Jazz CD Reviews
Jack DeJohnette – Special Edition (2013) [1/15/13, 4-CD set] – ECM 2296-99
Published on February 27, 2013
Jack DeJohnette – Special Edition (2013) [1/15/13, 4 CD set] – ECM 2296-99, CD 1 (Special Edition, 1980): 39:28, CD 2 (Tin Can Alley, 1981): 47:28, CD 3 (Inflation Blues, 1983): 39:50, CD 4 (Album Album, 1984): 42:42 ****:
(Special Edition: Jack DeJohnette – drums, piano, melodica; David Murray – tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Arthur Blythe – alto saxophone; Peter Warren – double bass, cello)
(Tin Can Alley: DeJohnette – drums, piano, organ, congas, timpani, vocals (track 5); Chico Freeman – tenor saxophone, flute, bass clarinet; John Purcell – alto & baritone saxophones, flute; Warren – double bass, cello)
(Inflation Blues: DeJohnette – drums, piano, clavinet, vocals (track 4); Freeman – tenor & soprano saxophones, bass clarinet; Purcell – alto & baritone saxophones, flutes, alto clarinet; Baikida Carroll – trumpet; Rufus Reid – acoustic & electric basses)
(Album Album: DeJohnette – drums, keyboards; Purcell – alto & soprano saxophones; Murray – tenor saxophone; Howard Johnson – tuba, baritone saxophone; Rufus Reid – double bass)
Most jazz fans know Jack DeJohnette as a drummer’s drummer, one of the top jazz rhythm aces. DeJohnette has had essential duties in bands led by Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett. His credits are extensive: DeJohnette has registered more session appearances for ECM than any other artist. But DeJohnette is much more than a drummer. As a leader, he has 30+ releases under his own name or for groups he started, with records on numerous imprints (including his own). DeJohnette’s longest-lasting ensemble was Special Edition, with DeJohnette as the mainstay and various others in and out of the lineup. From 1979 to 1984, Special Edition produced four albums for ECM. The label has put those titles back into circulation (the self-titled debut, Tin Can Alley, Inflation Blues, and Album Album) in a 4-CD package concisely designated Special Edition, with all of the music remastered from ECM’s original tape sources, as part of the Old & New Masters series.
There are several reasons DeJohnette aficionados should acquire this boxed set. This marks the first time the 1983, out-of-print Inflation Blues has been put out on CD. 1981’s Tin Can Alley and 1984’s Album Album were released for the CD market, but have been unavailable for a while, so it is a good time to revisit these two projects: ECM reissued the initial Special Edition outing in 2008 under the budget-line Touchstone series. Finally, the remastering brings out the nuances and auditory details of DeJohnette’s music, which multiplies the valuable reconsideration of this older material.
The first version of Special Edition is distinctive, with World Saxophone Quartet founder David Murray on tenor saxophone (he also adds bass clarinet); tenor saxophonist Arthur Blythe (who worked with Chico Hamilton and Gil Evans); double bassist Peter Warren (who performed in Europe with Jean-Luc Ponty, Don Cherry and Anthony Braxton); and DeJohnette on drums, piano and melodica: the latter a focal component of the Special Edition sound. Murray, Blythe and Warren had free jazz and/or avant-garde inclinations, and DeJohnette made the most of these musicians’ personalities as he composed tunes and put together the material. This quartet could seem revolutionary but also provide music which audiences could grasp, which fits with DeJohnette’s ideas on musical storytelling. This can be heard on the opener, “One for Eric,” a tribute to the iconic Eric Dolphy. The free-bop piece evokes Dolphy’s untamed stance, and includes a fast-moving melody, where Murray and Blythe share lines. The tune shifts into both delineated and uninhibited grooves, while DeJohnette and Warren set up a spontaneous beat which swings in a most atypical way.
