Music

Jack DeJohnette: Sound Travels

Jack DeJohnette has done it all. Time for him to have a little fun.


Jack DeJohnette

Sound Travels

Label: Golden Beams/Entertainment One
US Release Date: 2012-01-17
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Jack DeJohnette needs no introduction and, in the year 2012, has even less to prove. When it comes to collaborations, composition, recording, and performing, the legendary and near-peerless drummer and composer has touched on everything. And this the year that DeJohnette, in addition to turning 70 years of age, receives a highly prestigious award from the National Endowment for the Arts. What does the man have left to do? Well, for starters, one can return to the simple joys. In a PopMatters interview late last year, Jack DeJohnette briefly reflected on what it is that has kept him interested in music all these years; a love of the groove and tuneful melodies. Sounds like a good starting point for a new album. Sound Travels may not contribute new and radical ideas to Jack DeJohnette's overall canon of works, but it is a fun, catchy by-product of his "me-time," relaxed and competing for nothing.

Jack DeJohnette has played with pretty much everybody. If you were to try and process the number of artists with whom he has truly collaborated, not just keeping time for a song or two, your head might blow up. DeJohnette throws his lasso wide on Sound Travels, roping in rising star trumpeter Abrose Akinmusire, bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist Tim Ries, and percussionist Luisito Quintero for his core band. Handling drums and piano, Jack DeJohnette spins out a fairly diverse set of tunes that waste no time getting to the point. As far as modern jazz albums go, this one's got a bit more brevity – nine songs in 46 minutes. Not quite hit-it-and-quit, but pretty close.

In DeJohnette's professed love of the groove, he loves to play with rhythms. The lime-sprinkled "Salsa for Luisito" (written in honor of his colleague) and the Blue Note reminiscent "New Muse" chug along to an odd-numbered beat that's more playful than showy. "New Muse", in particular, throws this listener every time since the "Song For My Father"-like horn line and the complex drumming seem to belong to two different songs. "Sonny Light" is a little more rhythmically straightforward, though the melody sounds just as meticulously strung together as the other selections. Written as a light-hearted homage to Sonny Rollins, "Sonny Light" splashes in the tropical waves with such nylon stringed flair from Loueke that you can almost reach out and touch your Mai Tai.

Guest vocalists also provide Sound Travels with the feeling of a jazz-pop album. Although Spalding plays bass on a majority of the songs, she is given a turn to scat-lite over "Salsa for Luisito". The outcome is, debatably, more succinct than the vocal melodies of her own albums. Bobby McFerrin offers a similar service to "Oneness", making child's play of the sighing lead and captivating yet simple rhythms provided by DeJohnette's piano. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that his voice is startlingly pure. For someone who hasn't paid any attention to McFerrin for the last 20 years or so, I have to admit I really enjoy this track. The guest vocalist appearance that sticks out is from Bruce Hornsby, though it shouldn't in theory. Hornsby and DeJohnette have worked together before, but the song that DeJohnette wrote for their occasion feels very much at odds with the rest of Sound Travels. DeJohnette came up with the music for "Dirty Ground" first before handing it over to Hornsby for lyrics. Again, it's a tricky rhythm juxtaposed with a deceptively simple set of chords, prompting DeJohnette to liken it to Levon Helm. And sure enough, Hornsby has a "lamb to slaughter" lyric in his ode to the persevering spirit of New Orleans. He even assures the listener that "We'll be ready / Next time when the hurricane comes."

Sound Travels appropriately begins and ends with Jack DeJohnette all by himself. This is his hour, his digs, the things that make him happy. "Enter Here" is like the start of a grand tour of one's home, and "Home" is the farewell-for-now conclusion. Producer Robert Sadin and Entertainment One label boss Chuck Mitchell have fortunately encouraged the living legend to make an album celebrating catchy jazz's purest qualities -- with no bones about it.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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