Celebrating the Groove: A Conversation with Jack DeJohnette

John Garratt

With the Miles Español project still making waves, legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette sits down with PopMatters to talk about the genesis of the project, what's next for him, and why Miles once described his drumming as "a blind man falling upstairs."

If you have a functioning set of ears, you have probably heard Jack DeJohnette's drumming. The modern jazz drummer's list of credits is like a rash all over the last 40-some years of the genre: Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Joe Henderson, John Abercrombie ... and on it goes. Should you gather up every album to which he contributed stick work and dropped them in a canoe, that canoe would sink to the bottom of the creek instantly. Yet in addition to all of this sidemanship, DeJohnette has had a long, fruitful career as a bandleader/solo artist. His second-nature melding of jazz, world, and new age music will earn him a top honor next year: a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master Fellowship.

This coveted award, to be received at the Lincoln Center in January of 2012, doesn't seem to have disrupted Jack DeJohnette's life or work. He proves to be as busy as ever, with numerous projects on the horizon just as others are wrapping up. Last year, DeJohnette was approached by producer Bob Belden with an idea to pay homage to Miles Davis' Spanish side in the form of a tribute project. Under the moniker Miles Español, New Sketches of Spain began to take shape. But this is no regurgitation of the Miles Davis recording Sketches of Spain. Old and new songs are thrown into the blender and many musicians were recruited to make it stand on par with Belden's last Davis tribute project, Miles from India. Jack DeJohnette took a few moments to discuss his contributions to the project with PopMatters as how much he likes playing with other percussionists, what plans the mighty drummer has for the next couple of years, and how his upcoming 70th birthday only verifies his love of the groove -- the very same groove that Miles Davis spoke of in his autobiography.


From the title New Sketches of Spain, someone might think that this is a top-to-bottom cover of the Miles Davis album Sketches of Spain. But that's obviously not what it is. Can you tell us what it is instead?

It's an idea that [producer] Bob Belden came up with. He's been doing a lot of projects, he did Miles from India [2008 Miles Davis tribute album on Four Quartets label, featuring numerous Indian and American jazz musicians] -- which was quite different, utilizing Indian musicians. The idea of doing Miles Español was, when he talked to me, to have musicians do arrangements of some of the Gil Evans/Miles stuff. I suggested that we could do something of Miles' but also have the artists asked to do it to write original pieces which would then take into another zone. I haven't heard all the other tracks, I only heard some of the tracks that I was involved on. [Return to Forever keyboardist] Chick Corea wrote some pieces, I wrote a piece, [guitarist] John Scofield did something, there are also some Spanish musicians on it; it's kind of taken a life of its own.

What did you think of Miles from India?

I thought it was good, it was a great idea. It had to be organized, it was a lot of musicians. Actually I think [saxophonist] Rudresh Mahanthappa kind of brought that together, the live version of it. But the recording was interesting, the extensions of taking some of Miles' things and giving them some new clothes.

What did you think when you heard the original Sketches of Spain?

I thought it was a milestone recording in terms of what colors Gil Evans could get out of a band. You know, the way woodwinds and flutes would sound like strings and have a new kind of sound. Also I thought it was a big step for Miles. Miles deliberately didn't play jazz trumpet on that. He magically transformed his concept of playing the trumpet like a Spanish guitar, only thinner. And so you really got another side of Miles. He really got the vibration of the Spanish sensibility. And his improvising while playing those melodies was just phenomenal. It's still high on the list of one of my favorite records that Miles and Gil had collaborated on.

You played with Miles Davis in the late 60s and early 70s. Did he ever talk about Sketches of Spain? Did he have an attitude or a fondness looking back?

No, he never talked about it because Miles was always in the present. Miles was always "What are we doing now? What's coming next?"

In Bob Belden's liner notes for the New Sketches of Spain album, he said that when he contacted you that "he [Jack DeJohnette] knew right away what he wanted to do and with whom he wanted to do it." Can you go into any detail of who you wanted to write for and the instruments you had in mind?

The people who were available kept changing all the time, but he did give me a list of who was available. Then I chose [pianist] Chano Domínguez and [bassist] Eddie Gomez and the Spanish flautist Jorge Pardo. Then I did this piece called "Spantago" which was perfect for that, it was very modal and very much in the Spanish vein. I had worked with Chano Domínguez before in Europe, so I was very happy that he was available to do that and the piece turned out really, really well. I was really pleased with the results.