The epic “Zoot Suite” (DeJohnette’s homage to Duke Ellington) is another multi-tiered swinger, with Murray on tenor sax and Blythe on alto sax (the way the two duet is one for the ages), and Warren on standup bass and cello. DeJohnette sits out until the five-minute mark (and momentarily steps out later on), and uses the horns and bass to fashion a feeling of a larger ensemble, with the result that ambience and atmosphere are important elements. John Coltrane is another artist whom DeJohnette extols. “Central Park West” is given an elegiac quality, finely textured by DeJohnette’s melodica, Warren’s arco and the absence of drums. Coltrane’s less-celebrated “India” is noticeable for DeJohnette’s piano intro (he studied piano before he took up drums), and a probing characteristic accentuated by Murray’s bass clarinet (a rarely applied but effective jazz instrument) and by Blythe’s heated, Coltrane-esque sax. Special Edition concludes with another narrative tune, “Journey to the Twin Planet,” based on a DeJohnette dream about futuristic, apocalyptic chaos and a mirror-image realm where everything is pristine. The hallucinatory piece has moments of quiet abstraction highlighted by DeJohnette’s otherworldly Hohner electronic melodica (which acts like a pre-digital synthesizer) and Warren’s arco bass; other parts of the track contain searing passages of cooperative interaction.
When Special Edition reconvened less than a year later for Tin Can Alley (1981), DeJohnette had two new sax players: Chico Freeman on tenor (he was a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians or AACM), who also utilizes flute and bass clarinet, and alto/baritone player John Purcell (who also expands his sound with flute). DeJohnette continues to construct inside/outside music which is unpredictable yet logical. Besides a modification in personnel, DeJohnette wrote five numbers tailored to the band’s temperament as well as the many instruments: alongside the triple horns, Warren once again doubles on cello and bass, and DeJohnette widens his compositional palette with drums, piano, organ, timpani and even vocals. The title cut exploits the chord changes of DeJohnette’s “Papa, Daddy and Me” (from his 1969 solo debut, The DeJohnette Complex), with a fresh melody. An unaccompanied tenor/baritone pairing is used as an inaugural statement, and then DeJohnette leads the foursome through an intricate, Monk-like stop-start motif and a sauntering swing groove. Everyone gets space to shine, and when Warren takes the spotlight, the outcome is an abiding example of bass ingenuity. The poetical “Pastel Rhapsody” is well named. Twinned flutes are initially heard, then DeJohnette crafts a deeply-felt solo piano section (which may make some wonder what would have happened if DeJohnette had become a piano man, instead of occupying the drum seat). DeJohnette then employs dubbed drums as horns and bass come in. Tin Can Alley was taped at Germany’s spacious Tonstudio Bauer, and the remastered sound really brings out the room’s efficacious sound and tone, with sterling details from the acoustic piano, drum cymbals, flute and acoustic bass. More overdubbing can be heard on the Afro-Cubanized “The Gri Gri Man,” where DeJohnette accompanies himself on hand percussion, drums and eerie organ, which all overlap into a spooky cadence. Tin Can Alley closes with the funky “I Know,” a hunk of earthy R’n’B crossed with slightly unconventional soul-jazz, somewhat akin to Mingus: near the end, DeJohnette shout-sings in a blues style about how he knows his woman is his and his alone. While “I Know” may seem like a live document, it has applause edited from the band’s performance at the Willisau Jazz Festival.
