Some lead, some follow... at least that's the usual tradition in music. For every Miles Davis—who grabbed the reins of leadership after leaving Charlie Parker's employ and only stepped back into the sideman's role a small handful of times during the following 40 years—there's a Harold Mabern or Bennie Maupin, who rarely lead a band or have their name above the title on a recording. It's a question of both temperament and ambition.
With that truism in mind, and spurred by his appearance as a partner on two current releases and a couple of Facebook posts from him about his current tour with Keith Jarrett, I began to think last night about the glory days of drummer Jack DeJohnette as bandleader.
Everyone in jazz knows DeJohnette as one of the greatest drummers of his generation, a musician who is arguably on more indispensable, influential recordings than any of his peers. Yet, likely no one younger than 40 recalls the superb bands he led for a decade beginning in the mid-'70s. You could make a case that DeJohnette was a forerunner to multi-taskers like Dave Douglas, he had so much going on. Not content just to lead his open-ended band New Directions, with Lester Bowie, John Abercrombie and Eddie Gomez, he also started a powerful two-reed group called Special Edition, with David Murray (or Chico Freeman), John Purcell and Howard Johnson in the front line. Around that time, I also caught him in Montreal with a killer band featuring Julius Hemphill.
These units put out a string of memorable recordings on ECM: New Directions (1978); Special Edition (1979); Tin Can Alley (1980); and Album, Album (1984). Not only was his writing compelling, but DeJohnette seemed to engender a unified group feel whenever he was in the lead.
In addition to being in constant demand for special projects, as well as his ongoing partnership with Jarrett and Gary Peacock in the Standards Trio, he has put out another handful of recordings under his own name, but not since the breakup of those two bands has he maintained as strong a unit or produced an album as expansive and timeless as those ECM gems (although I have a soft spot for Music For The Fifth World from 1992 with Vernon Reid and John Scofield—sort of Power Tools Lite).