Jack DeJohnette: Music from the Hearts of the Masters

Jack Dejohnette
Music from the Hearts of the MastersMusic in the Key of Om
Golden Beam

Fans may rightly dread the proliferation of artist imprints, record label subgroups dedicated to a single musician’s personal vision. Like the Travolta movie Battlefield Earth or P. Diddy’s line of clothes, these artist imprints scream “Vanity!” and are rarely a good thing.

But the first two releases from Golden Beams, jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette’s imprint, move away from vanity. In fact, they take the emphasis away from Mr, DeJohnette as a virtuoso or composer, in different ways.

Music from the Hearts of the Masters is essentially a Foday Musa Suso album — a piece of nearly straight African music. Jazz is not African any more than it is French or English. Still, jazz musicians like Jack DeJohnette have been understandably drawn to Africa and its music, journeying to their origins because unlike jazz’s important European roots, the African sources for jazz are not taught in schools, not readily notated, and not generally accessible in New York or St. Louis or Chicago. It’s equally understandable that these musicians are tempted to record with great African musicians or to try their hand at playing African music.

This recording of duets between the African kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso and DeJohnette is a lovely if slightly uneasy example of African music flavored with a jazz drummer’s instrument and instincts. Suso defines every song through each dimension, melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically, with DeJohnette finding his way into the songs then essentially playing jazz-style rhythmic variations where appropriate. But because DeJohnette is such a brilliant accompanist and sympathetic musician, he resists the temptation to simply play a Buddy Rich-like solo over each track. As a result, most of the record finds DeJohnette in the African bag genuinely, but somewhat unremarkably.

The main event here is Suso. Playing, singing, using digital effects to create bass lines and repeating effects, he weaves web after web of polyrhythmic stringed groove. Like a crew of African drummers, he sets up looping structures that allow him to play variations that are constantly shifting. The debt of the loop-happy “minimalist” composer Steve Reich to African music is apparent as you hear Suso do his thing. Unlike European music, African music is essentially vertical, piling layers on top of itself rather than spinning variations forward. Suso’s variations are subtle and progressive, changing slightly over time and keeping a steady sense of dynamics and tempo. As a result, Music from the Hearts of the Masters is essentially meditative and calming in tone. Unlike both jazz and European music, it does not tell a story with a set-up, development and a climax. Like a constantly moving spiral it draws us down to its essence rather than out to its conclusion.

In this situation, Jack DeJohnette does what he should do. He plays with a similar dynamic regularity; not building the music up over time but allowing it to phase shift and spin before our eyes (ears?). Anyway, it spins. If you love DeJohnette’s jazz groups or know his work with Miles or Keith Jarrett or Gateway, then you have to readjust your ears. No explosions here. No roaring. No sense of forward momentum or “swing”. Jack grooves away at the center of Suso’s tunes, playing it African straight.

Which is not to say this is pure, traditional African music. The main thing that DeJohnette brings is the unique use of the American drum kit. What we think of as a single instrument (drums) is, of course, a collection of several percussion instruments into a single, rather ingenious contraption. In jazz, DeJohnette is known as a singular master of several elements of the kit (particularly his snare work) and an expert at all. Though his virtuosity from a jazz point-of-view is tightly constricted here, the use of the whole kit is unusual in African music of this kind.

Normally we might be used to hearing several hand percussionists perform with a kora player. The use of layers of hand percussion in African music creates a constantly sliding rhythmic carpet on which the kora player can ride and dance. Having a singe kit drummer lessens the degree of pure polyrhythm, but increases the unity of the percussion side of the conversation. As a result, despite his subtlety, DeJohnette can truly engage Suso in conversation throughout much of this disc. It’s nothing like the conversation between, say, John Coltrane and Elvin Jones, but it still brings a slice of the jazz give-and-take to this African music.

The simultaneous release on Golden Beams is a different example, though it shares the quality of hypnotic focus. Music in the Key of Om is literally meant to induce snoozing. But I don’t mean that as criticism. It is music specifically designed for meditation, massage, relaxation and mental refreshment. It is both less and more than that New Age hoo-hah. It is dead-to-rights healing music. Breathe in. Breathe out. There you go.

That this music was made by one of the most dynamic and exciting jazz drummers of the last 40 years is perhaps merely a curiosity. DeJohnette played with Miles Davis, creating the hypnotic but dirty thump that powered Bitches Brew. He powered bands of ash-can funk and Cadillac swing, not to mention wired up fusion power. Never once did he go soft or play the easy way. So it’s somewhat hard to imagine him playing mind-mush stuff.

But maybe, just maybe, after forty years of playing the most powerfully polyrhythmic jazz there is, after cracking stick against skin and metal for all that time, meditation is just what DeJohnette needs. His wife does massage and healing (sounds good, eh?), and she asked him to compose and perform music to put her clients into the mindset for relaxed acceptance. And he did it.

On this disc, DeJohnette plays the Korg Triton keyboard and a series of resonating bells, exclusively. The album is a single, slow-moving track that cruises along on an extended, slow-pulsing pedal-point tone. His synth delivers the “ohhhmmmm” of the title like a meditative mantra; a soothing bagpipe drone that is like a body of salt water holding you buoyant and easy. Over this drone, he plays very simple, open melodic lines with very-to-no supporting harmony. Then, with a pleasing regularity, the resonating bells are struck.

DeJohnette allows the bells to do their work. They sonically pulse in time. He lets their waved ringing float over the drone and into your spine. You let your muscles unflex. You let your mind take a massage on the waves of the bells themselves.

What? You’re telling me you’re OK, that you just need another cuppa Joe and to make one quick call on your cell before you’re ready to fly out the door to the mall so you can pass this record by to get the new Sleater-Kinney disc?

Chill out. There. That’s better.

Jack DeJohnette is still recording jazz for ECM, so Golden Beams is a platform for the other facets of DeJohnette’s talent. If you’re a huge DeJohnette fan and you just want to gobble up every aspect of his talent, these side projects could be for you. If you are a fan of African music and want to dig the way a top-rank jazz drummer will find ways to spin his trap kit around great African music, then you’re onto something. Massage specialists will enjoy the latter disc. But if you are a jazz fan who loves DeJohnette as a jazz drummer, be wary. This really isn’t jazz at all. It isn’t meant to be.

As for me, I dig it. DeJohnette has more than earned the right to play with whomever and however he likes. It’s great that he’s getting to call his own shots.

RATING 5 / 10