Jack DeJohnette

T. Bruce Wittet

Jack DeJohnetteJazz is very much alive in Montreal, Canada, largely due to the efforts of the city’s Rising Sun Club. It recently hosted Jack DeJohnette’s Directions band which includes John Abercrombie on guitar, Mike Richmond on bass, and Alex Foster on sax. Modern Drummer caught the show one chilly evening and spoke to the famous drummer-leader.

Jack DeJohnette is one of those few for whom we reserve the title “Drummers’ Drummer”. His talents transcend “chops”, “licks”, and other common descriptives. He’s played with the greatest: Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane, Bill Evans. Thelonius Monk, Sonny Rollins, and the list continues. The man has paid the dues necessary to attract musicians of extraordinary talent and integrity.

Jack is a little reluctant to discuss the past, firstly because he is humble and secondly because his interests lie ahead. When confronted with the task of dealing with some biographical questions, he amiably suggested that we “cancel all that”. Suffice it to say that Jack DeJohnette was born in Chicago in 1942. He studied piano for 12 years and played the instrument professionally at age 14, switching to drums at age 16. Initially, Jack worked out of his home town but quickly embraced New York, California and the rest of the United States. Next he turned to continental Europe, and currently alternates between Old World and New. His travels and experience bespeak a maturity and confidence which make him an ideal band leader.Approached between sets as pre-arranged. Jack was a gracious and willing participant. He’s disarmingly casual, but make no mistake. The conversation will steer towards his three loves: music, his drums and cymbals, and his recording ventures.

We first talked about his drums, and the logic behind his fairly new set-up.

MD: You’ve changed your set-up. The extra bass drum is used for more than punctuation.

JD: Well, I use drums for harmony and melody, as well as rhythm. That’s to do with the tuning which is the aspect of using double bass drums. The idea of double bass drums is not a new one; they’ve been used for a long time. My concept of using the double bass drum is if you’re going to have them, have them tuned to different pitches.

MD: Are there specific intervals?

JD: I tune them in fourths or fifths. D and G. They’re also tuned up high so that they penetrate. Not so much in terms of volume but in the pitch and tonalities.

MD: Are they both 14 by 18 inch drums?

JD: Yeah. They’re both 18’s. I got back into two bass drums with a good friend of mine, Stu Martin. He played with John Surman in the Trio and lived for about a year in America. We were involved with Creative Music Studios in Woodstock. I was playing on his drums, and I decided to get two bass drums. I was originally using a 20 and an 18, but the 18, actually because the timbre was stronger and the pitch – it was louder than the 20. It’s a matter ofdefinition of tone. So I switched to two 18’s.

MD: I can sense the tight tuning. What type of heads are you using?

JD: I just got into a new line of heads. They’re called Pin Stripe, by Remo.

MD: For both live and studio work?

JD: Yeah, but just on the batter side. Because what I wanted, especially for miking and things was a ringing open bass drum. But on the edges of the drums are a lot of unwanted overtones, so you don’t get the definite tone. The pin stripes are double the thickness around the edge of the head, which is where the unwanted overtones come from.

MD: That’s interesting: the recent McCoy Tyner “Super Trios” album has a picture of you using black dot (Remo) heads.

JD: That wasn’t my drum set. Those were Jim Stern’s drums, Rogers drums, all with one head tuned as high as I could get them.

MD: Someone once said that you practiced by doing rudiments in front of the T.V.

JD: Well, that was when I was just beginning. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t practice anymore: I just play, I improvise. I may sit down on piano.

MD: You can sit down at the piano at leisure, but adding another bass drum on stage is a different thing. Did you just put it there and blow?

JD: I had it at home, but I just took it and, like, if it’s there I’m going to use it. I just let it develop naturally. I develop a concept of the double bass drum as I go along. I know it’s there and it’s another pitch. It’s been interesting. You know, (laughs) sometimes I’d be playing and the beater would jump out of the pedal and I’d be stuck with the left bass drum, so then I’d have to think of the left bass drum as the right foot, and it would help me develop my right foot.

