Jack DeJohnette secured his place in jazz history long ago. He joined the Miles Davis band in 1968, just as the group was engaging in a slow but certain upheaval that would change the face of jazz. He had already experimented with jazz that flowed over into rock and “world music” in the Charles Lloyd Quartet, but Davis gave him the largest stage in jazz.
Historically, then, it was icing on the cake when DeJohnette turned out to be both a great leader and composer in countless brilliant dates, and then the near perfect collaborator on projects to numerous to even allude to. Keith Jarrett, Lester Bowie, Pat Metheny, Sonny Rollins …
Jack DeJohnette, in short, is one of the greatest drummers in the history of our music. He hasn’t had anything to prove for decades.
Which is likely why he has had the recent luxury of not fronting his own band. Rather, DeJohnette has been following his muse. He created his own label (Golden Beams), recorded world music with African masters, worked on soundtracks, created music for meditation, and continued to play a key role in Keith Jarrett’s “Standards Trio”. The result, however, is a sense that he has not lately created any New Major Statement. Despite his being truly prolific, true DeJohnette fans might feel hungry for something significant.
Now arrives Music We Are, a recording credited to the trio of DeJohnette, pianist Danilo Perez, and bassist John Patatucci. It is not, perhaps, the Big Project, but it is more than just another curious collaboration. This trio has been playing consistently, and DeJohnette is most assuredly at the helm. It is not just a super-high-quality piano trio, fine as that might be. Rather, Music We Are sounds suspiciously like an ambitious project, if one that can slip past you on a casual listen. By including a wide range of instrumentation and styles and fascinating compositional ambition, this recording asks the listener to dig in for something serious. It is, in short, the DeJohnette album we have been waiting for.
First, this is a trio record that takes brilliant advantage of alternate and electric instruments without being anything even vaguely like a “fusion” recording. Perez uses electric keyboard to create textural richness and, sometimes, as his solo voice. Patitucci plays electric bass where that texture or attack is the right one, and he contributes lead lines both in the upper reaches of the electric and with the bowed acoustic. And DeJohnette contributes horn-like lines on the melodica (the small keyboard instrument that you blow into, making a sound similar to a harmonica). With overdubbing — which is demonstrated in the 25-minute “making of” documentary on the included DVD — this array of optional textures helps to make Music We Are a fully realized recording that demonstrates an orchestral approach to small-group jazz.
“Tango African” by DeJohnette uses all the tools. An irresistible lick with an Arabian tinge, it is played in unison between melodica and upper-register electric bass. While Perez solos largely on acoustic piano, he also lays in both beds of chords and improvised lines on electric keyboard. All the instruments are in a continual dialogue with the drums, but there is specific sparring between Perez (electric and acoustic) and Patitucci. The melodica gets another nice workout on the piano duet “Soulful Ballad”, which asks Perez to play less like a classic jazz pianist than as a sharp accompanist on a traditional “song”. Neither of these songs is truly structured like classic “jazz”, which is precisely why they sound more purposely conceived.
DeJohnette’s “Seventh D” pieces are credited as two “movements” of a suite, and they have connected themes even as the two most grooving songs in the collection. Perez plays across a set of written harmonies, but the playing is still wide open and daring — as exciting as anything he has played in the Wayne Shorter group recently. DeJohnette sets up a rolling pattern on his toms that feels oceanic, and his solo leads quickly into a free collective improvisation. The second half is based around a swing rhythm and opens with Patatucci’s acoustic bass in the lead. Perez continues playing the same mad arpeggios when he returns, the theme now appearing over DeJohnette’s powerful ride cymbal feeling. With just the classic piano trio instrumentation, the band demonstrates a different kind of orchestral approach to jazz.
Several of the tunes are credited to all three players and sound like spontaneous compositions featuring generous amounts of silence and space. “Earth Speaks” begins with a staccato dialogue between arco bass, piano (sometimes plucked or hand-damped), and individual pieces of DeJohnette’s kit. The perfect transition into a lovely free ballad makes the piece sound as “classical” and pre-determined as anything could sound. “Earth Prayer” begins with bells and cymbals working together with overtones from the piano to create a celestial canvas of sound. Patitucci finds different sounds from his bow, and eventually he and Perez trade gorgeous chunks of melody across the open space. It’s not dinner music, but it’s undeniably beatific.
Perez and Patitucci shine as composers as well. Perez’s “Cobilla” has a punchy Latin groove with Patatucci on electric bass and chording on the electric keyboard that brings to mind certain passages from Bitches Brew. The theme does not appear until the end, which allows the whole band to tease your ears for four minutes before the payoff arrives. “White” uses both keyboards almost fugue-ally as equal partners in a very engaging theme.
Patitucci weighs in with “Michael”, a ballad that provides what might be considered the recording’s most conventional pleasures: an attractive theme, strong improvising from the piano, and sympathetic accompaniment from a rhythm section that can’t be beat. But, as it closes out Music We Are, it just underlines how effectively DeJohnette and this trio have avoided the standard jazz structures and tropes. This is not really a classic jazz trio record. It’s much better than that.
This new band, let us fervently hope, has much great music ahead of it. It is a more-than-worthy successor to the great Jack DeJohnette bands of the ’80s and ’90s, and Music We Are stands as the most complete and powerful compositional statement from the great drummer in over a decade. Which is say: wow.