“There are very few soloists in jazz capable of playing anything as interesting as what Jack DeJohnette is putting down.”
- Musician magazine, USA, 1988
Special Edition – a band with revolving membership and a cast of fiercely original soloists – including David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman and Howard Johnson – was one of the most versatile vehicles for Jack DeJohnette’s all-around talents. This set brings together the albums Special Edition, Tin Can Alley, Inflation Blues and Album Album, underscoring the excitement of invention and possibility one can hear in this era of DeJohnette’s career. The recordings reveal him as an artist in touch with tradition even as he sought the cutting edge of the day, paying homage to his jazz heroes yet introducing new sounds. There are echoes of old New Orleans grooves and Swing-era big bands in this collection, as well as material crafted with the techniques of ’80s pop singles; there are ambitious suite-like compositions, and there is spontaneously lowdown rhythm & blues.
“Multi-directional music” was DeJohnette’s own description of his work in the 1970’s and 1980s. As ECM’s most requested session musician in the period, his creative flexibility was already legendary and he made important contributions to sessions with players from Pat Metheny to George Adams, from Kenny Wheeler to Terje Rypdal. His own bands were often platforms for experimentation, a tendency that had informed his music since the early days in Chicago when Jack was associated with the AACM. The Art Ensemble’s Lester Bowie had been a charismatic contributor to Jack’s freewheeling New Directions group (see ECM 1128 and 1157) and a similar sense of freedom informed Special Edition; for a while, both bands existed concurrently. Special Edition had been formed at the tail end of New York’s so-called Loft scene, and featured two of the most powerful soloists to have emerged from the movement, David Murray and Arthur Blythe. Jack DeJohnette’s writing on the Special Edition debut album challenges their resourcefulness with tributes to Duke Ellington and Eric Dolphy, as well as versions of John Coltrane’s “India” and “Central Park West” (Jack had played with Coltrane in 1966).
DeJohnette: “Arthur Blythe and David Murray were young lions at the time – they brought a lot of energy to the band. But whether it was Blythe and Murray or, later, John Purcell and Chico Freeman, I tried to write specifically for the players I was working with, their talents and their personalities, keeping in mind what Ellington used to do with his players. For instance, Blythe was a great chord-change player, and Murray could go inside and outside, so I wrote with that in mind. Purcell and Freeman brought a lot of expressivity to what they did – and I loved that. The character of the records changed according to the personnel in the band, but all the musicians had that searching quality that I like.”
The quality of searching extends also to the leader who uses all means at his disposal. Endlessly fluid and fluent drumming, but also thoughtful piano, evocative keyboard textures, melodica (which permits him to enter directly into dialogues with the horn players) and even vocals – on the bluesy “I Know” on Tin Can Alley.
For a band that never recorded twice with the same personnel there is a strong sense of continuity whether the changing ensemble is playing DeJohnette’s tunes or looking to history. A highlight of Album Album is Howard Johnson’s arrangement of “Monk’s Mood”: Thelonious Monk was another giant whom DeJohnette got to play with early in his career. “Ahmad The Terrible”, meanwhile, a piece which Jack still plays today, salutes another influential pianist, Ahmad Jamal.
But the issue at hand is creation rather than re-creation. “Personality-wise and musically, all those guys in Special Edition were characters, man – and they only sounded like themselves.” DeJohnette tells Bradley Bambarger in the liner notes. “The players in Special Edition were playing an abstract impression and expression of my music, and we were creating stories in sound together – and that’s a kind of magic. In the late ’70s and early ’80s when we made these records, it felt like an open time – there was a lot more room to reach for new things...”
Special Edition, the group’s debut, was recorded at Generation Sound Studios in New York in 1979, Tin Can Alley at Ludwigsburg’s Tonstudio Bauer in September 1980. Inflation Blues and Album Album were both recorded at New York’s Power Station in September 1982 and June 1984 respectively. The albums were remastered from original tapes for this box set in ECM’s Old & New Masters series.