Jack DeJohnette: The legendary drummer celebrates his past and finds inspiration in new collaborations

From Jazz Times Magazine:

Because they honor an artist’s entire career, lifetime achievement awards can be tricky. They’re especially gratifying, for they imply that you had more than one or two peak moments, and sustained excellence over a long period. But they also come with the unspoken implication that maybe your career is over, or at least winding down.

One could tell that Jack DeJohnette was genuinely pleased to be named a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, just such a lifetime achievement award. Five days before the ceremony, the 69-year-old drummer sat in the New York offices of his new label, eOne, and beamed with both satisfaction and astonishment when the award was mentioned. But he was also quick to emphasize his current projects: his new album and his young road band. “They called to tell me last summer when I was in England visiting my mother-in-law, who was very ill,” he said, wearing a blue-knit pullover and rimless rectangular glasses as he leaned back in a conference-room chair. “I was very surprised; it took a minute for it to sink in. When I hung up and told my wife, Lydia, I realized what an honor it was, especially when you think of all the Jazz Masters who came before me. I thought, maybe someone was paying attention after all.”

On January 10, the day of the award ceremony, DeJohnette found himself surrounded by his peers. As part of the concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, he joined his fellow 2012 inductees—vocalist Sheila Jordan and trumpeter Jimmy Owens—and 1998 NEA Jazz Master Ron Carter onstage to play Ornette Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave.” The tune began with an unaccompanied drum intro in which DeJohnette’s precisely tuned toms rang like bells to suggest the theme as well as its groove. As he had so often throughout his career, he provided both the blood and the bones for the music.

Earlier in the day he had encountered Roy Haynes, a 1995 Jazz Master, in the lobby outside the awards luncheon at the Jumeirah Essex House. The two drummers greeted each other with an impromptu tap-dancing showdown, slapping the white-marble floor with their street shoes. The bald-domed Haynes chopped up the time with duplets, triplets and pauses using nothing but the palms of his hands and the soles and heels of his shoes—and he put a period on the solo by stepping forward with a right-foot stomp. DeJohnette, his own short Afro speckled with gray, leaned back and laughed, then answered with a mind-boggling combination of his own. Back and forth it went for several minutes until the exhausted old men fell into a bear hug.

But DeJohnette is not content to hang out solely with other long-established legends. Although he spends a lot of each year with one of the most stable, most productive small groups in jazz history—Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio with Gary Peacock—DeJohnette continues to pursue his own recording projects and tours. And he continues to hire the best young musicians he can find to keep his music fresh—just as he once did with David Murray, Greg Osby and others.

His new Sound Travels album, for example, features two twentysomethings: bassist Esperanza Spalding and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Also on the session were two thirtysomethings: guitarist Lionel Loueke and pianist Jason Moran. On the album’s nine tracks, all written or co-written by DeJohnette, you can hear these young musicians pushing the leader not just with their energy but also with a vocabulary gleaned from a different era of pop music and jazz. And you can hear the leader pushing right back at them. “Jack for me is always surprising,” says Benin native Loueke. “He’s always going into the unknown zone, into the thing I don’t expect. I can’t think, ‘He’s going to play this; he’s going to answer this way.’ It’s almost as if whatever I’m thinking, he’s going to play the opposite. I play differently with Jack, because he gets me excited. The accents he puts behind what I’m doing make me react differently. For me he’s African, because of the way he answers me instrumentally, I can tell he’s checked out a lot of African drummers.”

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