For the past five decades, Chicago-born/New York-based drummer/pianist Jack DeJohnette has worked with heavyweights like Charles Lloyd, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and Miles Davis, and lead of his own daring and diverse ensembles. 2012 is DeJohnette’s most significant year to date: He received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Fellowship Award, played on Grammy award-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society recording, and featured her on his latest CD, Sound Travels; a meditative and moving, radio-friendly disc, featuring a number of young jazz stars including Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and pop pianist Bruce Hornsby. DeJohnette turns seventy on August 9th, and he will celebrate his birthday playing at the Newport Jazz Festival on August 4th.
EBONY talked with DeJohnette about the many facets of his syncopated success that puts a new spin on that old saying, “give the drummer some.”
EBONY: Talk about your upcoming Newport Jazz Festival. You must be looking forward to it.
Jack DeJohnette: I’m doing three performances: one with my working quintet, The Jack DeJohnette Group, Then I’m going to a duet with pianist Jason Moran, who is also the artistic adviser to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC – he’s doing some great things for the music. And then, we’re going to do some of the music from Sound Travels, with an all-star group with Christian McBride on bass, Luisito Quintero on percussion, Lionel Louke on guitar, Tim Ries on the saxophone and trumpeter, Jason Palmer.
EBONY: You played in many musical idioms, jazz, rock, world music, and fusion. How do you tie all of those diverse forms together with your drums?
JD: It depends on the musicians I use and the music I’m playing. Like, for instance, with Keith [Jarrett], we tend to play a lot of Middle Eastern, Turkish, North African grooves. So I have my drums tuned up in a high register like a dumbek or a hand drum or bongos. I like playing hand drums and I like working with hand drummers. And when there’s not another one around, I try to incorporate that in my playing.
EBONY: Speaking of working with hand drummers, on your latest CD, Sound Travels, you play with Afro-Venezuelan percussionist Luisito Quintero. How do you, as an African-American drummer, dialog with his Afro-Latin rhythms?
JD: Well, you know, it’s all together, man. I was playing with some Senegalese drummers some years back. I played 6/8 rhythms with Youssou N’Dour’s drummer. He invited me to come play with him…it was very profound, going back to Mother Africa. I was sitting in, with no rehearsal – we were playing 6/8, call-and-response, I mean, it’s just in the blood. After three hundred years, the connection’s still there, you know what I mean?
EBONY: You play those African rhythmic extensions throughout the CD, which features a mid-tempo type of jazz swing, condensed in a way that is appealing to radio listeners. Was that a conscious thing on your part?
JD: Some of that’s in there. But basically, I just wanted to do a recording that about grooves and beautiful melodies, because that’s something I do very well. I also wanted to emphasize the voice, as well, with Esperanza Spalding and Bruce Hornsby – who surprised me by putting a lyric to one of my pieces, “Dirty Ground.” And then, there’s Bobby McFerrin, who I’ve been improvising with for many years, came in. I specifically wanted him to sing melody on “Oneness.”
EBONY: “Dirty Ground,” is an update of “New Orleans Strut,” which you released on an older recording of yours, Album, Album …
JD: Yeah, right.
EBONY: Are your people from Louisiana?
JD: I have a lot of relatives down there. My father is from Oak Ridge, near Monroe, LA. I have a connection to that music down there: Professor Longhair, The Neville Brothers, Allen Toussaint, Dr, John, The Wild Tchoupitoulas….
EBONY: Professor Longhair Allen Toussaint, and Dr, John are excellent pianists, and you also play piano. You released The Jack DeJohnette Piano Album in 1985, cite Ahmad Jamal as an influence, and you play piano on Sound Travels. When you’re playing drums are you thinking pianistically, or when you play piano are you thinking like a drummer?
JD: You know, listen: people also separate the two, but piano, vibes and the drums are all part of the percussion family! The difference is, with the piano, you have harmony, melody and rhythm. But you also have those [musical components] on the drums. I tune the drums in different ways, so that when I play them, I can play melody, harmony and rhythm. The piano and drums are related. And, as a pianist playing with a drummer, I also know what I want from the drums. And when I’m on the drums, I kind of know what a soloist wants.
EBONY: My favorite track on Sound Travels is “Indigo Dreamscapes,” which you first recorded on the 1990 Parallel Realities album, with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny. What’s it like to revisit a composition you wrote over twenty years ago?
JD: It’s a beautiful song, you know? And, I enjoy playing it. I revisit quite a bit of my compositions in my group: “Jack In,” “One for Eric,” “Third World Anthem.” We revisit those pieces, but they sound different with the personnel I have now.
EBONY: In a Down Beat interview from the eighties you said, “The younger jazz musician now really has to have a broader view of what he has to do.” Is that still true today?
JD: The young musicians today have to be multi-taskers. They not only have to be good musicians, but they also have to be entrepreneurs. They have to figure out a way to get stuff out there, and network, ‘cause CD’s are not selling like they used to …it’s a challenge.
EBONY: In other words, they have to be like you?
JD: [Laughs] everybody’s trying to find new, creative and constructive ways to continue to get the music out there.
EBONY: You describe yourself as a multidirectional musician. Is that the secret to your ubiquitous, five decades as a sideman, leader, and composer in so many musical setting and genres?
JD: Playing in diverse musical situations has been my passion, you know? So I’ve been blessed and I made a conscious choice to put myself in those situations that are stimulating, challenging and also fun … I’m still having fun!