The first two discs capture two consecutive concerts from France in July, played in the wake of the trumpeter's first serious dalliance with electronic instrumentation, In a Silent Way (released a month earlier). The rest of the music was recorded in November 1969, just months after Davis recorded the landmark Bitches Brew. I've been returning to the set regularly over the last month and it's brought me a great deal of pleasure, but that doesn't mean I've really cracked open its intense, almost seething mysteries—this is music to last a lifetime.
In some ways the repertoire tells you all you need to know about where this band stood at the time, with pieces stretching from the late 50s ("Milestones," "Footprints," "No Blues," and "Masqualero," among others) to "Bitches Brew," which would be released the following year. A couple of key things are immediately noticeable, though. The band plays with a vicious energy. Shorter, whether on tenor or soprano, blows like a demon, both in terms of speed and tonal edge, and has rarely sounded more explosive. Corea, playing an electric piano almost exclusively, and DeJohnette are frenetic monsters. The famous quintet that featured Shorter with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams could certainly lay the hammer down, but the 1969 quintet is relentless, functioning like a steamroller. The other change was that this lineup largely ditched the heightened awareness of space and silence that made the earlier quintet so stunning and original, replacing it with a restless, fiery churn and a rock-informed energy—when they pull back with a comparatively restrained take on "Nefertiti" on the second French concert it's almost a relief. This new dynamic, however, presaged the monstrous grooves and sonic density that was to come in the following decade. Despite the crushing force, the group pushed into abstraction with more gusto and guts than any previous Davis-led ensemble.
As with most of the trumpeter's band members over the years, the players had internalized the repertoire, so that Davis need only articulate a terse melodic fragment before the rest of the musicians quickly lined up behind him, recalibrating to begin the next tune in a flash. You can sense one tune ending and another beginning, but a steady sense of mood and sense of propulsion is unwavering. The DVD footage from the Berlin concert is the real treat. Aside from offering lots of great shots of Holland's black-and-white cowhide vest, we can really observe how locked in these guys were, not just from the intense miens but from the level of seemingly telepathic intuition on display. Even though the sound of the band was evolving, the players were already experts in Davis' methodology. The label prepared a nice video documentary, featuring Corea, for the set which you can watch here, but, annoyingly, you're required to both be registered on Facebook and to submit to certain promotional salvos by clicking "like" before you can watch it.DeJohnette had joined with Davis he'd already accrued serious experience and credentials: three years earlier he moved to New York and became the drummer in the Charles Lloyd Quartet, which was on its way to becoming one of the most popular outfits in jazz at the time, which also included another future member of the Davis band in pianist Keith Jarrett. He left in 1968—the year he issued his first album as a leader, The DeJohnette Complex—and went on to work sporadically with a variety of bandleaders, including Bill Evans and Stan Getz. He was an incredibly busy and diverse player in the 70s, whether leading the early fusion band Compost or in his influential group Directions, which included a young John Abercrombie. But his finest work as a leader was his band Special Edition, which made four terrific albums for ECM between 1979-84, all of which were recently collected on a handy four-CD box called Special Edition.
Before devoting himself to drums, DeJohnette was a pianist. He returns to that instrument (along with synthesizer) on some of the Special Edition tunes, all of which reinforce his standing as one of, if not the best, drummer-composers in the music's history. He put together strong, shifting lineups of players able to navigate the gaps between hard-bop, free-jazz, and quasi-global styles—saxophonists David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman, and John Purcell, bassists Rufus Reid and Peter Warren, trumpeter Baikida Carroll, and tuba player Howard Johnson.
The group's eponymous debut shows off DeJohnette's nonchalant stylistic range —"One for Eric" revels in the wild intervallic leaps that marked the music of Eric Dolphy, while "Zoot Suite" is buoyant homage to early Duke Ellington. The album's final track "Journey to the Twin Planet," where he puts aside drums in favor of an electric melodic, was inspired by a dream, but the melodic shapes and the timbre of Murray and Blythe's reeds reveals more than a slight similarity to the Sun Ra Arkestra. The sounds are a bit more conventional on the band's second album, Tin Can Alley, from 1980, where the more measured, elegant horn playing of Purcell and Freeman replaced the more energetic, high-flying Murray and Blythe—though on a tune like Warren's extroverted "Riff Raff," they had no problem taking things out. For the 1982 album Inflation Blues, Reid, another Chicago native, replaced Warren, and the great Saint Louis trumpeter Carroll joined the band, giving the front line a richer, more malleable sound and generating more fiery interplay, from the unexpected reggae of the title track to the gorgeous, pastel tones and delicate rhythms of "Ebony" to the wilder polyphony of "Slowdown," which you can hear below. The band's final album, Album Album, from 1984, saw Murray returning to the fold, alongside Purcell, Johnson, and Reid. It's the most diverse of the four records, covering all sorts of ground: the ambitious "Ahmad the Terrible," an homage to pianist Ahmad Jamal, features writing and arranging that has an almost classical sophistication but still manages to swing ferociously; "Festival," a tune reclaimed from the Compost repertoire, is an ebullient calypso worthy of Sonny Rollins. There's an excellent take on Monk's "Monk's Mood" with surprisingly effective synth lines and the album ends with a new take on "Zoot Suite." It's a pretty remarkable batch of recordings—a body of work that suggests DeJohnette's sprawling talent and vision as much as anything he's ever done. Of course, as he approaches his 71st birthday in August, the recent NEA Jazz Master hardly seems to be slowing down, so new chapters are probably on the way.
Finally, the final film by the bold, sometimes experimental director Shirley Clarke about the brilliant saxophonist, composer, and thinker Ornette Coleman—Ornette: Made in America—gets a very rare local screening on Saturday night at Northwestern University. I've never seen the film, which focuses largely on Coleman's "classical" opus Skies of America, and although it's always gotten mixed reviews, there are few chances to watch the saxophonist on film.
Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.