(First in a regularly occasional series) Turner Classic Movies has “The Essentials,” the BBC has their long-running “Desert Island Discs” program, and Alex Ross’ new book is titled “Listen To This; ” lists of things they consider the very best, the most special. I have my own, and this post inaugurates what will be an ongoing sub-series. As time passes, I’ll be accumulating an annotated list of recordings that are personally important. They are not necessarily all my favorites, or the ones I love and listen to the most, but they are ones that have some quality (which hopefully I’ll discern and explain) that makes them stick in my mind, recordings that have a powerful effect on me and that, if I were to have to choose discs to keep, would make up that list.
Now, in a particular order but in no particular rank . . . First is a recording I’ve been living with since it first came out in 1980, Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition . The title is also the name of the ensemble that he led, off an on, for roughly a decade or more. On this debut recording, the group is made up of Arthur Blythe on alto sax, David Murray on tenor and bass clarinet, Peter Warren playing cello and bass and the leader playing piano and melodica, along with sitting behind the drum kit.
When the LP first came out, I was fascinated and baffled by it. As I wore down the grooves, I replaced it with the CD and find that through the years it’s grown on me to the extent that there are times when I have to listen to it out of an almost physical need. It’s great urban music. Things that sounded a little stiff and arty at the beginning are now fully rooted in my psyche as stylish and sincere sophistication.
What is it like? It’s explicitly Modernist, explicitly dedicate to certain musicians and certain styles, explicitly involved with playing around with existing ideas and teasing out new responses and possibilities. There’s only five tracks, and they are easy to break down; “One For Eric” and “Zoot Suite” have bi-modal structures, with the former alternating between a riff that could have been played by Dolphy, and a choppy but still flowing rhythmic structure supporting the solos, while the latter is a jump tune, distilled down to it’s densest essence, again alternating with a completely different and more modern solo structure. DeJohnette doesn’t try and synthesize these concepts, he merely juxtaposes them and offers the question, what do you think? “Central Park West” is a simple and lovely arrangement of the Coltrane tune, with the leader filling out the voices on melodica, and the burning “India” is more re-arranged Coltrane. The closing “Journey To The Twin Planet” is, like the first two cuts, a DeJohnette piece, and culminates in a peaking intensity before settling back into a literally composed, Minimalist repose.
What makes it special? One part is the tone, a combination of intellect, wit, and seriously intense playing. The music is committed and elusive, coherent but with an abstract expression that has one coming back to discover more. Another is the interesting and musically successful feature of DeJohnette himself playing multiple instruments, but without overdubbing. His piano intro to “India” drops out after the bass and horns enter, then the drums come in once he slides onto the stool. It’s the type of detail in a studio recording that makes it bracingly live. This is also one of the prototypes for what can be called the ECM sound; a balance of sharp transparency and just enough resonance – the music seems to jump off the surface, with the cymbals sizzling and shimmering. Ultimately, though, it’s about the horns. Blythe and Murray were young and relatively new to the scene when the recording was made, and they are great complements, each with a personal and unique combination in their sound of the past and the future. For each, this is some of their keenest, hottest playing. There’s also an involving retrospective sadness inescapable in listening to Special Edition, as their careers diverged drastically. Murray has become one of the Titans of contemporary jazz, a tremendous and tremendously prolific musician who has created a beautiful synthesis of Ben Webster and Albert Ayler, while Blythe somehow lost his chops and, when his wind returned, it could be heard that he lost his ambition. He made two LPs for Columbia that are exciting, great and important – Lennox Avenue Breakdown and Illusions – and that demonstrate some of the most fertile and successful post-fusion, post-avant jazz thinking, and then essentially fell off the face of the musical earth. His sound was one of the most beautiful ever produced on the alto sax, and his playing on this disc was his finest ever.