When pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock gather tomorrow night at the Kennedy Center, they plan to perform several numbers they recently recorded on Jarrett's two "Standards" albums. But listeners shouldn't be surprised if the musicians find an entirely different approach to each selection. After all, says DeJohnette, "that's what's nice about the trio. The music keeps changing and we keep challenging each other. What you heard on the records was just a moment in time."
In recording the albums, DeJohnette says that one member of the trio would merely suggest a familiar tune "and we would take it from there. Most of the tunes we did in one or two takes, but they'll probably be totally transformed in concert. We might play a few tunes and then go into a 10- or 15-minute improvisation."
A pianist himself, DeJohnette is keenly aware of the challenge he faces while playing with Jarrett in a trio setting. "We're very attuned to listening to each other," he says from his home in Upstate New York. "When we play we often engage in a very high level of improvisation, and I have to see that I maintain the rhythmic intensity for the pianist without playing too loud. And, of course, at the same time, I have to give enough of a push to keep myself satisfied."
The past year has been particularly satisfying for DeJohnette. He's toured Europe and Japan with the "Standards" trio (a "live" recording of one of the group's overseas concerts may be released next year), performed with his own Special Edition band in Europe, and released his first piano album, a rather straightforward trio session that, among other things, pays tribute to some of DeJohnette's early jazz keyboard models, notably Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans.
"I know the piano album has received mixed reviews," DeJohnette confides. "Everything from raves from people who loved it, to people saying I should stick to the drums. But this is just one facet of my piano playing. In the future, other records will be completely different in style and concept. My approach to the piano, like my approach to all music is multifaceted . . . Future piano albums will document different stages in my development."
DeJohnette grew up in Chicago, studied classical piano and later became enamored of R&B and rock pianists. He switched to drums in his teens and soon became more interested in jazz, where he quickly established a name for himself. However, until the release of his piano album, he played the keyboards infrequently on recordings, though he acknowledges that all the years he spent studying the instrument have paid off handsomely.
"The piano has given me an orchestral approach to the drums in terms of color and harmonic and melodic structure," DeJohnette says. "Each drum is a musical instrument -- they're not just a collection of pots and pans. People tend to forget that. People get all romantic about the role of the piano or the guitar or the saxophone and tend to think the drums are less important as a solo instrument, or even when it comes to accompaniment. They're as expressive as any other instrument."
DeJohnette describes his music as "multidirectional." He says he adopted the term not so much because he didn't want to be at the mercy of critics looking for a new label as because it's a responsibility he feels as a musician.
"Years ago people started calling the music jazz -- musicians weren't calling it that but the name stuck," he says. "When swing came in, critics called it swing and again the name stuck. When Bird Charlie Parker and Diz Gillespie came around, critics called it bebop and the name stuck. So I decided to take responsibility for my music. I called it multidirectional because I'm involved in a lot of different settings and play a lot of different music and to me, music is either good or bad. I don't care what it is -- funk, bop, jazz -- I don't view each separately."
Although DeJohnette has performed more often with Jarrett and Peacock during the last year than with his own group, Special Edition remains the principal focus of his energies. He's particularly happy with the quintet's latest recording, the widely acclaimed "Album Album," and hopes to record the band at various performances around the country next spring, perhaps one of them in Washington.
He sees the group as a culmination of all the experiences he's had playing with everyone over the years -- including the AACM, Charles Lloyd, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and the various members of DeJohnette's earlier bands, Directions and New Directions.
"Not only that, I suppose it's the culmination of the experiences of all the other musicians in the band," he says. "I'm doing exactly what I want to do. The music may not be that accessible, but it can be. I don't think I'm crazy playing this music. It's strong, there's an audience for it and we can reach it. It just takes time."