Jack DeJohnette’s drumming has helped propel many of the greatest combos in the evolution of jazz. He’s probably best known for cutting funk-rock beats behind Miles Davis on fusion landmarks like Bitches Brew and Live-Evil. Yet DeJohnette also put impressionistic swing into Keith Jarrett’s three-decade standards trio, joined Ornette Coleman and Pat Metheny in the free-jazz summit Song X, and made notable albums with Charles Lloyd, Michael Brecker and Sonny Rollins. And fewer people realize that among his work with jazz giants, including his diverse projects as a bandleader and composer, DeJohnette briefly played with John Coltrane in the sax icon’s mid-’60s ensemble.
“My first time playing with him was being in the right place at the right time, in a small club in Chicago, when Elvin [Jones] was late for the last set,” says DeJohnette, 73. “The owner told Coltrane that I was a good drummer and let me sit in. So I got to play three tunes with the quartet.
Of course that was a very confidence-building experience.”
Today, his projects include a trio with Coltrane’s son, sax scion Ravi Coltrane, and electric bassist Matthew Garrison, whose father, Jimmy, also played acoustic bass in the John Coltrane Quartet. “You can see a continuation of the musical legacy,” the drummer says, “but it’s also trying to accomplish a musical voice as an entity, as the three of us.”
They just recorded an album for April release on the ECM label as DeJohnette-Coltrane-Garrison. And the trio plays the Berklee Performance Center on Dec. 4, mixing what the drummer calls “spontaneous improvised pieces” with originals and standards, including pop tunes. “We have a chemistry, a spiritual connection and a love for all kinds of music,” DeJohnette says from a hotel in central France. “The last time, we played [Yes’] ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ against a Charlie Parker segment, so we kind of morphed both of them. It’s free, but it also has discipline.”
The group also applies technology. “Matthew’s very adept with electronics and uses a computer for his bass, and I have some electronic gadgets that I use for percussion,” says DeJohnette, who adds acoustic piano, while Coltrane swaps tenor, soprano and sopranino saxophones. “So there’s a lot of different colors.”
DeJohnette has played piano with other projects, but in April, he’s also releasing his first solo piano album, Return, on the French vinyl-only label Newvelle. “I have my own voice,” he says of his original instrument from classical studies as a child. DeJohnette led small jazz groups as a pianist around his native Chicago before he was drawn to a kit that his drummer hadn’t taken home. “My uncle was a jazz DJ, so I had access to a lot of jazz records,” he says. “Within a month, I developed coordination on [drums] and just kept working at it. I practiced four hours on drums and four hours on piano, and over time, I started working on both.”
Even when he plays tightly tuned drum heads and cymbals at his kit, DeJohnette tends to punctuate the music with melodic and percussive tones that reflect the orchestral approach of a pianist. “It’s like a painter with a palette,” he says. “I think of myself more as a colorist than a drummer.”
That palette has only grown broader in recent years. In 2009, DeJohnette finally won a Grammy, clinching Best New Age Album with his meditative Peace Time, flowing with the ambient sounds of hand percussion and flute-like synthesizer. He hit another extreme this past January with the release of Made in Chicago, a free-blowing live set with avant-garde hometown peers Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richards Abrams. And that was a far cry from 2012’s Sound Travels, which featured singers and Latin rhythms—and a new generation of musicians led by the Grammys’ 2011 Best New Artist, Esperanza Spalding.
“I learn from the younger musicians too,” DeJohnette says. “It’s part of the tradition. Like any art form, you pass things on, and you exchange.”