Wonderful recording, wonderful story behind it too.
Drummer Jack DeJohnette has been an integral part of the New York area jazz scene for more than 50 years, long enough to forget that he’s originally from Chicago. Before moving east, he participated in the band that gave birth to the Advancement for the Association of Creative Musicians, a collective that has nurtured several generations of great Chicago jazz musicians.
On his new recording, “Made in Chicago” (ECM Records), Mr. DeJohnette goes back to those roots by convening a band featuring all-star musicians from his early days in Chicago; he is joined by saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill and by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. Each is a renowned innovator and leader who rarely plays sideman gigs. The recording documents an August 2013 concert by the band in Millennium Park during the Chicago Jazz Festival. The band will perform Thursday night at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and again this summer at the Newport Jazz Festival on Aug. 1.
In the early ’60s, Mr. DeJohnette, who is 72 years old, was a classmate of Mr. Threadgill, 71, and Mr. Mitchell, 74, at Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King College) on Chicago’s South Side. They played music together in school settings and at the many jam sessions that took place in the city’s jazz clubs and lounges. It was at one of these sessions that Mr. DeJohnette met Mr. Abrams, now 84, who led an ensemble called the Experimental Band; fittingly for its name, it functioned as a workshop for musicians with ideas that didn’t fit into the jazz mainstream. Messrs. DeJohnette, Threadgill and Mitchell all played in the band, which featured a varying roster of musicians and ultimately grew into the AACM in 1965.
The Chicago Jazz Festival invited Mr. DeJohnette to create a project of his choosing in honor of his appointment as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. On “Made in Chicago,” the four jazz greats are joined by veteran bassist Larry Gray, who is also a native of Chicago’s South Side.
The set list consists of Mr. Mitchell’s “Chant,” which has been staple of his repertoire for 40 years, and one less-familiar tune each by Messrs. Mitchell, Threadgill, Abrams and DeJohnette. It closes with an improvised jam. There are stellar moments throughout the recording. For instance, Mr. Mitchell’s tense coiled sounds are offset beautifully on “Chant” by Mr. Abrams’s ruminative piano chords. The pianist and the drummer engage in a powerful duet in Mr. DeJohnette’s “Museum of Time.” And Mr. Threadgill’s pungent alto saxophone is heard on several pieces.
But the record falls prey to the issues that mar many “supergroup” recordings. The product of only a few days of rehearsals, it is an uneven affair; there are moments of sublime synthesis followed quickly by moments where the playing feels measured and less assertive. Yet the best parts are intriguing. Save for some gems on imprints like Nessa and Delmark, Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene of the ’60s was under-recorded, and this album—though made a half-century later—offers a glimpse into what might have been heard during some of those Experimental Band gigs.
At Mr. Abrams’s urging, Mr. DeJohnette moved to New York in 1964 and quickly found elite-level work, playing in bands led by saxophonists Jackie McLean, Charles Lloyd and Wayne Shorter. In 1969, he joined Miles Davis’s band, playing on the classic “Bitches Brew” sessions. During the ’70s, Mr. DeJohnette made his mark not only with his own group, Special Edition, a showcase for several up-and-coming saxophonists, but with New Directions, which featured such top players as guitarist John Abercrombie and trumpeter Lester Bowie. Much of Mr. DeJohnette’s time since the early ’80s has been spent performing with Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, which has become one of the most popular groups in jazz.
Messrs. Threadgill and Abrams also moved to New York in the early ’70s and still live there. Mr. Mitchell spent some time in Europe before settling first in Michigan and now in Oakland, Calif., where he teaches at Mills College. It is easy to hear the Chicago roots in their sound, but not so much in Mr. DeJohnette’s—and I suspect that is the point of “Made in Chicago.” He shows his Windy City side, and it adds a new, introductory chapter to the lengthy discography of a great jazz drummer.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.