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Jack DeJohnette Group

Jack DeJohnette Group, Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, 20/11/2012.

by Ian Mann

December 05, 2012


An impressive performance by a stellar band led by one of the genuine legends of the music.

Jack DeJohnette Group, Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, 20/11/2012.

After seven days overdosing on jazz at London Jazz festival I took one day off then the following night found myself in Birmingham to cover this show by an all star band led by the great American drummer, pianist and composer Jack DeJohnette. Chicago born DeJohnette had also played at London Jazz Festival as part of a short UK tour but I cunningly arranged to see him in Birmingham thus enabling me to see an extra event in London. Apologies to my friends at Jazzlines in Birmingham for only just getting around to reviewing this show some two weeks after the event but I’ve only just cleared the backlog created by my full on London Jazz Festival experience!

I actually got to hear a sneak preview of this event when Jez Nelson broadcast highlights of the London show on Jazz on 3 the night before. This was accompanied by an illuminating interview, also recorded at LJF, in which DeJohnette spoke of his tenures with the bands of Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, engagements that demand that the man be regarded as a genuine jazz legend before even considering his solo work and his prolific career as a sideman (apparently DeJohnette is ECM’s most recorded artist)

I liked what I heard and was very much looking forward to seeing the music performed “in the flesh” and all the more so as the venue was to be the Adrian Boult Hall. Birmingham jazz used this venue extensively in the 80’s and 90’s, particularly for artists touring under the Contemporary Music Network scheme, and I saw many memorable performances there by (among others) Don Cherry, Don Grolnick and a remarkable double bill featuring the respective quartets of Charlie Mariano and Jan Garbarek. That was in 1988 in the days when Jan still played small and middle sized venues. Looking at that list only Garbarek is still with us, a sobering thought.

As you may have gathered I rather like the Adrian Boult, a comfortable concert hall designed for classical players that forms part of the facilities of Birmingham Conservatoire. I’ve missed its use as a jazz venue these last few years and very much welcome it back, I’m pleased to note that German pianist Michael Wollny will be appearing there on February 13th 2013 with his {em} trio.

Having praised the hall I was surprised to find that in his review of this concert for his Jazz Breakfast blog Peter Bacon found the acoustics to be unsatisfactory. I’ve always found the venue to be excellent in this regard and it may be that Peter was sitting too close to what was an amplified group (he was in the third row) whereas I was located about half way back and found the sound to be perfectly OK, and in fact positively good.

DeJohnette was touring to celebrate his 70th birthday and was also promoting his latest solo album 2011’s “Sound Travels”, featuring a star studded ensemble including Esperanza Spalding and Lionel Loueke. However none of tonight’s line up appear on that record and rather surprisingly DeJohnette didn’t draw on it at all, preferring to dive deeper into his back catalogue including selection from the repertoire of his Special edition and Gateway groups. Joining the drummer were an all star aggregation of Don Byron (tenor sax, clarinet), George Colligan (piano, electric keyboards, pocket trumpet), Marvin Sewell (guitar) and British electric bass player Mike Mondesir (replacing Jerome Harris who had played in London). 

Announcing the first three tunes DeJohnette treated us to a rambling monologue about Thelonious Monk, with whom he’d briefly worked. DeJohnette’s tribute to the great piano maverick “Monk’s Plumb” was the second tune in a sequence that began with “Blue” from the second Gateway album and concluded with the excellent “Tango African”.

Gateway teamed DeJohnette with bassist Dave Holland and guitarist John Abercrombie so the tonight’s version was inevitably very different. Seated centre stage DeJohnette introduced the piece at the drums and he remained at the heart of the music throughout, quickly locking in with Mondesir to form a juggernaut of a rhythm section. This opening item allowed each member of the band to demonstrate their considerable abilities. Colligan went first, admirably fluent on pocket trumpet as he evoked the spirit of the great Don Cherry. Byron followed him with a powerful tenor sax solo, I’ve always regarded him primarily as a clarinettist, and one couldn’t fail to be impressed that both Colligan and Byron had delivered brilliant opening statements on what were ostensibly their “second instruments”. Sewell’s solo began more quietly but gained a slow burning intensity fuelled by Colligan’s piano accompaniment. Mondesir, who has played with a host of famous British and American names (I know him best from his work with Django Bates’ Human Chain) rose to the challenge with a typically fluid solo influenced by the liquid style of Jaco Pastorius.

