Jack DeJohnette makes a rare appearance in the Big Easy
3rd February 2014 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
It’s difficult to imagine that the legendary Jack DeJohnette has hardly ever played in New Orleans. Over his long career, the extraordinary Chicago drummer, who performs as a part of an all-star group at a sold-out show at the Civic Theatre on Thursday, February 6, has worked with a myriad of jazz greats including trumpeters Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and most often with pianist Keith Jarrett.
“The closest I got (to playing in New Orleans) was when I was supposed to do a Keith Jarrett concert and there was only one great piano — a Steinway piano — and Ramsey Lewis was playing the same night and he got the piano,” DeJohnette says, remembering that the show was canceled. “The only other time I played there was with the great clarinetist Alvin Batiste. I played some duet concerts with him. I first met Alvin through Cannonball (saxophonist Cannonball Adderley) who died while we were making the album called. Lovers. I had heard about Alvin and when I heard him play, I knew why he was such a legend. New Orleans produces quite a few outstanding musicians in many genres. I actually wrote a song about New Orleans, “New Orleans Strut” that’s on Lovers and my recording Album Album.”
DeJohnette, 71, a Grammy winner and recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master award, arrives in New Orleans as part the The Spring Quartet. The group, which began touring at the end of January and continues through mid-April, includes other high-profile artists with saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and pianist Leo Genovese.
While this ensemble is multi-generational and the artists come from diverse backgrounds, their musical paths have crossed through the years. For instance, Spalding is heard on DeJohnette’s latest release Sound Travels and the drummer contributed a few tracks on her album Radio Music Society that also features Lovano and Genovese. Naturally, jazz veterans DeJohnette and Lovano share a long history together. “We click right away whether playing a composition or playing spontaneously,” DeJohnette says of the saxophonist. “It’s always fun and always enlightening to see where we go.”
The versatile ensemble will perform material contributed by each of musicians.
“We’ll be open – we might do some spontaneous things that will develop into compositions eventually,” DeJohnette explains. “The compositions have a flavor and each one of us has our individual imprints. There will be a lot of colors, flavors and sonic explorations. There’s a lot of room for a lot of fun.”
DeJohnette confirms that whether he’s leading his own band, playing in the quietude atmosphere of longtime music collaborator Keith Jarrett or when he was behind the drums with Miles Davis during the revolutionary Bitches Brew era, his Chicago roots have remained in his style.
“It’s the feel,” says the drummer calling Chicago artists like pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill his musical partners. “We all started up together. I was there when the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) developed. It was a very fertile time in Chicago. There was that vibe of artists trying to find new ways to write and explore the music.”
At age four, DeJohnette began his musical journey playing piano which, he says, has influenced his drumming and also explains his affinity for pianists like Jarrett and Herbie Hancock. “Even when I’m playing quieter there is still an intensity to what I’m doing,” he notes. On occasion he has also played and recorded on piano.
“The piano has a lot to do with my orchestral approach, my melodic approach and harmonic approach to drumming. When I moved to New York (1966, and where he presently resides), I was blessed to learn from and play with some of the great legends of the music that also shaped the way I play.”
DeJohnette, now a legend himself, was just 20 years old when he sat in with saxophone giant John Coltrane and later worked with the jazz master. “It was incredible just to play with him. His music and essence were so spiritual,” DeJohnette extols. “There’s a quote that Coltrane put the Om back in jazz. He took it to a different level and it’s a level that has sustained until today.”
Another artist who DeJohnette played with and whose presence in jazz is still felt is trumpeter master and innovator Miles Davis. “That was another great experience,” the drummer exclaims. “Miles was inspiring and he brought out the best in the musicians who played with him. It (Davis’ Bitches Brew) took the music to whole different directions. It was a very important, very important change in the music.
There are a lot of directions to go in music now and I think that had a lot to do with it. And oh,” DeJohnette adds of performing with Davis, “it was fun.”
DeJohnette sings the praises of his fellow musicians in The Spring Quartet as well as the many fine young jazz musicians he’s heard around the world. “I think jazz is doing good,” he says. “There are financial things to deal with but people are interested.”
Beyond performing and recording with Alvin Batiste, DeJohnette boasts several other Louisiana connections. His father is from a town near Monroe, Louisiana and the drummer is heard on pianist Henry Butler’s superb album 1987 album The Village. He came down to teach at the Thelonious Monk Institute when it was housed at Loyola University. All the more reason that the legendary DeJohnette should be invited back to New Orleans again soon and often.
“New Orleans is a great city. I love the music and I love the food and I look forward to being there.”
The Spring Quartet is performing as part of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s Jazz Journey series. Trumpeter Christian Scott and his Quintet opens the show at 8 pm. Ticket holders must be in their seats by 7:15 pm in order to assure their admittance.
This article originally published in the February 3, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.