Most musicologists agree that the piano is a percussive instrument as well as a melodic and harmonic instrument. Based on this widely accepted premise, the piano and the drum come from the same place.
NEA Jazz Master recipient and legendary jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette knows this as well as any musicologist, and probably better. For more than five decades, DeJohnette has been the rhythmic anchor behind some of the most innovative and groundbreaking jazz ever captured in the studio or created on stage. Along the way, he has collaborated with legends: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny and many others.
But even before he was a drummer, DeJohnette was a pianist. He took his first musical steps on piano as a child before switching to drums, but colleagues and fans who know him best also know him as a brilliant piano composer whose keyboard work has been featured on various recordings over the course of his career.
Jack DeJohnette the pianist steps into the spotlight alone in the spring of 2016 with the release of Return, the very first solo piano recording of his long and distinguished career. Return, scheduled for a vinyl-only release in April of, 2016, on France’s New Velle Records, features two brand new compositions as well as reinterpretations of compositions recorded with earlier bands and projects.
“Recording a solo piano project is a very challenging, because it’s just you,” he says. “So I really had to think about the repertoire – what I would record, what would make sense. I wrote two new pieces, and I also played some of my earlier works that I had recorded previously with various ensembles. It was a challenge for me – and an exciting one – to play my own music in a new way. I didn’t want to be in competition with other musicians. I just wanted to make a statement with this record.”
The statement is clear from the very first track, “Ode to Satie,” a brand new composition from DeJohnette. The piece draws its inspiration from – and pays tribute to – the short, atmospheric Gymnopedies composed by French pianist Erik Satie in the late 1800s. “They are very peaceful compositions, especially when you consider the frantic world we live in,” says DeJohnette. “They have always relaxed me, so I drew inspiration from them when I composed this piece. I wanted to conjure up the moods they represent. When you hear the track, you can hear Satie’s influence.”
“Ebony” is a reinterpretation of the DeJohnette composition originally wrote and recorded for the 1980 album, Special Edition. “I had never recorded it on solo piano, so it was fun to do it that way. My approach here is totally different from the arrangement that I recorded with that band. It’s in a number of different odd meters – three-four, seven-four, six-eight – which just makes it a fresh take on one of my past compositions.”
“Silver Hollow” revisits the classic DeJohnette piece first recorded for the New Directions album with guitarist John Abercrombie, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Eddie Gomez in 1978. “Silver Hollow is the name of the area where I live in upstate New York,” says DeJohnette. “It’s a very special piece that celebrates an equally special place. It’s a song that captures the love I have for this beautiful part of the country.”
Every artist has a muse, and DeJohnette has Lydia, his wife and life partner of many years. “Lydia,” which DeJohnette originally recorded with Dave Holland, John Abercrombie, Alex Foster and Mike Richmond for the New Rags album in 1977, is his ode to her. “This song gets better and better every time I play it,” says DeJohnette. “Lydia is a very, very important person in my life. She is my inspiration. A lot of things I have accomplished in my career would not have been possible without her wisdom and inspiration. I’m blessed. I have a great muse. I love her very much.”
The version of “Blue” within this set is at least the third version DeJohnette has recorded since he first composed it for the Gateway Trio’s Gateway 2 album in 1977. He recorded it again with Special Edition a few years later. “This version is more rubato than previous versions,” says DeJohnette. “The tempo is more elastic. And it’s in a minor key, which makes it a dark but beautiful melody.”
The second of the two new pieces on Return is the churning “Dervish Trance,” a song inspired by the whirling meditative dance of the Sufi Dervishes. “I had actually come up with the melody while touring with the Spring Quartet an ensemble consisting of Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding and Leo Genovese and myself. We performed the song live several times before I adapted it further for this recording. I titled the composition “Dervish Trance,” being inspired by Sufi who I had seen a few years ago – once on TV and then again in person. It’s fascinating to just watch them spin around when they get into this altered state of consciousness,” says DeJohnette
The atmospheric “Indigo Dreamscapes” originally appeared on Parallel Realities, DeJohnette’s 1990 recording with Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock. “This version has kind of a pastel sound to it,” says DeJohnette. “It has a nice simple melody and groove. I just like the way it feels.”
“Song for World Forgiveness” first appeared on Live in Tampere and Berlin, a 2000 collaborative recording project featuring DeJohnette and saxophonist, clarinetist and composer John Surman. “I wrote the piece as a meditation to put a positive vibration into the world,” says DeJohnette. “There are a lot of things that humanity has done to itself that need to be undone before we can move to a better place, and we can’t do that unless we find a way to forgive. It’s a song for forgiveness so we can elevate ourselves and move to the next level of consciousness.
The breezy and carefree “Exotic Isles,” also from the Parallel Realities album, “is a sound that reminds me of some nice island in the Mediterranean,” says DeJohnette. “That’s the kind of feeling it’s always given me. That was the title that came to me after I wrote it.”
The haunting closer, “Ponta de Areia,” was written by Brazilian guitarist, pianist, vocalist and composer Milton Nascimento, a longtime favorite of DeJohnette. “The idea behind the song is that there was a train that used to go to Ponta de Areia in Brazil,” he explains. “People used to get there by bridge, but then the bridge was taken down, so there was no way to get there by railroad anymore. So the people lost their connection to the outside. The melody is repetitive, and the more you play it, the more beautiful it becomes. In the beginning, it has a nice sort of nursery rhyme – a light, airy treatment of the melody. And I ended it the same way. It’s a nice way to say goodbye and send the listeners on their way.”
Whatever the connection between drums and piano – percussion, melody, rhythm, harmony or all of the above – DeJohnette admits that he didn’t think about it too much when he went into the studio to lay down tracks in the making of Return. “I was just going for a mood, a feeling,” he says. “I didn’t try to intellectualize anything. I just wanted to take the music to a different space and let the spirit take me – and take the listener – wherever it wanted to go. It’s a collaboration of mind, body, soul and spirit. It’s a return to something basic and universal and beautiful.”