It may seem outlandish to call a drummer musical. For most drummers, it’s not only outlandish, it’s absurd. For Jack DeJohnette, it’s not only appropriate, it’s obligatory. DeJohnette’s playing has a near melodic sense to it that’s unparalleled. His responsiveness to the other musicians he’s playing with, not behind or under, is evident in every bar of music. The 2011 release, Sound Travels, displays his musicality in full force, and in ways I have never heard before. It starts with the first cut of solo piano. Odd, no, for an album who’s leader is a drummer?
Cut #1 opens with a single strike of a bell, then a simple piano line ensues. A quiet, tranquil intro to an album that doesn’t stop turning corners. Is that Jack playing the piano? Sure enough, it is. Did you know he plays the piano? This may not be the first recording he plays piano on, but it’s the first I’m aware of. On looking into his biography, I find his musical training started on the piano. No doubt, his pianistic foundation has been a strong influence on his drumming.
That was surprise number one. Surprise two is the variety on this album. Spanning from pop to straight ahead jazz, vocal to instrumental, political to good time blues, it keeps bringing us another flavor to taste. There is something for everyone starting with the smooth latin vocalizations by Esperanza Spalding, heard on “Salso for Luisito,” (She also plays acoustic and electric bass on the album.) and continuing with a couple of guest appearances to enliven the album. Bruce Hornsby collaborates with Jack on “Dirty Ground,” and Bobby McFerrin is featured on “Oneness.” Add to this a restrained intensity that links cut after cut into a completely integrated whole.
When you’ve been listening to someone like DeJohnette for decades, you come to have expectations. Those expectations are especially strong for someone who’s been around the block a few times. Think of your favorite artists who are of a certain age. They don’t usually break new ground. Although nothing on this album does any trailblazing from a musical stand point, it does topple a wall from a DeJohnette point of view. I’ve never heard him play piano, or sing. Is he breaking new ground? For him personally, no; for his listeners, yes. It’s refreshing to discover previously unknown talents from a well established artist. I want to stress this point. Lately too many recent releases from long established musicians have been, frankly, boring. I could give you a laundry list of my (past) favorites who have disappointed me with their latest CDs, but there’s no need. Jack seems to be reaching, searching, exploring while standing securely on safe ground. He’s pulling in talent from outside his ordinary circle to perk up his musical style, much like Miles Davis (who he played with for a few years in the late ’60s). The sidemen talent is also new to me, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Luisito Quintero on percussion, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Tim Ries on saxophone, and the previously mentioned Esperanza Spalding on bass. (Keep an eye on her.)
It proves that it’s good to get off the merry-go-round of same o’, same o’, and put some effort into finding new talent. There are seven billion people on this planet. There’s more talent out there than big media conglomerates are willing to acknowledge. All they want is safe. With safe, we get bland. But go too far out there, we can’t relate. The key is a careful balance of comfort and surprise. Jack places the fulcrum in just the right place.
Thanks, Jack, for showing us a new side of yourself. Thanks for not sitting still, or resting on your laurels, or passing off tired, old, self-repetition as if it were new. Thanks for the new voices. And thanks to the recording engineers Dave Darlington and Robert Sadin (assisted by Wayne Pooley, Robert Mallory, Connor Milton) for keeping all the dynamic range—not a lick of compression on this recording.
(||) Rating — Music : B+ ║ Performance : A ║ Recording : A ║ Jack DeJohnette, Sound Travels, eOne Music, 2011