Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham UK
The drummer introduced his tune Monk’s Plumb with an anecdote for the packed hall. He had once played with Thelonious Monk for four nights, but the pianist had said not a word to him in that time. When he asked a fellow band-member if Monk had given any feedback, he was told Monk had just one comment: “Jack DeJohnette’s craaazeee!”
In his 70th year DeJohnette is still crazy, or rather he is still doing crazy things with time, with rhythm, with accented beats, and with the overall balance of a band, though that last named might also have had to do with the sound engineer and the acoustics of the hall.
The band was a quintet of three youngish men and two more mature players. His fellow grey-hair was the saxophonist/clarinettist Don Byron, on piano was George Colligan, on guitar Marvin Sewell, and on bass, the new addition to the band, Michael Mondesir. They were stretched out in a wide arc across the stage with the generous drumkit of the leader at the centre.
And the drums were central to the sound, too. DeJohnette began with a relatively simple pattern played from low toms to high, which was not only an example of how a melody could be played on drums but harmony as well, via simultaneous strikes on two different skins.
This built into Blue, and each player had a chance to build a substantial solo. It was easier to hear the first halves of these than the second, since DeJohnette gradually stirred up the percussion cauldron in each to such an extent that the drums became the solo instrument and the rest of the band a backing.
This at least is what it sounded like from the third row – of course the balance may have been more equitable further back but that begs the question: surely the sound should be right no matter what seat you are sitting in.
Certainly the balance improved as the single 90-minute set progressed.That Monk-inspired piece (the set comprised five DeJohnette compositions) built to an extraordinary almost free group improvisation with the leader at the eye of the storm (except that in this case the eye was not a place of peace and stillness but the very heart of the turmoil).
Tango African was a real treat, with a lengthy solo electric guitar intro from Sewell which took in finger-picking, a bottle-neck and tremelo bar-work to create a highly personal and most affecting style: part West African, part Delta blues.
Byron added a sublime clarinet solo once the group piece had got going, but Colligan’s keyboard solo was completely inaudible to me among the thick blanket of sound that Sewell, DeJohnette and Mondesir had laid down (and this despite Colligan being the nearest player to me).
Written for DeJohnette’s wife, Lydia was a rich tune and once again gave rise to impressive solos from Colligan (audible this time), Byron on tenor and Sewell, while the closer, Ahmad The Terrible, was a monster of a musical finale, beginning with Byron first solo, then building with a gorgeous full tone against the band and a miracle of an improvisational line that, despite its length, never really gave up on variations of the melody. Colligan’s impressive acoustic piano solo built from a minalist base and the whole band swelled to a massed and sustained climax that was just breath-taking.
At the centre DeJohnette showed himself to be a one-man orchestra, building complex layers of rhythm, and then suddenly throwing in a new direction, a new beat to surprise both the band and the audience. Unreservedly, the sound of greatness.
You can see lots more of John Watson’s photographs, including pictures
of John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Jim Hall and many UK and European stars at this year’s London Jazz Festival. Just go to www.jazzcamera.co.uk