Interview: Jack DeJohnette

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 02.17.12 in Interviews

The longer you look at the nearly 50-year career of drummer, composer and pianist Jack DeJohnette – and you have to look a long, long time to do it justice – the more amazing his imprint on the course of jazz becomes.

DeJohnette has logged time with an incredible array of iconic players and scenes. Legendary names like John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins all show up on his resume. He was in on the ground floor of a variety of influential movements, including the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in his native Chicago; the crossover of jazz into the Fillmore West rock scene of the ’60s with Charles Lloyd; the establishment of inimitable jazz labels such as CTI and ECM (he has appeared on more ECM records than any other musician). He has led a half-dozen bands, including Directions, New Direction and Special Edition. He has an ongoing 30-year existence with the Standards Trio alongside bassist Gary Peacock and pianist Keith Jarrett, his partner with Lloyd and Miles. He has performed with a Native American elder, played a duo disc with Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso, won a Grammy in 2009 for his new age disc, Peace Time, and has been involved in forward-thinking electronic music and remixes.

In January, DeJohnette was honored as an NEA Jazz Master. In August, he turns 70. To commemorate this special year, he has released Sound Travels, which covers a lot of the musical territory and some of the past associations of his career, and features young stars such as Esperanza Spalding and Ambrose Akinmusire along with veteran luminaries from across the spectrum, including Bobby McFerrin, Bruce Hornsby and Jason Moran.

eMusic’s Britt Robson recently reached DeJohnette by phone at his home inNew Yorkfor a thorough overview of his incredible career and his thoughts on the new record.

Let’s literally start at the beginning, with your involvement in the nascent stages of the AACM.

That relationship came about through my association with the AACM’s founder and composer and improviser, Muhal Richard Abrams, along with some other musicians I met when I was in college – Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors, just to name a few. It was a time of exploration and changes. There was no outlet for an alternative music. Roscoe and Joseph and I would get together to play our music and our concepts of improvisation. Muhal realized that we needed to have a space and an organization, we needed a structured outlet to get that creative energy out and so he got together a charter and a performance space and formed the AACM, with an orchestra that then spun off smaller groups.

Muhal was one of my mentors. He helped me a lot with my music and with life problems, and he was the one who encouraged me to come to New York.

How did that happen?

Well the Go-Go music scene started taking over, and there were fewer and fewer places to play jazz inChicago. I felt like it might be time to leave. Muhal encouraged me; he said thatChicagohad prepared me forNew York.

My first major gig inNew Yorkthat went on for a time with a horn player of note was with [alto saxophonist] Jackie McLean – see, Jackie came before Charles Lloyd but the albums we made together came out after. We did three records on Blue Note and also toured the states.

There was also a period when you got to play with John Coltrane in a dual-drummer ensemble with Rashied Ali in the final year or so before Coltrane’s death. Can you describe that relationship?

It has been said that Coltrane put the “om” into jazz; he became a very spiritual musician and through his searching and constant practicing, he more than influenced the musicians, he put some positive energies into our planet’s feed, trying to make it a better environment for us to work in. I enjoyed both playing and listening to him – I still practice to him. He gets to the soul of everything in a language that goes beyond the notes and theory and harmony – it is a vibration.

Not long after that you joined the Charles Lloyd Quartet, which among other things began your long relationship with pianist Keith Jarrett.

While playing with Jackie, I had seen Charles playing around New Yorkand, I forget how, but somehow he approached me to play with him. He said he was changing personnel, and asked me about any bassists and pianists. I recommended Cecil McBee – we both had worked with Betty Carter – and Charles and I both had heard Keith Jarrett in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. That Charles Lloyd Quartet was a very intense experience. We did a lot of touring and our manager, George Avakian, got us a lot of press. Our first album, Dream Weaver, sold more than a million copies and was one of the first crossover jazz bands.

After Charles, I worked with Stan Getz and then Bill Evans and then with Miles. I did the recording Live at Montreux with Bill Evans. And then Miles called.

I had worked with Miles before, when [his then-regular drummer] Tony Williams wasn’t available. He had heard me with Jackie and they had similar taste in drummers. In fact Miles got Tony the same way, after hearing him with Jackie.

You were on the legendary Bitches Brew sessions, which many regard as the polestar of fusion jazz. What were those like?

Miles didn’t talk that much; he just kept the music coming. The Bitches Brew project was a work in progress, with Miles bringing in sketches of what he wanted, then basically recording a lot, with Miles conducting a lot and [producer] Teo [Macero] putting it all together.

Did it feel like you guys were doing anything special?

It was a recording session with Miles, which was enough in and of itself. Having it be more than that was icing on the cake. But playing with Miles took on an energy of its own.

