At his best, Jack DeJohnette is one of the most consistently inventive jazz percussionists extant. DeJohnette‘s style is wide-ranging, yet while capable of playing convincingly in any modern idiom, he always maintains a well-defined voice. DeJohnette has a remarkably fluid relationship to pulse. His time is excellent; even as he pushes, pulls, and generally obscures the beat beyond recognition, a powerful sense of swing is ever-present. His tonal palette is huge as well; no drummer pays closer attention to the sounds that come out of his kit than DeJohnette. He possesses a comprehensive musicality rare among jazz drummers.
That’s perhaps explained by the fact that, before he played the drums, DeJohnette was a pianist. From the age of four, he studied classical piano. As a teenager he became interested in blues, popular music, and jazz; Ahmad Jamal was an early influence. In his late teens, DeJohnette began playing drums, which soon became his primary instrument. In the early ’60s occurred the most significant event of his young professional life — an opportunity to play with John Coltrane. In the mid-’60s, DeJohnette became involved with the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. He moved to New York in 1966, where he played again with Coltrane, and also with Jackie McLean. His big break came as a member of the very popular Charles Lloyd Quartet from 1966-1968. The drummer’s first record as a leader was 1968′s The DeJohnette Complex. In 1969, DeJohnette replaced Tony Williams in Miles Davis‘ band; later that year, he played on the trumpeter’s seminal jazz-rock recording Bitches Brew. DeJohnette left Davis in 1972 and began working more frequently as a leader. In the ’70s and ’80s, DeJohnette became something like a house drummer for ECM, recording both as leader and sideman with such label mainstays as Jan Garbarek, Kenny Wheeler, and Pat Metheny.
DeJohnette‘s first band was Compost; his later, more successful bands were Directions and Special Edition. The eclectic, avant-fusion Directions was originally comprised of the bassist Mike Richmond, guitarist John Abercrombie, and saxophonist Alex Foster. In a subsequent incarnation — called, appropriately, New Directions – bassist Eddie Gomez replaced Richmond and trumpeter Lester Bowie replaced Foster. From the mid-’70s, Directions recorded several albums in its twin guises for ECM. Beginning in 1979, DeJohnette also led Special Edition, a more straightforwardly swinging unit that featured saxophonists David Murray and Arthur Blythe. For a time, both groups existed simultaneously; Special Edition would eventually become the drummer’s performance medium of choice. The band began life as an acoustic free
jazz ensemble, featuring the drummer’s esoteric takes on the mainstream. It evolved into something quite different, as DeJohnette‘s conception changed into something considerably more commercial; with the addition of electric guitars and keyboards, DeJohnette began playing what is essentially a very loud, backbeat-oriented — though sophisticated — instrumental pop music.
To be fair, DeJohnette‘s fusion efforts are miles ahead of most others. His abilities as a groove-centered drummer are considerable, but one misses the subtle colorations of his acoustic work. That side of DeJohnette is shown to good effect in his work with Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio, and in his occasional meetings with Abercrombie and Dave Holland in the Gateway Trio. DeJohnette remains a vital artist and continues to release albums such as Peace Time on Kindred Rhythm in 2007. He returned in 2009 with the trio album Music We Are featuring pianist Danilo Perez and bassist John Patitucci. In 2012, NEA Master DeJohnette delivered the musically eclectic Sound Travels, showcasing a bevy of collaborations with such artists as Bruce Hornsby, Esperanza Spalding, and Ambrose Akinmusire, among others.
MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS
Composer, arranger, and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams is largely a self-taught musician who was deeply influenced by the bop innovations of the late Bud Powell. Abrams has been a beacon in the jazz community as a co-founder (and first president), in 1965, of Chicago’s legendary vanguard music institution, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). While Abrams is well-known as a mentor to three generations of younger musicians — born in 1930 he was a decade older than his closest peer in the AACM – as a bandleader and professor at the Banff Center, Columbia University, Syracuse University, and the BMI Composers’ Workshop, he is not always recognized for his substantial contribution as a player and recording artist. Abrams‘ first gigs were playing the blues, R&B, and hard bop circuit in Chicago and working as a sideman with everyone from Dexter Gordon and Max Roach to Ruth Brown and Woody Shaw. But Abrams‘ own recordings reveal his strength as an innovator. His 1967 debut, Levels and Degrees of Light on Chicago’s Delmark label, set the course for his own career and that of many of his AACM contemporaries, including Henry Threadgill, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Leo Smith, and Anthony Braxton. Abrams is also a conduit for the tradition. Though his music is noted for its vanguard edginess, he nonetheless bridges everything in his playing from boogie-woogie to bebop to free improv, as evidenced by Sightsong and Rejoicing With the Light, both on the Black Saint label. Abrams has been a composer that moves through the classical tradition as well. Novi, his first symphony for orchestra and jazz quartet, has been performed at various festivals, and the Kronos Quartet performed his String Quartet, No. 2.
