For Jack DeJohnette, 2019 is an especially commemorative year. In August, the same month he turns 79, 50 years will have passed since the drummer anchored the nebulous, difficult, but groundbreaking sessions that yielded Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Likewise, a half-century has now passed since DeJohnette issued his solo debut, the stylistically sprawling starter kit, The DeJohnette Complex.
These are merely two wayfinding signs for what remains one of the most remarkable and exploratory careers in jazz history. From playing with Davis, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett to leading ever-evolving ensembles of his own, DeJohnette’s immediately identifiable style—somehow fluid but taut, as though motion were always a delightful challenge—has provided a jazz through line since the mid-1960s. In 1979, Robert Palmer, writing in The New York Times, noted he was already one of the most influential jazz drummers around. In the 40 years since, DeJohnette has earned a NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship and had an enduring run in Jarrett’s Standards trio; his reputation and impact have only sprawled.
But DeJohnette has never been satisfied with his bona fides. Look at any segment of his career, and you’ll find an artist trying something new, whether working with electric guitarists like Vernon Reid or backing singer Betty Carter. Consider just the last four years: In 2015, DeJohnette issued the tremendous Made in Chicago, a grand 2013 homecoming recorded live with fellow Chicago luminaries and longtime associates including Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. (ECM recently reissued this record and a few earlier DeJohnette works in its massive Art Ensemble box set.)
The next year, DeJohnette stepped back toward the spotlight in a major way, releasing the compelling debut of a new trio with Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison, scions of jazz leaders from DeJohnette’s own generation. He also offered Return, his first-ever solo piano album. And in 2017, he not only worked up a swinging set of rock covers with the likes of John Medeski and John Scofield on Hudson but he also backed Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem alongside longtime co-conspirator Dave Holland for the incredible Blue Maqams.
That’s a lot of names and a lot of records, but they paint a collective portrait of a perpetual seeker, always looking to reframe his senses of rhythm, melody, and motion with new input. On In Movement, he delights in the interplay with Garrison’s electronic textures, telling NPR they were “soundscapes that give Ravi and I a palette to play off of.” And Hudson suggests a fantasy-league instrumental bar band, set up in a corner and working through classics with imagination and subtlety befitting such masters.
It’s a thrill to have DeJohnette at Big Ears 2019—not because he is a rightful jazz legend, but because he’s never seemed content to be just that. His life is a case study of continued inspiration.