It's the first week of the new year, and it's a busy one, musicwise and otherwise. Coming off a solidly lengthy "winter break"--it felt a little like college again--filled with good people (for one: a dear old comrade, now living overseas, payed a visit with his girlfriend) and a healthy amount of doing-nothing time.
The coming weekend was supposed to be all about ALL. Sadly, the shows--which I had previewed in this week's TONY--have been cancelled, a fact I find mildly devastating. I really hope that whatever's ailing one of the greatest drummers alive abates soon. Fortunately the Winter Jazzfest lineup looks stellar.
[Jack DeJohnette pic: courtesy Celebrities Playing Table Tennis (!)]
Re: Jazzfest, I warmed up with Jack DeJohnette & Co. at Birdland last night. (Thanks to Steve for the multiple Twitter tips [e.g.] on this gig--I didn't even realize it was going down.) A great set, and I encourage you to head down tonight or tomorrow, even if it means missing a bit of WJF. I'd never caught DeJohnette live before, and that was a major draw, but I think what really enticed me was the backing band: Rudresh Mahanthappa on sax, David Fiuczynski on guitar (double-necked!), George Colligan on keys (w/ some serious MIDI vibes, simulating harpsichord, harmonium, organ, etc.) and Jerome Harris on acoustic bass guitar. I wasn't disappointed.
During the first few minutes of the opening tune, "One for Eric"--a classic that debuted on the fantastic Special Edition album in 1979--I was struck by how turbulent the improvising was. Whenever I'm hearing challenging or abstract jazz in a club like Birdland, I can't help but feel for those tourist-types who may have wandered in unawares in search of smooth dinner music. I'll just say I was glad I wasn't dining last night. DeJohnette really smacks the drums, and on "One for Eric" he laid down a rocky, free-time landscape once the solos got going. (He saved the incredibly supple and intricate low-volume swing for the bass solo.)
But the cool thing about DeJohnette as a bandleader and composer is that he makes that kind of wildness feel accessible and fun. The set closer, "Ahmad the Terrible," with its knotty melody and carnival-esque acceleration, registered more like off-the-wall party music than anything foreboding. And even during the prickly unaccompanied Mahanthappa solo--surely the out-est moment of the evening--that preceded the tune, DeJohnette flashed a few grins at Harris, which took a little of the edge off.
The drummer really knows how to construct a set. Last night, in addition to the bookend classics mentioned above, we got "Music We Are," a killer ballad with DeJohnette rocking the melodica in fine, yearning style--weirdly, his sound on the instrument reminds me of the beautiful synth-harmonica theme that accompanies the underwater level on the classic Super Nintendo game Donkey Kong Country--and some chaotic rubato poetry, "Dearly Beloved"-style, from the ensemble. Then, "Spanish Seven," a fast Latin-y romp in said time signature that built into a nasty sort of fusion, part electric-Miles funk and part jaunty klezmer. (I remember Colligan riding the groove with unhinged glee.) And "Ahmad" concluded with an odd Indian-music breakdown, with Colligan providing faux-harmonium and Harris on otherworldly vocals, a little like the higher pitched Tuvan stuff demonstrated here.
So it was all pretty out there but also down to earth. Challenging, but without any stone-faced self-importance. Flashy and occasionally even a bit gimmicky in its eclecticism, but not watered down. You left feeling like you'd been in good, honest hands. And somewhat unexpectedly, with less recollection of the individual players than of the band as a single organism. Wouldn't wanna deny props to Mahanthappa's solos (nimble and peppery, with a lot of sublimated freakiness) or Fiuczynski's (effortlessly classy on the fretted guitar neck, sproingy and slightly alien-sounding on the fretless one), but DeJohnette's concept(s) prevailed, and it was one all the sidemen got behind wholeheartedly. I don't know DeJohnette's full discography well enough to tell you how unprecedented this group's sound is within his catalog--in a Voice blurb, Jim Macnie alludes to a 1989 album called Audio-Visualscapes that I haven't heard--but I really think someone should record this band.