Here’s the perfect Christmas gift for all those who were at the Jack DeJohnette concert in Birmingham’s Adrian Boult Hall a few weeks ago; or for anyone else who wants to remember how exciting jazz in the early ’80s could be.
In one of those nifty little white boxes in which ECM package their reissue collections are the albums Special Edition, Tin Can Alley, Inflation Blues and Album Album. They’re all horns plus bass and drums albums, but the personnel shifts with each disc, and while they all contain marvellous drumming from DeJohnette of course – as well as occasional piano, vocals and other stuff from the leader – each also offers its own particular and generous treats.
Special Edition is one of my favourites, for the exhilaration of hearing David Murray on bass clarinet and Arthur Blythe on alto saxophone close harmonising their lines. Peter Warren is on bass. At its heart is the 11-minute Zoot Suite which alternates a retro, rolling horn riff with some slow and rich deep harmony interludes. There are also two more strong DeJohnette originals plus Coltrane’s Central Park West and India.
Both Blythe and Murray play raucous, joyous solos throughout. It’s jazz with great heart and soul, and also with a humorous side to it.
Tin Can Alley keeps Warren but switches the horns to Chico Freeman and John Purcell. As both play a variety of reeds and woodwinds, there is great textural scope for the band to explore in four DeJohnette tunes and one from Warren.
Again, the themes have an old-time feel to their melodies, coupled with some very modern and adventurous playing. It’s tight and loose at the same time, and the horns are just as fruity and fulsome of tone despite the different men blowing them. Purcell is particularly fine on baritone saxophone.
The two saxophonists stick around for Inflation Blues, Baikida Carroll joins them on trumpet and Rufus Reid replaces Warren on bass.
Purcell plays some lovely flute and Reid’s use of electric as well as acoustic bass changes the sound. All the tunes are DeJohnette’s and they continue that mix of spikey themes and elegant ballad sections.
Album Album opens with Ahmad The Terrible, a tune DeJohnette wrote for this band but still plays today – he did it at the Birmingham gig. Reid has remained the bassist, Purcell is still there but restricted to the higher saxophones, back comes David Murray on tenor and the new boy is Howard Johnson on tuba and baritone saxophone.
All the tunes are DeJohnette’s with the exception of a richly-harmonised arrangement of Monk’s Mood by Howard Johnson. The striking thing about Monk’s Mood is how personal and identifiable the tones of Purcell, Johnson and especially Murray are when playing as an ensemble (Reid adds a fourth harmony on arco bass while DeJohnette adds a fifth on keyboard; there are no drums).
Here, and elsewhere throughout these four discs, which despite their changing personnel have a real cohesion, the spirits of Ellington and Mingus seem to be in the studio, but the music has all kinds of other influences too, from R & B to blues, rock to swing.
So let’s raise a glass to Jack in his 70th birthday year with the perfect accompaniment – this superb box set which is released in the UK on Monday.