1983’s Inflation Blues is a return to the Special Edition past with some differences. Purcell and Freeman are still involved, but trumpeter Baikida Carroll (who has collaborated with Oliver Lake, David Murray and Muhal Richard Abrams) is now aboard, and expands Special Edition to a quintet: this was the only time Special Edition had a trumpeter. Rufus Reid takes the bass position (on both electric and acoustic) and DeJohnette exchanges melodica for a clavinet. DeJohnette replicates his modus operandi, with five original tunes composed or redone with the musicians in mind. Inflation Blues commences with the chamber-inclined “Starburst,” with a preliminary resonance from the deeper horns: Freeman’s bass clarinet has the circular timbre of a didgeridoo, while the saxes slide down into lower reaches. Reid’s reverberant electric bass complements the arrangement. Eventually the track rises and turns frenetic, as Carroll’s explosive trumpet soars, shadowed by the two saxes, and “Starburst” becomes a collective enterprise. “Ebony” also has a dark, moody landscape with more bass clarinet, overdubbed piano, and a sprightly, Latin-ish foundation. The horn players switch through different instruments, a situation which provides an orchestrated aspect. DeJohnette changes the configuration again on the rhythmic workout, “The Islands,” informed by his full use of the drum kit (the closing improvisation is a drummer’s master class in compact form) and the intriguing lack of bass. While the title hints at a Caribbean disposition, this is no calypso or reggae setting. The piece is driven by the drummer’s vigorous tempos, boisterous soprano saxophone, trumpet, flute and DeJohnette’s disconcerting, wordless vocalizing (once partially obscured but more prominent in the remastered mix). DeJohnette reprises “Inflation Blues,” from his 1972 record, Compost. The earlier rendition had a psychedelic-blues hue, but here DeJohnette delves into a reggae angle, a perspective which weakens rather than strengthens. DeJohnette’s account of a working man trying to keep ahead in hard times, though, maintains a contemporary outlook in these days of economic downtime. Things improve with the last cut, “Slowdown,” which has an adventurous mode better suited to the quintet.
For the final CD in this boxed set, the simply named Album Album (1984), Murray replaces Freeman; Purcell, DeJohnette and Reid recap their roles; and the wild card is Howard Johnson (his comprehensive résumé includes Taj Mahal, Gil Evans and The Band), on tuba and baritone saxophone. Most of the 42-minute album has a carefree zest, perceptible on the bouncy “Ahmad the Terrible,” an accolade to DeJohnette’s idol, pianist Ahmad Jamal. The quintet once again swaps instruments to provide a communal climate which makes this fun tune bigger than it seems. Another exemplar pianist gets praised with a flowing interpretation of “Monk’s Mood” (charmingly arranged by Johnson), emphasized by a multi-horn chorus, DeJohnette’s horn-inspired synth lines and a slightly venerated inflection. DeJohnette dips into his compositional bag once again, and puts a calypso splash to “Festival,” another repeat from Compost; and a shortened translation of “Zoot Suite,” which stresses rhythm and beat, although the horns do get some time to charge up a storm. There are two standouts. The forward-looking, pop-flavored “New Orleans Strut” balances early RnB and Crescent City-leaning jazz with tools of the time: synth and drum machine, as well as more overdubbing. The result is, to a degree, dated, but not as much as other jazz from the same era. The nearly 11-minute “Third World Anthem” is more notable, a three-part affair which begins with a rhythmic deportment similar to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, then transmutes into a trace or intimation of James Brown’s soul-funk stretch, and lastly conjures the spirit of 1980s South African music. The horns are the principal stars: Johnson proves why he is one of the top tuba guys in jazz with an extended extemporization, while Purcell and Murray also contribute significantly.
Two caveats. The boxed set is a bare-bones package in a plain white cardboard box. The primary focus is a black and white, 38-page booklet with complete discographical credits, photos, album artwork, and scribe Bradley Bambarger’s well-researched and in-depth liner notes, with new interviews. But the compact discs are housed in basic slipcases (sans artwork), which are too tight: it’s difficult to pull out the CDs without smudging the surface with fingerprints. This reviewer chooses to handle CDs on the sides to avoid leaving oil on the CD surface, a preference others may share.
TrackList:CD1: Special Edition: One for Eric; Zoot Suite; Central Park West; India; Journey to the Twin Planet. CD 2: Tin Can Alley: Tin Can Alley; Pastel Rhapsody; Riff Raff; The Gri Gri Man; I Know. CD 3: Inflation Blues: Starburst; Ebony; The Islands; Inflation Blues; Slowdown. CD 4: Album Album: Ahmad the Terrible; Monk’s Mood; Festival; New Orleans Strut; Third World Anthem; Zoot Suite.