Happy 80th birthday to Jack DeJohnette! While he is objectively one of the great drummers in modern jazz history, I’ll admit I don’t look at him first and foremost through that lens. To me he is a creator of sonic universes – that sounds weird but there are just so many examples of records he’s on (some of them iconic, some of them in the should-be-iconic realm, some just under-the-radar) where as great as the drumming is, what you really notice is the vibe he creates. So acknowledging the ridiculous number of things I had to omit, here are some personal faves from his vast discography.
1 ) “Climax” from Jacknife by Jackie McLean (1965)
Two years and change after saxophonist and fellow visionary Jackie McLean introduced the jazz world to another drummer who would subsequently go on to make important music with Miles Davis (a guy named Tony Williams), he presented young Mr. DeJohnette in his own recorded debut here. Jackie even made room for one of Jack’s compositions, this burner that features solos by both of them as well as by Lee Morgan and Larry Willis.
2 ) “Manhattan Carousel” from Charles Lloyd in Europe by Charles Lloyd (1966)
Considered by some to be over-hyped at the time, the Charles Lloyd Quartet now, ironically, is now often overlooked. In particular, this is the group that incubated one of the greatest piano/drum relationships in modern jazz history, that of Jack and Keith Jarrett, joined here by the wonderful Cecil McBee on bass. Sometimes they float, sometimes they groove, sometimes they burn, and perhaps most delightfully, sometimes they shape-shift seemingly effortlessly and telepathically among multiple rhythmic conceptions, as they do here, and as Jack does in accompanying Lloyd’s solo on tenor saxophone.
3 ) “Papa-Daddy and Me” from The DeJohnette Complex (1968)
I don’t know what I would do if I were a great and fast-rising drummer with my first opportunity to record as a bandleader, but I suspect it wouldn’t be to hire Roy Haynes to play drums on part of the record and play melodica on those tracks instead. But I’m not Jack DeJohnette, and I’m sure glad that HE did this because it’s musically delightful to hear him play and interact with Roy on this tune (also featuring solos by Bennie Maupin and Stanley Cowell).
4 ) “Afro-Centric” from Power to the People by Joe Henderson (1969)
There were a lot of 1969 sessions that I agonized over including, but I kept landing (as I so often do) on this landmark album. Picking one track was a borderline arbitrary act, but to me this composition (and Jack’s drumming specifically) in some ways embodies the sound of 1969. It’s politically provocative, it’s harmonically edgy, and it’s electric and funky without really being “fusion” per se. And it’s also just badass in any number of intangible ways.
5 ) “Ralph’s Piano Waltz” from Timeless by John Abercrombie (1974)
From one of Jack’s first sessions for the European record label ECM (from which I could have included many more), this track foreshadows Jack’s co-leadership of the band Gateway with guitarist Abercrombie. In an organ trio with Jan Hammer, they find the perfect balance between edgy swing and more ethereal sounds.
6 ) “Consensus” from Supertrios by McCoy Tyner (1977)
Speaking of overlooked, McCoy Tyner’s 1970s work is often mentioned only in passing given the prominence of his work with some dude named Coltrane in the previous decade, but it is full of gems. My own first purchase from that lexicon was this double album, featuring Ron Carter on Tony Williams on one disc and Jack on the other alongside bassist Eddie Gomez. Jack and Eddie have an extraordinary track record of playing together in trios, from Bill Evans in the ‘60s to three of my favorite JoAnne Brackeen trio dates. On this track they are a particularly face-melting tandem in dialogue with McCoy.
7 ) “Ahmad the Terrible” from Album Album (1984)
When I picked up this LP it was in large part because I wanted to hear Jack’s writing for a piano-less quintet with the three-horn frontline of John Purcell, David Murray, and Howard Johnson, alongside Rufus Reid on bass (these were the days when you couldn’t just sample stuff online). And I put the needle on and as I listened to this totally awesome opening track, I was taken aback by the great piano playing in addition, including a totally burning, grooving, creative solo. So I looked to see who the guest pianist was and of course (or at least obvious to those familiar with Jack and/or good at detecting foreshadowing) it was Jack himself.
8 ) “In Your Own Sweet Way” from At the Blue Note by Keith Jarrett (1994)
Nearly thirty years after Jack and Keith convened in the Charles Lloyd Quartet (and fifteen before their last session together) here is just one of the literally hundreds of tracks I could have chosen to feature their work in Keith’s groundbreaking trio with bassist Gary Peacock. Hearing them play classic jazz tunes and really stretch out while grooving like crazy is one of my favorite things and this track is a good example of that.
9 ) “Questions and Answers” from Camp Meeting by Bruce Hornsby (2007)
Am I ambivalent about including a Bruce Hornsby track on a list that omits Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Pat Metheny, Alice Coltrane, Lee Konitz, and so on? Kind of, yes. But seriously, listen to this. When I heard Bruce (best known for his 1980s pop hits like “The Way It Is”) was putting out an album with Jack and Christian McBride my initial cynical thought (as much as I genuinely dig Bruce) was that this was another pop star with the money and the hubris to do a jazz vanity project. And then about a minute into this opening track, an Ornette Coleman composition, I ate my words and leaned into just appreciating the music and in particular how utterly burning Jack was on it.
10 ) “The Dirty Ground” from Hudson (2017)
This song has the groovy yet moody vibe you’d expect for something appearing alongside songs by Bob Dylan, the Band, Joni Mitchell, and so on. His sensitive drumming alongside bandmates John Scofield, John Medeski, and Larry Grenadier shows yet another side of his broad palette. Oh yeah, though, he also co-wrote this earthy, soulful song and sings it as though he were a newly-discovered great folk bluesman . . . which in a weird way I suppose is accurate.