He’s the keeper of the beat

Boston Globe, October 4, 2009

Where to begin? The early days in Chicago, between blues, bebop, and the mid-’60s avant-garde? The time in Charles Lloyd’s band, or the years with Miles Davis when the master went electric with “Bitches Brew”? The four-decade friendship with Keith Jarrett and the subtle intimacy of their jazz standards trio? The Indian-infused work with Alice Coltrane, the jazz-rock with Vernon Reid, or the Spanish and African projects? Did we mention the Grammy-winning new age record?

With a discography of that quality and depth, you could call drummer Jack DeJohnette a witness to musical history. But more than that, he’s been its timekeeper – the man with the sticks, supplying a phenomenal range of modern sounds with their pulse and syncopation.

This makes DeJohnette, 67, an inspired choice for next week’s residency at Berklee College of Music. It features clinics and rehearsals for students, leading up to a major public concert on Thursday, with Berklee professor and edgy improvisational guitarist David Fiuczynski plus some of the cream of the school’s emerging talent.

Among living jazz drummers, DeJohnette is probably second only to Roy Haynes in historical importance and influence on today’s players. But the Berklee program shines a light on parts of his work that get less attention – as a band leader and composer.

In the concert’s first half, DeJohnette and the Berklee ensemble will revisit work he wrote for Special Edition, his early-’80s band that included, in its original lineup, saxophonists David Murray and Arthur Blythe. The second half features DeJohnette’s newest work, including microtonal Middle Eastern and Indian-influenced pieces.

“I’ve always been eclectic in my tastes,” DeJohnette says on the phone from his home in the Catskills, where he cherishes the fresh air and peaceful setting. Having started out with classical piano training, he also listened from an early age to the Folkways and recordings that brought to America what we now call world music.

“I just flow from one to the other,” he says of his comfort in multiple styles – not to mention streams of jazz that some listeners would consider antithetical. “It’s all music. I don’t really make a differentiation.”

DeJohnette credits the wide-open cultural mood of the late ’60s, when he emerged in Chicago and then moved to New York, for his own catholic tendencies. “The environment was conducive,” he says. “Radio stations were eclectic. You could hear Miles Davis followed by Janis Joplin.”

The great bandleaders whom he frequented help shape his own leadership personality. “Miles taught me how to be prepared to play what you don’t know, and not rely on cliches,” he says. “Sonny Rollins – one of the great masters still going today – these musicians relied on trust. They could say certain things that they wanted, but you were left to come up with your own ideas to enhance and breathe life into it.”

DeJohnette says he tries, from the drummer’s seat, to promote the same freedom. His approach is deeply sympathetic to whatever band surrounds him: high and crisp, it refrains from bombast in favor of a sometimes quiet but always simmering energy.

It makes playing with DeJohnette an especially rewarding experience, says Fiuczynski. The two met in a suitably eclectic setting: Fiuczynski, an experimental player best known for his hard-to-classify band Screaming Headless Torsos, was improvising in a neo-klezmer style at the wedding of clarinetist Don Byron. DeJohnette was there and liked what he heard. Now, the guitarist returns the compliment in spades.

“When I’m playing with him and he starts swinging,” Fiuczynski says, “I tune into something he channels that’s been there a long time ago and will be here long after we’re gone. When he starts grooving there’s some kind of primal energy that is what I’d like to hear in my music. It’s what I’d like people to say about me.”

The two are forming a band with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and bassist Jerome Harris that is slated to record next year. It’s called Fifth World – alluding to a concept DeJohnette says he learned from a Native American woman healer. It refers to the move from a world driven by greed to one filled with love and cooperation.

“I use the fifth world because this is a time of dramatic changes in our life,” he says. “There’s a lot of pushing and pulling, and people stonewalling progress.” He mentions the proliferation of insults on cable news. Then he expands the frame to the stress of daily life today. That, he says, led him to make “Peace Time,” the meditative record that won the new age Grammy this year.

“There is so much stress and fear-based stuff coming at us,” he says. “We cannot function at our optimum if we’re constantly battered and stressed.” It’s an apt observation from a drummer, a timekeeper attuned to the rhythms that surround us, and it fits his music as much as his philosophy: “There’s too much chatter and emphasis on speed,” DeJohnette says. “Sometimes change does take time.”