“Monk’s Plum” referenced Monk’s seemingly disjointed yet ruthlessly logical staccato style with Colligan taking the first solo at the piano. He channelled the spirit of Monk but also introduced a harder hitting, more contemporary elements. Sewell on guitar and Byron on tenor also featured strongly to the backing of Monkish piano before the main theme returned.

Sewell opened “Tango African” with a passage of solo guitar very much in the style of Lionel Loueke with the African style subtly mutating into a blues feel. Byron had switched to clarinet and delivered a solo that combined strong melody with intense passion, so much so that the reed man looked as if he might topple off his stool, so intense and absorbing was his playing. Sewell’s guitar displayed a strong rock influence as he meshed with Colligan on synthesiser, the pair trading and sharing interlocking lines as DeJohnette drove his colleagues forward.

This had been a stunning triple opening salvo with the members of this stellar band stretching out at length and DeJohnette now paused to introduce the final two pieces, “Lydia”, a dedication to his wife of many years, and “Ahmad The Terrible”, a tribute to the pianist Ahmad Jamal drawn from the Special Edition repertoire.

DeJohnette introduced “Lydia” at the drum kit, establishing both melody and groove before Byron embarked on a warm toned tenor solo followed by the trilling of Colligan’s electric piano. Byron then returned with a more impassioned tenor statement before the piece was resolved by a beautiful duet between Sewell on guitar and Mondesir on supremely melodic electric bass.

“Ahmad The Terrible” was the piece that had stood out for me on the radio broadcast, one of DeJohnette’s most immediate and accessible tunes it was another tour de force here. Byron kicked things off with a virtuoso solo sax introduction, slithering up and down the cadences before establishing the killer tenor sax hook that drives the tune. Byron’s saxophone pyrotechnics were followed by a pause for breath in the form of a sparkling dialogue between Sewell on guitar and Colligan on piano before the pianist took over for a rousing, intensely rhythmic solo that saw him really pounding the keyboard. Byron’s sax drones then formed a segue into a closing drum feature that saw DeJohnette circumnavigating his kit above the riffing of his highly supportive band.

Overall I was most impressed with DeJohnette and his colleagues. This was far more enjoyable than my previous sightings of the leader, the first a solo drum performance at Cheltenham Jazz Festival that impressed rather than entertained despite the addition of Ravi Coltrane’s tenor sax during the final part of the programme.This was followed by an over dominant DeJohnette leading a young band of British musicians, The Jerwood All Stars.  Even tonight there were moments when DeJohnette threatened to become overbearing but players of the quality of Byron and Colligan, both prolific bandleaders in their own right, ensured that this didn’t happen. It was my first live sighting of these two despite having heard both previously on disc and on the radio and I was mightily impressed, particularly with Colligan’s multi instrumental ability. DeJohnette revealed that Colligan is also a drummer (“he’s not coming over here stealing my stuff” the leader quipped, gesturing at his kit). I’d like to take the opportunity of checking out both sometime leading their own bands.
Sewell’s contribution was more understated but it was clear that he’s a young musician with considerable potential. Mondesir acquitted himself superbly, handling this often complex material with considerable aplomb.

As for the leader he was clearly enjoying himself enormously, something that was good to see, even if he was inclined to ramble on the verbal front. “Sound Travels” is an enjoyable, unpretentious album that skips lightly across genres including jazz, blues, salsa and calypso. I’ve no doubt that there’s a lot more to come from one of the all time masters of the music.   


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