Ever since he first came to public prominence in the mid-‘60s, drummer Jack DeJohnette has consistently dwelt in jazz’s leftfield: whether as part of Charles Lloyd’s psychedelic crossover band; in Miles Davis’s epochal, proto-fusion outfits; or as leader on numerous ‘multi-directional’ ECM albums. So, it’s somehow reassuring to find that, four decades on, despite immense stature as one of the greatest drummers in jazz and a major figure in the history of the music, he’s resisting the temptation to bathe in comfortable glory with the Lincoln Centre Neo-Cons. His latest album finds him still pushing at the boundaries, avoiding the obvious and generally tearing the house down.
Recorded live at Seattle’s Earshot festival in October 2001, The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers documents DeJohnette’s first musical meeting with another modern legend, guitarist Bill Frisell, and sizzles with the thrill of spontaneous exploration, with the emphasis on open-ended, non-idiomatic improvisation. The album is peppered with short, sonic vignettes and you can virtually hear the grins on the musicians’ faces as they goad and dare each other through these brief but intense bursts of imagination, all of which have been retrospectively awarded humorously apt titles. Thus, “The Garden of Chew-Man-Chew” is a piece of oriental tinkering with Frisell’s prepared banjo sounding like a Japanese koto; “Cat and Mouse” is a tense, argumentative banjo and percussion stand-off; “Through the Warphole” uses trippy guitar effects to create a disorientating vortex of noise; “Cartune Riots” is a chaotic barrage of kinetic sound effects; and “One Tooth Shuffle” conjures up a decrepit hillbilly porch jig with its broken banjo and scrapyard percussion.
For all its spontaneity, however, the main meat of the album can be found in a handful of longer tracks that have grown out of prepared themes—basic musical settings used as springboards to extended investigations and where, with the benefit of some unobtrusive bass synth programming, the duo impressively manages to whip up all the power of a full band.
The atmospheric title track, opening the album, feels like the most obvious reference to DeJohnette’s pioneering work as the powerhouse centre of those world-shaking Miles Davis bands of the early ‘70s—a slow-burning, 11-minute, jazz-rock rumble that showcases Frisell’s crisp electric guitar. Frisell’s sound is utterly unmistakeable in the opening minutes, tossing out elusive, momentary licks with a countrified twang, which seem to disappear almost before they’ve fully formed, like smoke uncurling from a cigarette. As the track builds momentum, Frisell’s sound gets a harder, rockier edge but manages to pull back from the usual, overblown clichés of fusion virtuosity, instead using well-placed loops and effects to play down technique in favour of an overall mood. Likewise, DeJohnette eschews drum pyrotechnics, sticking close to the beat but making perfect use of his famously fluid sense of time to keep things interesting, with waves of intensity ebbing and flowing.
Elsewhere, “Entranced Androids” uses a heavily processed, electronic-sounding guitar and insistent, machine-like drum patterns to set up a strange robotic electro-groove over which Frisell still manages somehow to lay down some decidedly funky lines. “Otherworldly Dervishes” combines heavy drums, a squelchy bass synth, echo-heavy rock guitar and flickering electronic effects to create a kind of crunching, 21st century fusion. And on “Ode to South Africa”, sprightly drumming and an Afrobeat guitar riff set up an upbeat, optimistic, African vibe over which Frisell lets rip with an inventive and lyrical guitar solo. The tune ends with DeJohnette’s wordless vocal chant sounding like the rebirth and regeneration South Africans have been striving for all these years.
The set’s rounded out with two closely-related, more-or-less solo piano pieces, “Storm Clouds and the Mist” and “After the Rain”, in which DeJohnette returns to his first instrument to conjure up rolling banks of clouds, ending the album with a moment of quiet beauty, the sun coming out when the tempest has passed.
You’ve got to hand it to Jack. This album is released on his own Golden Beams label, an imprint that he set up last year in order to bypass the whims of pigeon-hole obsessed major record companies and release his work in a variety of areas—from drum and bass grooves to New Age meditation music. He’s 64 this year and shows no sign of slowing down. If this new album is anything to go by, there are ple