The jazz avant-garde has produced dozens of notable improvisers (not surprisingly, since improvisation is arguably the music’s defining element) but relatively few great composers. Henry Threadgill is a member of that exclusive club. With his fellow Chicagoans Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams, he’s one of the most original jazz composers of his generation. Threadgill‘s art transcends stylistic boundaries. He embraces the world of music in its entirety, from ragtime to circus marches to classical to bop, free jazz, and beyond. Such might sound merely eclectic in the telling, but in truth, Threadgill always sounds like Threadgill. A given project might exploit a particular genre or odd instrumentation, but whatever the slant, it always bears its composer’s inimitable personality.
Threadgill is also an alto saxophonist of distinction; his dry, heavily articulated manner is a precursor to that of a younger Chicagoan, the alto saxophonist Steve Coleman (no coincidence, one would suspect). Threadgill took up music as a child, first playing percussion in marching bands, then learning baritone sax and clarinet. He was involved with the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) from its beginnings in the early ’60s, collaborating with fellow members Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell and playing in Muhal Richard Abrams‘ legendary Experimental Band. From 1965-1967 he toured with the gospel singer Jo Jo Morris. He then served in the military for a time, performing with an army rock band. After his discharge, he returned to Chicago, where he played in a blues band and resumed his association with Abrams and the AACM. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in music at the American Conservatory of Music; he also studied at Governor’s State University.
In 1971 he formed Reflection with drummer Steve McCall and bassist Fred Hopkins. The trio would re-form four years later as Air and would go on to record frequently to great acclaim. It’s 1979 album Air Lore featured contemporary takes on such early jazz tunes as “King Porter Stomp” and “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” prefiguring the wave of nostalgia that would dominate jazz in the following decade. Threadgill moved to New York in the mid-’70s, where he began forming and composing for a number of ensembles. Threadgill began showing a love for unusual instrumentation; for instance, his Sextett (actually a septet), used a cellist, and his Very Very Circus included two tubas. In the mid-’90s he landed a (short-lived) recording contract with Columbia, which produced a couple of excellent albums. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s Threadgill‘s music became increasingly polished and sophisticated.
A restless soul, he never stood still, creating for a variety of top-notch ensembles, every one different. A pair of 2001 releases illustrates this particularly well. On Up Popped the Two Lips (Pi Recordings), his Zooidensemble combines Threadgill‘s alto and flute with acoustic guitar, oud, tuba, cello, and drums — an un-jazz-like instrumentation that nevertheless grooves and swings with great agility. Everybodys Mouth’s a Book features his Make a Move band, which consists of the leader’s horns, with vibes and marimba, electric and acoustic guitars, electric bass, and drums — a more traditional setup in a way, but no less original in concept.
Roscoe Mitchell is the rare jazz musician who also moves comfortably within the realm of contemporary classical music. It might even be said that Mitchell is a more convincing artist when working in European-influenced forms, and his forays into free-time, nontonal improvisation (both structured and unstructured) are as spontaneous and as emotionally satisfying as the best jazz. Mitchell‘s improvisations exercise extraordinary discipline and intellectual rigor. He’s at once a patient and impulsive improviser, prone to alternating episodes of order and chaos, clarity and complexity. Mitchell is a technically superb — if idiosyncratic — saxophonist. His tone on alto and soprano are edgy. At his most lyrical, Mitchell‘s saxophone lines exploit the instrument’s strength as an interval-making machine; his improvised melodies often bear similarity to works by the classical composer Morton Feldman, though Mitchell‘s music is more overtly emotional. At his most energetic, Mitchell takes advantage of the saxophone’s timbral flexibility and the horn’s natural tendencies, which allow a player to play fast, scalar lines. Whether playing soft or loud, slow or fast, Mitchell‘s playing is invariably suffused with passion and intensity.
Mitchell played saxophone and clarinet as a teenager. While stationed in Germany as a member of the Army, Mitchell played in a band with tenor saxophone innovator Albert Ayler. Upon returning to the U.S. in 1961, Mitchell played bop with a group of Wilson Junior College students who included bassist Malachi Favors and saxophonists Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, and Anthony Braxton. Mitchell began listening to the recordings of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. He studied with pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams. In 1962, he began playing in Abrams‘ newly organized Experimental Band, a rehearsal group that explored many of the contemporary alternatives to conventional jazz improvisation and composition.