MD: Do you play mostly heel-down on the pedal?

JD: I play both.

MD: What sort of pedal do you use?

JD: I use a Sonor pedal — all Sonor equipment. They’re a beautiful drum. I’ve been with them four or five years. I love them.

MD: It’s difficult to get, and it’s expensive.

JD: It’s expensive because it’s imported, but it’s the best equipment going.

MD: You tune them high, I mean, really high, and yet they still project. Why do so many drummers tune their drums so low?

JD: It’s the commercial sound, that’s all. My tuning, it’s a jazz tuning. Ten years ago it was considered a basic jazz tuning, before rock. The concert toms give you more range. They made me a special set which has double heads.

MD: They’ve got a high pitched tone!

JD: I’d like them even higher, but one of the heads busted this week. I’ve got the bottom head on the top, so I have to replace it.

MD: A lot of people are concerned about the issue of matched versus traditional grip. I notice that you compensate for traditional grip by turning the left stick around and playing with the butt end.

JD: Either way, if it feels good. For Latin playing it’s nice to use matched grip. I like to play more with this grip (gestures traditional left-hand grip) though because I get more of a touch. I can do it the other way too.

The basic DeJohnette drum set, apart from bass drums and custom concert toms, consists of a 5 1/2 inch metal snare, a standard small tom and floor tom, and finally, twin wooden “timbales” which he uses “just on some” because “they cut through to the back”.

For a long while the “DeJohnette signature” has been his imaginative use of cymbals. Although he has changed his cymbal set a number of times over the years, he has consistently been an advocate of the Swiss-made Paiste cymbal. On record, he uses an array of sizes and weights from cup-chimes to gongs to China types with their upturned edges and cylindrical bells. For high hats he uses the Sound Edge line which have heavy bottoms rippled around the edges. Jack’s cymbal colourings stem mainly from his ride cymbals, however, and he uses the Flat and Dark Rides. The latter come in 22″ size only, and have a bumpy, moon-like surface.

MD: Can you tell us about your cymbals. First of all, that’s a Dark Ride, is it not?

JD:Yeah, it’s a Dark Ride; they’re all Paiste cymbals. I use only Paiste cymbals. We worked a long time on this Dark Ride cymbal; it’s been years. It’s an extension of the K. Zildjian sound. The Dark Ride is a modification of the K-sound, but it’s darker, dryer. The purpose of the Dark Ride is to give you a minimum amount of overtones — a minimum amount of splash. That’s what the deep indentations in it are for. They cut down the build-up.

MD: What are the rest of your cymbals?

JD: Well, there’s an 18 and 16 inch 2002 splash, a Formula 602 flat ride, and a China Type, 20 inch. Paiste is coming out with a whole new line of cymbals, dark cymbals. There’ll be dark flats, rides, crashes, and high-hats. The closest sound I could give you for the high-hats was Tony’s (Williams) sound when he was with Miles, but it’s a modification of that sound — brighter, with more highs.

MD: You went to Switzerland to the Paiste factory to pick out your cymbals?

JD: Yeah. I did a thing in Monterey sponsored by Paiste. They commissioned George Grunz — he’s a Swiss-German piano composer who does the Berlin festival. He wrote a suite called “Percussion Profiles” for two Swiss drummers, Pierre Favre and Freddy Studer. At the factory we talked about this Dark Ride. The thing I like about Paiste is that they’re like artists with their cymbals. If you tell them the sound you’re looking for, they’ll experiment. Robert Paiste is an incredible guy. When he hears his cymbals on the ECM records he’s flipped out.

MD: A final note about cymbals. Some of the advertisements make it confusing for the young drummer. Your name is still seen connected with another cymbal company.

JD: I’m not with them; I use Paiste. I guess I just didn’t tell them I was changing over.

Jack DeJohnette’s musical convictions have found a vehicle in the German Manfred Etcher’s ECM record label. Eicher chooses to produce every single album released by his company and he is generally acknowledged to be a master craftsman. The “ECM sound” has become a standard of excellence for both producer and consumer alike.

