Jack DeJohnette has been a modern jazz fixture for so long that it’s easy to forget about his origins. The context for the Made in Chicago goes way back to his beginnings. I’m not talking about his first album as a bandleader with the Complex or his drumming on Bitches Brew, we need to go back even further to his ties with the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and the Chicago jazz scene. DeJohnette studied at Wilson junior college with none other than pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and multi-reedsmen Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. If you know any of those three names then you know that those guys are nuts. Middle-of-the-road for Abrams, Mitchell and Threadgill is still pretty out-there, even when compared to most of DeJohnette’s work. But when Jack DeJohnette was given the opportunity to choose any music he wanted for the Chicago Jazz Festival, he opted to work with those guys and bassist and Larry Gray. The result is the ECM monster album Made in Chicago, recorded at the amphitheater in Millennium Park. Abrams, Threadgill, and DeJohnette contribute one composition apiece while Mitchell brings two. The final track, “Ten Minutes” (which actually lasts only six minutes) is a full group improvisation where all five get songwriting credit. All things considered, Made in Chicago is an aggressively great album, both crazy and tender in its art.
Part of admiring this album is being familiar with the crack-crazy dream team of a lineup. The other angle for admiring it — the listening — isn’t going to come cheap. All of these songs are long (the aforementioned “Ten Minutes” is the shortest thing here) and the most challenging number here is the lengthiest. It also comes first. Roscoe Mitchell, probably the most confrontational musician of the quintet, wrote the near 17-minute hurricane “Chant”. Mitchell and Threadgill trade sea-sickening eighth-note figures, rolling up and down and up and down. Jack DeJohnette’s parts certainly aren’t going to make you an less ill with the furious fills that rarely resolve. The dynamics stay at full throttle so good luck trying to sneak nap in while listening to “Chant”.
Probably the most graceful song on Made in Chicago is the one written by DeJohnette himself, “Museum of Time”. Being a pianist himself, Jack DeJohnette helps make Muhal Richard Abrams the center of attention on this sprawling, anchorless yet elegiac piece. Abrams sort of returns the favor with his “Jack 5” which happens to kick off with a drum solo. Oddest of all, both Threadgill and Mitchell stay silent for approximately half of Threadgill’s original “Leave Don’t Go Away”. It could be that, since his Zooid band doesn’t have a pianist, he felt the need to indulge himself by letting Abrams dominate the bulk of the piece. Besides, Mitchell and Threadgill have more than sax skills to show off with Threadgill occasionally switching to bass flute and Mitchell picking up either his sopranino sax, soprano sax, baroque flute or bass recorder. “This”, Mitchell’s other composition, is just as bewildering as “Chant” though its abstract nature makes it more difficult to understand why. But low-register flutes and bowed bass at least make the sounds enjoyable.
Speaking of bowed bass, it’s easy to overlook a guy like Gray on a release like this one — not because his playing is generic or boring, but because it’s so easy to be star-struck by the lineup that surrounds him. But as a rule of thumb, if a guy like DeJohnette asked a guy like Gray to play in a band like this, that should be endorsement enough. You don’t ask any old nobody to play bass alongside Jack DeJohnette, Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, and Muhal Richard Abrams. DeJohnette, Threadgill, Mitchell and Abrams are no ordinary band and Made in Chicago is not one of your run-of-the-mill post-bop releases. It’s an electrifying concert, a rare reunion (a word that sounds too trite at the moment) and a far out aggregate. How could you lose?