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“Jack DeJohnette, who as a drummer-bandleader has rarely drawn hard distinctions between searching and finding, recently formed a trio of compatible ideals. Featuring Ravi Coltrane on saxophones and Matt Garrison on electric bass, it’s both earthy and elastic, capable of sneaking in and out of song form, disinclined to rush toward resolution…” — Nate Chinen, The New York Times

There is a lot of history concentrated in the new trio led by Jack DeJohnette. Fifty years ago, as a young drummer sitting in with John Coltrane’s group, he played with the fathers of both Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison. Ravi, an accomplished saxophonist in his own right nowadays, not only had an iconic father but also the questing keyboardist-harpist Alice Coltrane as his mother. Matthew, bassist and electronic experimentalist, is the son of Jimmy Garrison, the bassist of the classic Coltrane quartet. For In Movement, their first album together, DeJohnette, Coltrane and Garrison touch upon multiple legacies, starting with that of John Coltrane. The recording begins with a distinctive treatment of his ever-moving Civil Rights Era elegy “Alabama,” a version that balances reverence with independence. The trio also abstracts the impressionistic “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis and Bill Evans (with DeJohnette one of the few musicians to have played in the bands of both men). There’s also “Serpentine Fire” from the hit ’70s R&B songbook of Earth, Wind & Fire; it serves as a funky tribute to the group’s late leader, Maurice White, who also collaborated with DeJohnette in their early years. There are original homages, too: “The Two Jimmy’s” nods doubly to fellow innovators Jimmy Garrison and Jimi Hendrix, while “Rashied” salutes the late, great Rashied Ali, the drummer of Coltrane’s free-minded late period.

Yet for all the album’s wealth of historical references, the trio of DeJohnette, Coltrane and Garrison is a forward-looking band, their ears sharply attuned to the possibilities of 21st-century sound. Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, each making his ECM debut, respond magnificently to DeJohnette’s driving grooves and colour-rich cymbal play. Ravi provides cascading solos, while Garrison adds growling lines on five-string electric bass guitar as well as atmospheric, looping electronics. DeJohnette says of his trio mates: “We are connected at a very high, extremely personal level that I believe comes through in the music.” The three musicians have long histories together, with DeJohnette serving as something of a second father to Matthew and mentoring Ravi at length, too. They first performed as a trio for a one-off show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1992. Twenty years later, they reunited for a series of exploratory rehearsals and concerts, eventually convening in New York’s Avatar Studios with ECM’s Manfred Eicher, whose galvanizing role as producer helped shape the trio’s free-flowing performative chemistry into a wonderfully cohesive, allusive studio statement.

“The sound and synergy of the group is our three voices coming together, collectively, acoustically and electronically,” DeJohnette says. Riffing on the trio’s family connections, Jack adds that the bond is not only musical but also spiritual. “Matthew lived with me in his teen years,” the drummer points out. “He used to stay down in the basement and practice, and I’d work with him, tell him to listen to this, that and the other. Then he went to the Berklee School of Music and, consequently, got hired by Gary Burton. Matthew went on to be a composer and work with some top names in jazz: Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, John McLaughlin. He and Ravi are now seasoned musicians, moving into their next phase of development as creative artists. Matt has a great use of time and space. We do a lot of experiments with electronics, which Matthew uses to create layers, arpeggios and loops. He’s always coming up with something fresh. Ravi has a unique sound on tenor, soprano and, now for the first time on record, the sopranino. He’s got great intuition and his own way of playing, rhythmically and harmonically. Ravi and Matthew are aware of their heritage, but part of the intention of their music is to be recognized for who they are – and that’s already apparent. That’s why I play with them, because they have their own voices.”

Ravi, reflecting on the Coltrane and Davis interpretations, says: “It’s great to be able to play ‘Alabama’ and ‘Blue in Green.’ It’s a pleasure to play any classic music like that, but the goal is to find how our own voices fit within those songs. They’re flexible enough to not think of them as songs tied to the past. So much beautiful music has been laid down, but to strictly re-create things is not what we’re here for.” About his approach to hallowed material, Matthew adds: “The use of electronics gives me an opportunity to re-imagine how I hear those compositions. I like to be able to take those things and filter them through my own processes and then have that bounce off Ravi and Jack, so that the music becomes this series of undulating movements.”

Along with the trio composition “Two Jimmy’s,” that sense of undulating movements marks the aptly named title track, also written by the trio. The same truth-in-advertising goes for “Soulful Ballad,” which finds DeJohnette playing his composition on his other prime instrument, the piano. (He led a piano trio from the keyboard in his early Chicago days.) Another lyrical number penned by DeJohnette, “Lydia,” is dedicated to his wife. He says: “It has become a mainstay in our repertoire. Lydia has a very special place in our hearts, of course, so the song evokes a lot of feeling, and beauty.”

One of the album’s hottest performances is the duet composition “Rashied,” featuring Ravi keening on sopranino over DeJohnette’s roiling, circular drum patterns à la Ali. About the track’s inspiration, the saxophonist says: “Rashied Ali was an incredible man, an incredible drummer, and somebody who affected us personally in a very deep way. Rashied was like a second father to me, just as Jack has become like a second father to me.” DeJohnette adds: “It was influenced by the Interstellar Space duo album by John Coltrane and Rashied. That vibe, and Rashied’s energy, comes through our piece.” Matthew notes that the two players got a standing ovation from the crew in Avatar while recording it. DeJohnette recalls: “I said, ‘Let’s play “Rashied”,’ and all of a sudden, boom! Ravi got the sopranino, and we took off – he was on fire.”

In his New York Times review of a Brooklyn show by the trio just before they went into the studio, Nate Chinen praised Ravi’s “impassioned… heroic voice.” The critic also extolled Matthew’s “expressionistic use of color and texture.” Chinen described the group’s hard-grooving interpretation of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire” – which ended up as a highlight of In Movement – as “smart, slanted… snake-like, evoking Mr. DeJohnette’s jazz-funk shift with Miles Davis.” Remarkably, the 73-year-old drummer – who has logged more studio time for ECM than any other musician over nearly five decades – plays with the energy and acuity of a musician less than half his age, laying down a deep, sophisticated backbeat on “Serpentine Fire.” He remains a kinetic marvel, his rare combination of power and grace reminding one of what Miles Davis said in his autobiography about DeJohnette’s playing on Bitches Brew: “Jack gave me a deep groove that I just loved to play over.”

Musing upon the studio experience with Ravi and Matthew, DeJohnette says: “I’m inspired by what we did – we got into some amazing sonic grooves. It’s a continuation, a moving of our music forward – music that’s not locked into any one genre. I know I haven’t heard any combination like this. There’s the past and the present and the future in what we’re doing.”

© Studio Svengali, July 2024
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