Legendary jazz drummer and composer Jack DeJohnette turned 80 in early August and is marking the occasion with a series of autumn concerts presented by Bardavon in and around his adopted hometown of Woodstock. In the first of these, he teams with the multiple Tony-winning dancer and choreographer Savion Glover of Bring ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk fame for a cross-art performance on Saturday, September 17 at the Woodstock Playhouse. A little more than a month later, on Saturday, October 29, DeJohnette reunites with perhaps his closest collaborator over six decades at the forefront of modern jazz, the great bassist/composer Dave Holland, also at the Playhouse. The democratized, improvisational trio setting is one of jazz music’s most sacred spaces, and on this date, Jack and Dave will be joined by the virtuoso pianist Jason Moran in a role that might have been played by Keith Jarrett or by the late guitarist John Abercrombie in previous decades.
Finally, in a keynote show just announced last week, DeJohnette takes the stage at UPAC on Thursday, December 15 for a trio performance with bassist Matthew Garrison and the famous pianist/composer/bandleader Jon Batiste, a Marsalian figure from the twin auspices of New Orleans and Juilliard. Like Wynton, Batiste boasts a personality and a formal gravitas sturdy enough to accept being the public face of jazz while commanding deep respect from those within the tradition. Still, one gets the feeling that on December 15, there will be little question about who’s boss.
Despite appearances, these concerts do not comprise any kind of white-tie, National Treasure Designation event in DeJohnette’s honor, much less a capstone or a send-off. Words like importance, influence, eminence, legendary, giant, hall of fame, and Grammy tend to dry up and flake off instantly when you try to paint them on Jack. It’s not that they are not accurate; of course they are. But they are the wrong frame through which to appreciate DeJohnette and his ongoing significance. Those words come from the lexicon of achievement, posterity, and the Great Man theory. Here’s a great man, indeed, but the Rushmore mindset and curatorial process is inherently at odds with the homely Zen of jazz—a graven monument to the masters of just letting it all go with the wind? And Jack is, if nothing else, the very embodiment of the Zen of jazz.
Honestly, it’s hard to say anything culminative about DeJohnette without resorting to hysteria and a mad froth of superlatives. So here we go. He’s a master’s master, an eternal beginner, a pivotal nexus in the history of modern jazz and modern music. I sit here now—the deep music of the Gateway Trio playing in the background and importuning again and again. I am scanning DeJohnette’s six-decade discography as both leader and sideman, and it is beyond impressive, beyond intimidating. It is an exercise in awe and despair—the same kind of awe and despair I might feel when pulling up on the Rockies or the ocean or the Great Plains. The dutiful capitalism-conditioned experiential consumer in me wants to own it, claim it, collect it; wants, in fact, to eat it on a certain metaphysical level, eat the landscape, integrate it so deeply that it becomes my secret power. But I can’t. My holes just aren’t big enough to encompass it. It will never be mine.
So, yeah, that’s Jack. But the one resonant word that keeps popping up for me is freedom. From the very first time I heard (and did not understand) his playing, as a teenager, freedom was its definitive spirit to my ears: Freedom in his staggering four-limb independence and ability to go anywhere with time and with timbre, oftentimes seeming to play in a way that is free, even, from pattern;  freedom with the rules of engagement and ensemble communication in jazz, a deeply giving sensitivity and responsiveness coupled with a broad stroke of bombast and the willingness to initiate and to drive. In the marketplace, it’s his freedom from genre and typecasting, freedom from all external attempts to delimit and categorize his purview.
Freedom was a keyword in his career from the very beginning. Before rising to national awareness as a member of the iconoclastic (and still at it) saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s New York-based quartet in the late ‘60s, the Chicago native DeJohnette had already played a vital role in the foment of modern jazz and, specifically, the controversy of free jazz.  After switching from piano to drums, the young DeJohnette got right to work in Chicago. While he is not often listed among the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he was a first-call drummer for many of that set of jazz visionaries and polemicists, such as Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell. Further, the young DeJohnette performed frequently with the great trickster Sun Ra, and fortune shone on him early in his career in the several dates he played with late-period Coltrane in the mid-‘60s.
In music, freedom speaks several languages. It is not always brash and defiant. And this starts to get at what is unique about DeJohnette. There is the freedom of the intimate small ensemble, in which each player is an equal and empowered voice and the soloist/backing player paradigm is nowhere to be found. Jack’s reputation as an empathic, giving chamber jazz player begins with a stint with the Bill Evans trio in the late ‘60s and comes to full fruition in his decades of work in the Gateway Trio and in Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio with the late bassist Gary Peacock (does any player in jazz history have more musical soulmates than Jack? Doubt it.) Additionally, he is one of the foundational artists of Manfred Eicher’s ECM label, known for its impressionistic though not always placid jazz aesthetic and its direct connection to modernist classical music. Many of Jack’s finest sessions as leader and composer are on ECM.
But then there is that other side, Jack of the literally broad strokes, the bold and transgressive player, drawn to “you can’t do this” scenarios, schooled in the strategies and upset-the-cart values of the avantgarde. In one of the most striking and sudden reversals in music history, DeJohnette passed directly from Bill Evans’ delicate, exploratory (and world famous) piano trio to the Miles Davis band that was about to cut Bitches BrewJack JohnsonOn the Corner, and several intervening live albums. In Jack, Miles found his man to drive the flagrant violations of that first wave of jazz rock fusion.
You can take this sense of DeJohnette and analyze his discography in these terms. Warning: you’ll be here all day, because his credit list is nonpareil. But no one is summing up Jack DeJohnette’s career just yet. Suffice it to say that the same inner/outer duality is in evidence in these three fall shows—one a conversation with time-honored intimates, another a brash cross art-collision with a young (ish) and willing dancer. And in the final one, Jack owns his mainstage legacy, embracing formal ambassadorial status, posing for Rushmore and passing batons while he is still very much up and running. It is all just Jack being Jack.
For tickets and additional information, see https://www.woodstockplayhouse.org, or Bardavon.org.









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© 2022 Ulster Publishing
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