The new four-CD ECM set of Jack DeJohnette’s recordings with his group, Special Edition—a Special Edition of Special Edition’s music—is cause to rejoice and to look more deeply at a formative period in the life of a musician, now 70, who was named an NEA Jazz Master last year. It’s also a window into a moment of creative ferment for a group of musicians, all grounded in jazz and each bent on exploding conventions. This set brings together Special Edition’s four studio recordings: 1979’s “Special Edition,” 1980’s Tin Can Alley, 1982’s Inflation Blues (which has not previously been released in CD form) and 1984’s “Album Album.”
DeJohnette’s achievements can no more easily be confined to a given style than a single instrument. As bandleader, his various ensembles have expressed various inclinations. Though he mostly leads from behind a drum kit, he’s likely to play some piano during a performance or to pick up a melodica for a tune. As a sideman, his drumming helped spark jazz’s plugged-in fusion (including Miles Davis’s 1970 classic, “Bitches Brew”), has upheld its acoustic traditions (nearly 30 years in Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio), and remains a go-to element for veterans and rising stars alike. He is a sensitive partner in duos (with guitarist Bill Frisell and kora master Foday Musa Suso, among others) and within collectives (he first recorded “Oneness” in 1995, with guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Dave Holland, in the leaderless Gateway Trio). DeJohnette’s drumming has force enough to create driving rhythms and requisite delicacy for the subtlest nuance. He is both the source of what Davis called, in his 1989 autobiography, “a certain deep groove that I just loved playing over,” and a Grammy Award winner in the New Age category for his meditative 2008 CD “Peace Time.”
By 1979, DeJohnette was recording for Manfred Eicher, whose ECM label is known for finely detailed recordings. “I could hear my drums as I never had before,” DeJohnette told me for a Wall Street Journal piece last year timed to his NEA honor. “My touch began to change. There was more delicacy to it.” Beginning with his debut as a leader, 1969’s “The DeJohnette Complex” (Milestone), DeJohnette displayed an innovative streak as bandleader: The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Lester Bowie had been a charismatic contributor to DeJohnette’s free-thinking New Directions. DeJohnette formed Special Edition at the tail end of New York’s Loft scene, and drew on some of the most expressive and original players on that front. Special Edition had a revolving membership, including: David Murray, who played tenor sax and bass clarinet in the group, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman (tenor sax, bass clarinet and flute) and Howard Johnson (tuba and baritone saxophone). With these players, DeJohnette revealed the true breadth of his creativity on these albums, via hiswide-ranging compositions and his playing on trap set congas, timpani, keyboards, piano and melodica.
Here’s how he described this band for Bradley Bambarger, whose extensive notes are illustrated in the set’s booklet with some very cool black-and-white photos:
“In a lot of ways, these Special Edition albums are storytelling records. I’ve always been drawn to music that speaks a universal language. In Africa and Spain and the Middle East, they don’t necessarily separate folk music from art music. Much of that music is used as a template to improvise on, drawing on simple melodies that speak to people and that you elaborate on to tell your individual story. At that time, I also wanted to experiment, to come up with something that was different. Of course, it’s easy to just say, “Come up with something different.” The challenge is to come up with something different that also makes sense and communicates to people.”
Image/Isio Saba/ECM Records