Jack of All Trades
A common synonym for "drummer" is "timekeeper" -- but Jack DeJohnette, who's arguably jazz's greatest living stick man, has no use for the word. In his opinion, the term is unnecessarily limiting. "If you ask what I do with time, I do more than just keep it," he maintains. "I expand it, I stretch it, I compress it, I can even float it. I can be in time and out of it, in it and out of it. You might say I'm a magician that way."
Fortunately, DeJohnette, who's also an accomplished pianist and composer, doesn't mind sharing his gifts of prestidigitation. Over a span of more than four decades, he has performed or recorded with an astonishing roster of jazz greats, including John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Pat Metheny and, most famously, Miles Davis, for whom he pounded the skins on highly influential platters such as Bitches Brew, Live-Evil and On the Corner.
Today, DeJohnette drums regularly for the likes of Keith Jarrett, as well as with John Scofield, with whom he teams in Trio Beyond; Saudades, the act's tribute to the late Tony Williams, came out earlier this year. Yet he can't be dismissed as a mere sideman to jazz celebrities. DeJohnette has issued a slew of impeccable long-players under his own name, including New Directions and Special Edition (released by ECM Records circa the '70s), and his discography has been growing ever more eclectic since he started his own label, Golden Beams Productions, in 2004.
For instance, DeJohnette created Music in the Key of Om at the behest of his wife, Lydia, whom he describes as "an energetic healer and counselor." (The resulting effort earned a Grammy nomination in the New Age category.) More recently, he unleashed Music From the Hearts of the Masters, a duet that co-stars Gambia's Foday Musa Suso, who plays a West African lute known as a kora, and The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers..., an intriguing album that also features Denver-bred guitarist Bill Frisell, his current touring partner. Rather than simply issuing tapes of a 2001 concert he shared with Frisell, he gave the spools to his son-in-law, Ben Surman, a sound engineer and musician whose father, saxophonist John Surman, is a longtime DeJohnette collaborator. Ben added subtle effects and sonic accoutrements that turn Elephant into a part-live, part-studio mutant. Purists may object to such tinkering, but DeJohnette doesn't care. "The only thing that matters to me is, musically and creatively, does it work?" he says. "And I think it does."
Forthcoming Golden Beams offerings include a disc culled from sessions with the late percussionist Don Alias, who also received a credit on Bitches Brew, and Jack DeJohnette Collected, a compilation of assorted GBP material supplemented by Ben Surman club mixes and a reimagining of the Hearts of the Masters track "World Wide Funk" courtesy of DJ Logic. Tackling such a variety of projects comes naturally to DeJohnette, who says, "Our diversity is the jewel in the crown. One-size-fits-all is totally against the rules of nature."
As is the idea that time can be kept rather than expanded, compressed and so on. Thank goodness DeJohnette knows better.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.