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.