Monday, May 04, 2015

Jack Dejohnette's "Made In Chicago"

Back in the mid-'70s, when I was just dipping a toe into the jazz pool, Jack Dejohnette's Directions, with their pastel take on Miles Davis' dark mystery, provided a more listenable alternative to the rest of their fusion contemporaries' soulless chops-mongering. The leader-composer, who'd drummed with Miles on Bitches Brew, used negative space effectively in his compositions and employed a guitarist (John Abercrombie) that leaned heavily on a volume pedal to conceal his attack, resulting in a sound that flowed like water where John McLaughlin's raged like fire.

As the decade drew to a close, Dejohnette ditched the guitar and, under the rubric Special Edition, developed a gift for writing horn polyphony that, while not as exalted as, say, Julius Hemphill's, gave individuated soloists like Arthur Blythe, David Murray, and Chico Freeman (all composers and leaders in their own right) an engaging framework in which to showcase their abilities.

On his new album, recorded at the 2013 Chicago jazz festival on a day Mayor Rahm Emmanuel designated in his honor, Dejohnette presides over a quintet that includes three leading lights from the Windy City's uncompromisingly avant Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians: pianist-paterfamilias Muhal Richard Abrams and reedmen Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. (Before decamping for the East and West Coasts, Dejohnette -- who started out as a pianist -- was a college classmate of Mitchell and Threadgill's, and he was the first, but hardly the last, of their cohort to join Abrams' Experimental Band, which evolved into the AACM.) Bassist Larry Gray completes the lineup.

Historically, Dejohnette's groups have primarily played his own material (although they've also performed his reimaginings of tunes by Coltrane and Monk), but all the members of this "Special 'Legends' Edition Chicago" have compositional as well as improvisational input -- emblematic of the mutual respect between these men -- and their multi-instrumental versatility gives the unit a wide and varied tonal palette.

Mitchell's "Chant" opens with Abrams providing counterpoint to its composer's repeating triad, then spinning out intricate variations on the theme. Dejohnette opens up the time behind Mitchell's soprano solo -- a circular breathing tour de force -- with Threadgill offering more laconic commentary on top. Abrams' "Jack 5," which follows, is a moody tone poem with solo statements from Threadgill, Dejohnette, and Gray, segueing into Mitchell's similarly contemplative "This," featuring both reedmen on flutes and Gray on cello.

The leader's "Museum of Time" opens with swirling arpeggios from Abrams, punctuated by harmonized comments from Mitchell and Threadgill's altos. A beautiful, arcing melody emerges, with lengthy expositions by the pianist and Threadgill (on bass flute). Here and elsewhere, Dejohnette's traps provide a sense of forward motion without attempting to dominate the proceedings while the soloists intertwine their extemporizations. The music flows seamlessly into Threadgill's "Leave Don't Go Away," which has some of Mitchell's most impassioned playing here.

Dejohnette and company conclude the program with the relatively succinct collective improvisation "Ten Minutes" (which only runs about five minutes, title notwithstanding). The audience roars its approbation, and the whole performance is a testament to the creative vitality of men in their seventh and eighth decades -- once pioneers, now elder eminences of a music that continues to thrive and evolve.


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