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Drumming up business his own way

Starting a label gives Jack DeJohnette another outlet for his musically venturesome ways.

October 23, 2005|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

"RENAISSANCE man" may be an overused term, but it's the first thought that comes to mind while talking with drummer Jack DeJohnette, a musician whose skills and interests stretch easily across the gamut of contemporary music.

You may have seen him with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, adding buoyant layers of percussive sound to their inventive cruises across the Great American Songbook. If you've listened to Miles Davis' classic "Bitches Brew," you've heard his drumming actively contributing to a set of performances that changed the face of contemporary jazz. Or you may have been fortunate enough to experience his transformative work with his own groups, Directions, New Directions and Special Edition.

The ever-adventurous DeJohnette, 63, embarked on yet another creative journey earlier this year when he launched his own independent record company -- named Golden Beams after a composition he wrote for his 1992 album "Earthwalk." Although he is following a path blazed by numerous jazz musicians, DeJohnette is characteristically doing so in his own fashion, with an initial release of three albums that might best be described as genre-resistant.

The first was "Music in the Key of Om," a transcendent tapestry of meditative sound using resonating bell tones and a flowing, vocal-like melody produced on an acoustic-sounding synthesizer.

It came about, says DeJohnette, because his wife, Lydia, wanted a tape that was grounded in relaxing sounds.

"So I went into a meditative stage, went to my studio here at the house and made the CD, using these acoustic resonating bells," says the drummer by phone from his home near Woodstock, N.Y.

"I played it for Lydia, she liked it, my family liked it, other people did and so we decided to put it out. Funny thing is it works for me too. When I'm on the road I put it on and fall asleep with it. It just puts me right out."

The second release from Golden Beams, "Music From the Hearts of the Masters," takes a very different tack. An intimate set of spontaneous duets by DeJohnette and Gambia's Foday Musa Suso, who plays the lyre-like kora, it combines cruise-control jazz rhythms with hypnotic African melodies to create an irresistible momentum.

"There are quite a few African kora players out there," says DeJohnette, "but Foday uses the instrument in a unique way, and he's not afraid to move it into more contemporary areas. We spent four days in the studio knocking grooves around, just drums and kora, and it came out pretty full, since Foday didn't hesitate to use electronic effects to fill things out. Funny thing is some of the reviews refer to him as a 'jazz kora' player -- which was a very pleasant surprise to him."

The just-released third album, "The Ripple Effect: Hybrids," takes DeJohnette's music into even more intriguing territory. Four of the tracks are enhanced and remixed versions of pieces from "Music From the Hearts of the Masters." Three feature eerie, atmospheric vocals from Brazilian singer Marlui Miranda, with multi-instrumentalist and frequent musical companion John Surman adding woodwind textures. Remixer Ben Surman (John's son and DeJohnette's son-in-law) pulls everything together in colorfully layered musical fashion.

"We called the CD 'Hybrid' to reflect the balance of acoustic and electronic elements," says DeJohnette. "I like to think of it as being accessible while also being creative in the way that jazz improvisation is. The loops keep going on while different surprises grab your ear as the atmosphere keeps shifting -- almost like cinematography."

A creative overview

THE sense of musical shifting is equally applicable to DeJohnette's future plans, both with and beyond his new record label. What he describes as his "Art of the Duo" series -- which began with the Foday Musa Suso CD -- will continue with recorded duets with Don Alias and Bill Frisell, and another "Music in the Key of Om" is already in the works.

Asked if that's not an ambitious program for a small label, DeJohnette simply laughs.

"Well, it's all my money, and we just try to get the most out of what we put into it," he says. "With the record business being what it is today, the idea of having my own creative control over the music that I put out feels like a pretty good idea."

And one that's consistent with DeJohnette's creative overview, an all-embracing perspective that has been a driving force in his career.

"I believe that jazz has always been a world music," he says. "But that's what music in general is. I've heard reggae in country music. There's a potpourri of the rich diversity of cultures that are available for musicians, if they take the time to listen to it.

"Even given that perspective, though, it's ultimately up to the creativity and the ability of the artist to tell a convincing story. Somebody once said that written music is crystallized sound which slows down so that you have to read it. But the way it was created, the way all music is created, was spontaneously done, in the moment. And that's the place that I hope my music -- no matter what style I'm working in -- comes from."

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