summer arts preview

Even when looking back, Jack DeJohnette forges ahead

Paul Natkin/WireImage

It doesn’t take much to persuade a music festival to seize upon historical events and past glories as a way to generate interest and sell tickets. The venerable Newport Jazz Festival, for instance, focuses this summer on trumpeter Miles Davis, marking the 60th anniversary of his Newport debut. Recordings of Davis’s festival performances have been compiled for a four-CD Legacy box set, “Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4,” due for release on July 17. And during this year’s festival, such prominent trumpeters as Jon Faddis, Tom Harrell, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Chris Botti will play tunes associated with their iconic forebear.

You’ve got to admire Jack DeJohnette, then, for going his own way. One of the jazz world’s greatest living drummers, composers, and bandleaders, DeJohnette is a participant in a key set included in the Legacy box. Taped on July 5, 1969, the short, sharp set illustrates one of the seismic shifts that punctuated Davis’s storied career: the transition from acoustic postbop to the amplified, studio-enhanced jazz-rock fusion heard on “Bitches Brew,” released in 1970.

“One thing that made that more interesting and more intense was that Wayne [Shorter] missed a connection to get to the gig, so it was Miles playing with a quartet,” DeJohnette said during a recent telephone interview. “We were still playing stuff off of ‘Bitches Brew,’ so it was still a live development ongoing: delving into those pieces, developing on the job.”


DeJohnette, too, is looking to the past this summer at Newport, but it’s his own heritage that Made in Chicago, the starry band he’ll lead at Fort Adams Park on Aug. 1, is meant to salute. The quintet, which DeJohnette initially convened when he was himself the guest of honor at the 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival, includes pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill — each in his own right a celebrated bandleader and composer. Completed by bassist Larry Gray, Made in Chicago earned raves for its debut concert, a recording of which was released recently on ECM.

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At 72, DeJohnette needs little introduction. Beyond his stint with Davis, he’s kept the beat for a succession of boldface names: John Coltrane, Betty Carter, Sun Ra, and Keith Jarrett, among many others. His own bands have showcased such distinctive players as John Abercrombie, Lester Bowie, David Murray, Arthur Blythe, and Greg Osby. His original compositions, including “Silver Hollow,” “One for Eric,” and “Third World Anthem,” stand with the best in jazz.

For Made in Chicago, DeJohnette went back to his early roots, rounding up kindred spirits from a nascent 1960s avant-garde scene that gave rise to one of America’s most significant cultural forces, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians .

“We all were around with different ideas about presenting music and composing it and improvising,” DeJohnette said. “Muhal had an experimental orchestra, and we were all part of that with some other musicians; it was an extended group.” Richards’s Experimental Band set the stage for the AACM, which pursued fresh modes of structuring music, as well as new settings in which to liberate it from a dingy nightclub milieu.

“I left a year before the AACM was officially formed, but you could say I was part of the early seeds of that,” DeJohnette recalled. “Over the years, our paths crossed now and then. And when I got this opportunity to be honored at the jazz festival, it came to me that it was a perfect combination and a way to celebrate my 70th birthday.”


Demonstrating both tact and savvy, DeJohnette asked his Made in Chicago bandmates to bring in an original tune. “Of course, Roscoe brought two,” he said, laughing. “Henry wrote a piece, and Muhal wrote a piece dedicated to me. The compositions are like satellites, but the main thing was for us to be able to improvise together, take the music to the best place possible.”

If DeJohnette’s path diverged from the specific aesthetic and social goals of Chicago’s avant-garde when he moved to New York in 1964, he still hastens to ward off misconceptions. Free jazz, he said, didn’t equate to unbounded free-for-all: “There’s a lot of deep listening and a lot of space, and a lot of care and sensitivity goes into this music.”

In fact, much of his subsequent work as a bandleader strikes a balance among Chicago-bred notions of space and interconnectedness, an urgent rhythmic impetus sparked in Davis’s band, and DeJohnette’s own knack for sublime melody. Lately, he’s pursuing that mix with another band laden with historic associations: a trio with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of John Coltrane, and electric bassist Matthew Garrison, son of Jimmy Garrison, the elder Coltrane’s bass player.

Active sporadically for 20 years now, the trio is slated to record for ECM in October, with tour dates on either side of the sessions. DeJohnette anticipates a Boston engagement toward the end of this year. “We have a spiritual bond, and we have a family bond,” he said. “And the rapport is really, really something special.”

Jack DeJohnette’s

Made in Chicago

At: Newport Jazz Festival, Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., Aug. 1,


time to be announced

Ticket prices vary. 800-745-3000,

Steve Smith can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.