarely gives musical direction. If jazz musicians are already playing on a high level, why not let them play? Obviously, this approach won’t work for every situation. But think about it; why would Miles Davis tell Wanye Shorter how to play? I believe that the less that’s spoken, the more comfortable musicians will feel; therefore, you’ll get the most out of them.

Since I started playing in DeJohnette’s band, many musicians have asked me, “what does it feel like to play with Jack?” I think it’s a great question, because how music “feels” really gets to the heart of the matter. It’s also possibly the most intangible part of music and art. DeJohnette has a time feel which is very consistent, yet also flexible. He’s got one of the deepest pockets, and yet it’s not metronomic or predictable. How would I teach a student drummer to play this way? I haven’t figured that out yet. ( I remember when I was teaching the drum students at the University of Manitoba. I was assigning them the Alan Dawson Rudiment Ritual and page 38 of the Ted Reed book. Then I played a week with DeJohnette at Birdland. I remember thinking that I needed to completely revamp my approach to teaching drums.

But getting back to the question: what does it feel like to play with JackDeJohnette? It feels like magic. It feels extraordinary. It feels like you are floating on air. It feels like you can play anything. It feels like the walls of musical limitation have dissapeared. It feels like you want to sing and clap and dance. It feels like a runner’s high, or maybe some other type of high. If you were tired before you got onstage, you suddenly have energy. It feels like you’re on top of the world.

We played in Cambridge last week. Backstage, right before the show, Jackmade a comment that we should “try to take shorter solos.” I jokingly said, “ Why don’t you try to play worse?” I got a good laugh with that, but it’s true. Time flies when you are having fun, or playing with great musicians. When we play concerts, 2 hours feels like 10 minutes. You never want to stop.

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