In 1965, via a series of dates at the Plugged Nickel, Tony Williams revealed what drums could do—how they can break down the structure, leaving forlorn fragments of a chart strewn all over the place, only to then show how it can be reconstructed, the chaos reassembled in a new order and new form. What Williams revealed, started by that rim-shot “ba-boom” of Philly Red, was that the drummer could be out front. He could guide, could create the synergy, could put a cattle prod to George Coleman’s (1964 import Live in Berlin and the fiery Four and More) or Wayne Shorter’s ass (The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel) until they played what he wanted.
Simultaneous to his role as an instigator, Williams discovered he could construct his own counter-intuitive melodies and solo the whole time, rather than at the leader’s specified stanzas, where his crooked finger pointed to fill time with a few rolls. Not a wholly new theory: New Orleans frontline brass bands from the 1910s and 1920s had been doing it. Louis Armstrong protracted what could be described as an inexorably inverted ass-over-teakettle beat from the streets of New Orleans; the afterbirth of what had risen from the blues tributaries of the Mississippi, riding the wet winds to his mildewed hometown. The percussive style of sitting back, of the beat being out of time and yet in time, of the drums being its own melody, while the brass served as its own percussion—all coming together, and stomping as a united unit of marching madness down a charnel’s adjacent boardwalk.
Williams’s first solo project on Blue Note, 1964’s Life Time, could be described as a free jazz jovial jaunt trying to pinpoint this charnel and locate the nearest sanctuary to refine the harsh edges—an apogee, a private point of realization, he never completely reaches. He asks around for directions, tries to find some alley close to the boardwalk where Sam Rivers, Gary Peacock, and Herbie Hancock can set up shop. Finally he pulls into a gas station, his car red-hot from his blown radiator, and inquires directly about Armstrong. All of which, other than some extra water and a cheap replacement radiator, comes to no avail. He stammers, slapping one tom, and then a snare. Both at the same time, with the horns and pianos proving adept in their percussive power. Williams was exploring, but never reached the architectural splendor he foresaw and envisioned. However, he showed the stratum of the bedrock, documenting what sounds and possibilities his chosen instrument could manifest for other drummers.
Jack DeJohnette took notice, conjuring his own inimitable ideas. Where Williams would attack, as he continued to do with his Jimi Hendrix-influenced project Lifetime (the jazz/rock of 1969’s Emergency! with John McLaughlin and Larry Young in particular), Jack DeJohnette chose a relaxed repose—the likely product of DeJohnette’s piano background, where he learned how to communicate through a much more palatable, lambent approach. He doesn’t knock everything off of its hinges, he doesn’t lead his cadre into a cacophony worthy of spinning your finger at your temple, and he doesn’t exactly make the listener go “damn”. DeJohnette, even with Miles in 1969 and 1970 (It’s About That Time—a live outing from 1970), never gravitated towards the fatback sound of Buddy Miles or the aggressive anarchy of Tony Williams, even if those were the eponyms Davis mentioned when describing the Bitches Brew/Live-Evil electric period.
However, DeJohnette grooves with calmness. He slouches and moves the pocket with gentle geniality. He is present, but never omnipresent; allowing Davis and his cohorts the space to experiment with their Stockhausen antiphonal accents. Where Williams would have filled every ounce of space and Buddy Miles would have pounded a simple James Brown funk beat, DeJohnette skirts and skims his way along by filling the measures with quick, crisp crashes. He does it with the transparency and open euphony of, well, Keith Jarrett.
To describe his ECM Rarum compilation and the pieces he selected, Jarrett proves an apposite place to begin. A quiet contentment bordering upon religious introspection informs DeJohnette’s music, much like Jarrett’s free-form solo concerts from the mid 1970s. Both are suffused by a proximity to the beginning, to the humming big bang center before it became red shifted into scant radiation, fulfilling DeJohnette’s promise to bring “peace, warmth, and joy”. “Overture—Communion”, featuring Jarrett, and “Pictures 5 & 6”, showcasing DeJohnette on piano and drums, are calming but conversational in this way. The piano and drums interact, both accentuating the other’s ideas. When the two climb towards a crescendo, they offset each other; flying apart like a fountain’s panoply of pressurized streams cascading back into the birthplace pool below.
But DeJohnette commences the album with an enviably playful purpose, like a kid sloshing in the fountain. The opening, Caribbean strains of “Third World Anthem” provide a backdrop for the rest of the album’s contemplative, even solemn fare. Featuring a start and stop rhythm, DeJohnette at his most vocal tugs on the melody’s generic calypso triad. Jerking the three horns and bass around the islands, towards Africa, and then back to the font where John Abercombie and Dave Holland plan on taking over. They then kick the kid out, turn off the lights, and begin punching at the darkness.
DeJohnette’s greatness, as presented on Rarum XII, comes forward in how he balkanizes beats, rotates and stretches the melodies behind the guitars, pianos, and horns of these more convoluted compositions. It showcases his style of performing with a slowly surging sensibility, a style that doesn’t become apparent until the listener finds a point where he/she can reflect and document how the composition transformed from point A to point B. Here, DeJohnette is a nonpareil.