Monday sees the slightly delayed release of the four-CD box set Special Edition, which collects the output of Jack DeJohnette’s band of the same name between 1979 and 1984 spread over four albums.
Recorded, with the exception of the second one, in New York, the four, that’s Special Edition, Tin Can Alley, Inflation Blues, and Album Album, are a kind of secret story these days and in terms of the 80s, the very antithesis of the debilitating conservatism in jazz that characterised a blithely selfish decade.
While DeJohnette is widely revered as the greatest jazz drummer alive (the only possible other contender being Roy Haynes), these albums have got lost a bit in the mists of time. So, because they are very fine, nuanced, spirited, free form and original in terms of writing and performance, ECM has done you and me (as listeners) a big service in putting them out once more but properly curated, and in such attractive livery in an Old & New Masters Edition.
The music is housed in a sturdy little box, with albums in slim sleeves emblazoned with black lettering on white backgrounds, and a 36-page booklet is also thrown in with carefully chosen artist pictures, so the music isn’t just left to speak for itself. The passage of time also means the music needs some context. New York writer and promoter Bradley Bramberger has written a long, eminently sensible essay that appears in the booklet, which sets the scene for the music, and as part of which DeJohnette, recently in the UK for a 70th birthday tour (http://marlbank.tumblr.com/post/32873499206/40688), contributes his thoughts about the ‘open time’ the character of the period these recordings belong to. “Personality-wise,” DeJohnette says, “all these guys in Special Edition were characters, man – and they only sounded like themselves.”
And, of course, you hear just this with David Murray brilliantly wild and fresh on the two albums he’s featured on, while as Bramberger says the more “transparent sound” of Chico Freeman shows through, as well as its characterful bluesiness, on such marvellously raucous numbers as ‘I Know’ on Tin Can Alley where the music opens up, and ‘out’ becomes ‘in’.
While the personnel changed rapidly throughout this short span of years, with only DeJohnette on all four albums, Special Edition had strong horn players at its heart and tough ones at that, who DeJohnette, whether they play loudly or not, holds in the palms of his hands, as a rider might control a strong willed stallion, but lets the band, above all, run free.
Highlights and surprises? Well there’s ‘Zoot Suite’, the two versions of which on different albums allow a clear indication of DeJohnette as an ideas man. Why this tune, an Ellington tribute, isn’t standard repertoire I don’t know. Another of DeJohnette’s tunes, ‘Pastel Rhapsody’, has a lovely air of mystery courtesy of John Purcell’s flute, and taps the spiritual stream DeJohnette likes to navigate, also delivered unpretentiously when DeJohnette switches to piano. The reeds arrangement on ‘The Islands’ (from Inflation Blues) is very subtle and warm, reminiscent of the mood of an Aaron Copland piece, another indication of the sheer scope of DeJohnette’s musical interests.
As for surprises, well it’s the realisation that despite two fine bassists in Peter Warren and Rufus Reid involved, playing separately, in the course of the band’s existence the way the music runs it could often dispense with a bass instrument, even the tuba later of Howard Johnson. The “multidirectional” music DeJohnette espouses instead relies on the ancient and modern rhythmic imperative, and a horn, above all, in full and glorious cry.
Going my way? Jack DeJohnette (top), with the box cover artwork (above)