Jack DeJohnette is best known for drumming drummer with Miles Davis (including Bitches Brew) and in Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio. He’s had a solo recording career for more than four decades, though, and this box set reissues the first four LPs from Special Edition, the project that has most elevated his profile as a bandleader. Though the only member common to all is DeJohnette, his compositions and arrangements, as multi-stylistic as they are, feel like the work of one inimitable voice.
On the first LP, 1979′s Special Edition, he works with David Murray (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Arthur Blythe (alto sax) and Peter Warren (bass, cello); DeJohnette plays drums, piano (his first instrument), and melodica. The voicings on the drumless arrangement of Coltrane’s “Central Park West” recall Murray’s simultaneous membership in the World Saxophone Quartet. Then again, so do some of the voicings on 1980′s Tin Can Alley, where Murray and Blythe are replaced by Chico Freeman (tenor, flute, bass clarinet) and John Purcell (alto and baritone saxes, flute). There are tracks that look back stylistically, but also some moments of aggressive free improvisation, and even down-home acoustic funk (“I Know,” on which DeJohnette also sings).
Inflation Blues (1982), making its digital debut, switches things up further. Purcell (who adds alto clarinet) and Freeman (also on soprano sax this time) return, but trumpeter Baikida Carroll plays on four of the five tracks; the new bassist, Rufus Reid, doubles on electric bass. Carroll’s bright, quicksilver lines let the music soar more, and he’s more of a free player, so Inflation Blues is the most frequently dissonant of the albums here, though surprisingly, the title track is a reggae tune.
Album Album (1984), by contrast, avoids free playing and is the most groove-oriented. It’s another quintet: Carroll’s place is taken by tuba/baritone sax player Howard Johnson; Freeman’s gone, but Murray’s back; Purcell and Reid remain, and DeJohnette adds synthesizer to his arsenal. Johnson’s standout arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood,” with its thick horn chords in the drumless intro and outro, is the closest things get to jazz tradition on mostly the pop-flavored Album Album. The rollicking “New Orleans Strut” even sounds like it includes an uncredited rhythm box. Even as DeJohnette incorporates sounds from around the world, though, the spirit of jazz — of searching, and of swing — remain strong.