Did the time with Miles put your own music on hold?

I was just starting recording as a leader for [record label] Milestone during that same period. I was still playing some piano, but had started to make the drums my hallmark, because I felt that is where I could make the most contribution and the other thing was being in the drum chair enabled me to work with outstanding pianists.

Did all your time as a pianist help your style of drumming?

Piano, vibes and drums are all part of the percussion family. You have to tune drums like you tune other instruments and cymbals – I paid attention to the point where I designed my own cymbals. So it was still an extension of the orchestra concept of playing with compositions and improvisers.

In the ’90s, things began to get pretty spiritual for you, it seems.

There was Music For the Fifth World, which was a pretty important record because it was inspired by a Native American elder, by the name of Grandmother Twyla Nitsch. My family and I took lessons from her, and were initiated into a wolf clan in upstateNew York. There is a creation story around it, talking about the fifth world and the changes we are now experiencing and about greed and love and separation. That record had an all star cast including Vernon Reid from the Black Rock Coalition and John Scofield.

Did you suddenly feel the need to make it more overt in your music? Because right after that, you recorded Music in the Key of Om and Peace Time.

It just naturally evolved. Those records you are talking about, the relaxation and new age records, were with my own label. That arose out of working with my wife, Lydia, who is an aboriginal healer; I made Music in the Key of Ohm for her sessions. Peace Time won a Grammy, my only Grammy.

The last couple of things, one is Hybrids, an electronic group. A lot of the credit goes to Ben Surman on that. I believe the remixes he did are really ahead of their time. And then there is Music We Are.

And now we have your latest record, Sound Travels. How did that come about?

The idea came from my wife Lydia. I was being nominated as a NEA Jazz Master, and also will be celebrating my 70th year on the planet in August. The plan is to celebrate [being 70] all year. We did it with Herbie [Hancock] in 2010, Chick [Corea] last year, and now me this year.

Chuck Mitchell from eOne Music is a dear friend of mine and he said we should do a special album and that he would get behind it with some financial support. We had a meeting and I said I really wanted to use some of the younger players on this. Chuck said he wanted me to play some piano on it. I started to write and I came up with some grooves and beautiful melodies.

You begin and end the record with quiet solo piano, and so the first track is “Enter Here.”

It was Chuck’s idea to put “Enter Here” at the beginning as a neutral way to enter recording, so people wouldn’t think it was a Latin album if they heard a salsa or something. It cleared the energy so people could be able to go on this great journey.

And then there is the Latin groove in “Salsa For Luisito.”

The original plan was not to have Esperanza [Spaulding] sing. But she improvised over a series of chord changes where the guitarist, Lionel Loueke, was playing, and came up with something phenomenal. The chant over the drum exchanges was my idea, but [percussionist] Luisito [Quintero] came up with the Spanish chants and then we had Ambrose Akinmusire, the trumpeter] come in blazing, and an amazing idea of his sets up the melody. That piece actually covers a lot of ground.

Then we come to “Dirty Ground,” with the vocal and lyrics by Bruce Hornsby.

Again, the piece was not originally written with a vocal in mind. But I played the piece for Bruce and said casually, “You want to write some lyrics?” and he said, “Yeah! Send it to me.” I said the idea for this is the Band meetsNew Orleans, and that is where he went with this. The first verse is a nod toward [former Band member] Levon Helm; the way he plays the drums and the way he sings, he is just a pure organic soul, and really funky the way he lays it down. Bruce and I had an occasion to sit in with him on one of his Midnight Ramble shows.

It isn’t hard to know who “Sonny Light” is dedicated to. You have played on a handful of albums with Sonny Rollins and his favorite and often most incendiary moments of inspiration come from calypsos like this.

The horns are the lead instrument at first but then there is the guitar. I played it for Sonny he was touched by it. I have a penchant for writing compositions for my favorites – Eric Dolphy, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Ahmad [Jamal] and here Sonny.

The most beautiful song on the record is probably “Oneness,” where Bobby McFerrin just knocks out of the park.

It is a beautiful piece. “Oneness” is a piece I wrote recorded on a Gateway Trio album [in 1995]. I really wanted Bobby to sing on it, but I also wanted to improvise and have us do a call-and-response and sort of bookend the intro at beginning with the way we go out very playful at the end.

You finish up featuring your piano again on “Home.”

That was last piece I recorded, just an improvisation. It was kind of a tribute to one of my favorite pianists, Abdullah Ibrahim. It reminds me of South Africa and the church, and is a nice way to settle it down – “Home.” It is a soulful thing and people respond emotionally to that last track.