In the final part of the interview Jack reflects on his relationship with ECM and about his ideas on the music scene as he encounters it.

MD: Your California work doesn’t have the distinctive drum sound; is that Manfred Eicher’s influence?

JD: Yeah, nobody but Manfred can do that. Manfred and the musicians. Together we worked on getting a drum sound, each time we do an album. Manfred really knows how to record cymbals: it’s a conception of the thing having clarity no matter how busy it is. It’s also the use of echo to enhance sounds — just the right amount.

MD: How does he get that ride cymbal sound?

JD: Well, he gets all the overtones, especially with these Paiste cymbals. He loves to record my cymbals, the touch and everything. It’s great to be doing it regularly when you know you don’t have to worry about telling a guy what to do about the engineering. And every time you do it you get more familiar, but I always come in with new cymbals. You know, it’s placement of mikes and the mixing; he adds just enough to enhance the quality of the tone and the sustain, so it rounds it out and makes the cymbal sing.

MD: What mike set-up do you use in the studio?

JD: I usually use two on bass drum, maybe a couple of stereo mikes, one mike on the snare and high hat and over the floor tom tom.

MD: You’ve done a lot of work in Europe. Is that your preference?

JD: I like to work in both places. I’d like to get more happening in the States?

MD: What do you see as problems in the American music scene?

JD: The big record companies in the States ruin jazz by giving out too much front money. They don’t make any money. ECM’s policy is lower advances so that you can see some returns on your sales. Also you get a lot of airplay in Europe. There’s more music being played. It’s a building process, and that’s the thing American record companies aren’t into: if the record doesn’t jump right out there and hit the charts right away . . . . I’m trying to build something. It’s a foundation. It’s just music! The band being what it is, “Directions”, has been called everything from fusion music to avant garde. I don’t care what anybody calls it. I like to play all different directions.

MD: You say that people have called you a “fusion band”. Fusion bands usually have really straight rhythm sections. Is that jazz?

JD: Well, it’s not a collective thing. It’s a form of jazz, but it’s a level and there are different levels. I’m more into group improvisation. I’m more into, say, aggressive players.

MD: I noticed that tonight. Everyone is really pushing.

JD: Well, it’s a primitive kind of challenge. We challenge each other: that’s where the surprises come from. I think that our New Rags album captures that spontaneity. I really like that record; I think it captures best in the studio what this band sounds like live. Spontaneity — that’s the most important thing to get on records.

MD: Do you do a lot of takes when you record?

JD: Not a lot. Two, maybe three at most. Then we leave a piece and come back to it, or we do a whole other thing. We don’t labour on it. You should get it by the third take. Sometimes a studio is cold and you have to warm up.

MD: Do you listen to much music? What sort of influences have you had?

JD: It’s hard to say. I listen to so much music it’s hard to be specific. I like pop groups, I like Redbone, Bob Marley, reggae music.

MD: Speaking about reggae, “Malibu Reggae” (“Untitled” album, ECM) is a really nice statement!

JD: Yeah, a lot of people missed that. I remember Billy Cobham did a blindfold test (in Downbeat magazine) to that. He said something to the effect that “I could go to the bathroom and make music like that”. That’s a nice compliment (laughs). Somebody told me “Billy Cobham put you down, put you down!” When I found out what he said I thought it was great! I’ve known Billy for years.

MD: What is your opinion of Billy Cobham, Buddy Rich?

JD: Billy can do anything. Billy can play jazz or he can play rock. He really excells at jazz-rock. He’s got enormous chops. I like Buddy. I like a lot of drummers. I have no . . . I mean, I like musicians, period. Not just drummers.

MD: You don’t seem to have a problem of compromising your standards. Do you have trouble competing since your music isn’t really commercial?

JD: Well, my music is not considered as accessible as Jan Hammer’s, Chick Correa’s, or Herbie Hancock. But it’s not important to me. I’m just happy to be with ECM, which has a distribution which has established a criteria for quality regardless of what people say about it being too “pretty”, “classical”, or “European”. You just have to keep your mind on the fact that there are people around who care. I play this music because I know there are people around who appreciate it.