When you say that Miles played his trumpet like a Spanish guitar, it reminds me of the piano parts for your song "Spantango". It really sounds like they can be easily carried over to a nylon string guitar. Did you have something like that in mind when you wrote it?

Yeah, it could have been both. But you know, Chano has done an amazing job of transferring the flamenco to the piano. He's put down things with dancers and handclaps, so I knew what Chano would bring to this. I was really very pleased with how he approached it. And these pieces were sort of developed in the studio. A work-in-progress; sort of a collective approach to that.

Talk about your working relationship with John Scofield prior to this project.

We made a Grammy-nominated project with [pianist] Larry Goldings on an album called Saudades dedicated to [legendary fusion drummer] Tony Williams Lifetime. We've also played together with Herbie Hancock's New Standards and we've recorded and toured together.

He wrote one song for New Sketches of Spain that you played on, "El Swing." Can you give some details about that?

It was fun to play, I'd have to listen to it again to give you some comments about it!

I noticed from the credits that you play along with some congas and auxiliary percussion on some of these songs. Does anything like throw you for a loop, you being a drummer?

Absolutely not. I love to have percussion, I play and add percussion myself. [Percussionist] Luisito Quintero works with me and I work with percussionists who are team players. I don't care if it's 50 drummers or just two drummers, we have to work as a team. So it's never a problem for me. [Percussionist] Alex Acuna was great to play with. And Luisito Quintero is my buddy in terms of knowing how to play on any job. Another drummer that's really great like that was a good friend of mine who passed away, [percussionist] Don Alias.

Do you have anything to add about Alias' life and work that hasn't been said?

Don was amazing, he could play with anybody and he could play anything. He also played drums too. But he had the ability to play the congas like a jazz drummer. That's why he fit so well with other musicians, especially like me and [drumming legend and Coltrane sideman] Elvin Jones. We had sympathetic vibrations. He played with [saxophonist] Dave Sanborn and he was also in the New Standards band with [saxophonist] Michael Brecker, [bassist] Dave Holland and Scofield as well.

Talk a little bit about your new band.

It features Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, David Fiuczynski on the double-neck electric guitar, Jerome Harris on the acoustic bass and electric bass guitar and vocals and George Colligan on the electronic keyboards, acoustic piano and pocket trumpet. I've had that band for a couple of years. I'm working on putting the finishing touches on a new project that I haven't got time yet for, but it will be released in January. I'm doing this project with the help of Chuck Mitchell at eOne and I chose Bob Sadin to produce it. It's a project of all Jack DeJohnette originals and it features [bassist and singer] Esperanza Spalding, [inaudible] on guitar, [inaudible], Jason Moran, [inaudible], Bobby McFerrin, and possibly Bruce Hornsby on one of the tracks. So it's a lot of new originals, accessible compositions based on grooves. It'll be out in January, corresponding with the National Endowment for the Arts ceremonies for the Jazz Masters on January 9th and 10th at Lincoln Center.

Then I'll be doing some special things next year in the summer and fall possibly with my group and the personnel in this band on this recording. The title will be forthcoming.

I want to go back to this double-neck guitar: talk about what David Fiuczynski brings to your band.

David utilizes jazz and rock and everything else in between. He also teaches over at Berklee [School of Music] and is deeply involved in the microtonal music which he utilizes a lot in my band. The other members utilize it as well. George Colligan, with software, is able to fine-tune his keyboards so they can play microtonally. And of course Rudresh can do that with the Indian music that he brings, the Indian concepts with quarter-tone and microtonal stuff. Also, I might add that there is a digital download album of this band, Live at Yoshi's on my website. It's a good performance of the band.

Is there a sequel planned for the compilation Golden Beams Collected Volume 1?

Not at the moment. Right now this project I was telling you about will be coming out on Golden Beams [DeJohnette's independent label]. We're just doing a new distribution deal with eOne, so we want to try to get some of the back catalog to have some special sales on that.

The next project, possibly after this all-star one, hopefully will be a CD with the band.

Can you leave us with an amusing Miles Davis anecdote?

Miles used to say that my drumming sounded like a blind man falling upstairs.

Was that a compliment?

Yeah! It was something he said to me when we were playing a gig somewhere. Another quote from Miles, which was in his autobiography, that I played a groove that he just loved to play over. And that's basically what I'm celebrating. Well, I'm celebrating a few things with this new project. One is next year I'll be 70 years old in August. I'll also be celebrating the groove, my love of the groove, and tuneful melodies.

Happy 70th birthday early, and thanks for all of these years of the groove.

Okay, thanks!

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