In 1965, he became one of the first members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a nonprofit organization established by Abrams, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall, and composer Phil Cohran. The AACM were devoted to the same principles as the Experimental Band. In 1966, Mitchell‘s sextet (with trumpeter Lester Bowie, tenor saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, bassist Favors, trombonist Lester Lashley, and drummer Alvin Fiedler) became the first AACM group to record. Abstract in concept and execution, the album, Sound (Delmark), was an in-depth examination of the interaction between sound and silence, utilizing such unorthodox devices as spontaneous collective improvisation, toy instruments, and non-musical noise. A departure from the more extroverted work of the New York-based free jazz players, Sound pointed the way to a new manner of playing jazz-based music. Around this time, Mitchell also performed and recorded as a solo saxophonist. By 1967, the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble consisted of the leader, Favors, trumpeter Lester Bowie, and drummer Phillip Wilson. That combination did not record; Wilson was replaced by Jarman, and in 1969 the group traveled to Europe. The sojourn was very successful. The band — renamed the Art Ensemble of Chicago – recorded extensively, particularly in France. The resulting albums formed the initial basis of their reputation.
Mitchell played briefly in St. Louis upon returning to the United States in 1971. He then resettled in Chicago. Around 1974 he established the Creative Arts Collective. Based in East Lansing, MI, the group was similar in purpose to The AACM. The ’70s found Mitchell expanding on his solo saxophone concept, working with his AACM cohorts in various combinations and performing with the Art Ensemble. The latter group became possibly the most highly acclaimed jazz band of the next two decades, winning critics’ polls with regularity. In the ’80s and ’90s, Mitchell also led the Sound Ensemble, who included members of his Creative Arts Collective. In the ’90s,Mitchell branched out even more, collaborating more frequently with such classical composer/performers as Pauline Oliveros and Thomas Buckner. A trio with Buckner and the virtuoso pianist Borah Bergman was an ongoing and effective unit. Since 2000, Mitchell has remained active, releasing a handful of recordings including Solo 3 in 2004 and Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 and Samsara in 2007. Beginning in the 1990s and extending into the 21st century, Mitchell has also performed and recorded extensively as the leader of his Note Factory ensemble, a group ranging in size from a sextet to a nonet; Note Factory albums include This Dance Is for Steve McCall (Black Saint, 1993), Nine to Get Ready (1999, ECM),Song for My Sister (Pi, 2002), Bad Guys (2003, Around Jazz), and Far Side (2010, ECM).
Bassist Larry Gray‘s impressive skills and uncommon versatility are aptly displayed on Appassionata by the Ramsey Lewis Trio released in the fall of 1999 by the Milwaukee, WI-based Narada Jazz label. One of Chicago’s leading musicians, Gray was the house bassist for the city’s premier jazz room, the Jazz Showcase. He has shared the stage with such jazz legends as Clark Terry, Joe Henderson, and Bobby Hutcherson, among others. Gray has performed at jazz festivals and clubs all over the world: The Umbria Jazz Festival, the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Montreaux Detroit Festival, and the Chicago Jazz Festival. Gray has studied drums, guitar, flute, guitar, and piano while earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in violoncello performance. Listen to “Nessun Dorma,” a duet between Lewis’ lush, romantic trills and the melancholy bow strokes of Gray on Appassionata. The musician has performed as a solo recitalist at various universities such as Northern Illinois University, Roosevelt University, and DePaul University where he is a member of the esteemed jazz faculty. Gray‘s versatility has led to him being on the A-list of first-call session players, with track dates with a wide range of artists: former Styx member Dennis DeYoung, Willie Pickens, Buddy Childers, and Ira Sullivan, among others.
MADE IN CHICAGO PROGRAM
Chicago’s free jazz scene of the early 1960s spawned the powerful south side collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Described as “A Power Stronger than Itself”, the AACM became a cultural innovation for black music in the crossroads of Chicago. AACM members were among the most innovative of the time, drawing from a bold mix of avant-garde jazz, classical, and world music. Made in Chicago honors AACM’s 50th anniversary under the leadership of Chicago-born NEA Jazz Master Jack DeJohnette. This extraordinary project reunites three of the greatest free jazz giants to emerge from the AACM: Muhal Richard Abrams (piano) and Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell (woodwinds). The quintet is completed by prolific Chicago bassist Larry Gray. ECM Records will release Made in Chicago in January 2015. Join part of the history that shaped contemporary American music.
“DeJohnette has assembled a dream band for his hometown, assembling three of the greatest artists to emerge from Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians: pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, and reedists Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell, players just as fiercely individualistic and peripatetic as he is (the quintet is rounded out by the great Chicago bassist Larry Gray).” -Chicago Jazz Festival