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Jack DeJohnette
Ann Arbor MI, 19 February 2005

When drummers get together they tend to have way too much fun. It doesn’t matter if it’s the drum line from the high school marching band or a trio of all-star percussionists—they’re likely to stir up their own atmosphere complete with earth-shaking tremors and rhythmic crosswinds. Add a contingent of drum enthusiasts egging them on, and you have a fair description of the Jack DeJohnette Latin Project’s performance February 19 in Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium. The University of Michigan was one of six stops for the band, which features master conguero Giovanni Hidalgo and timbales whiz Luisita Quintero, with support from pianist Edsel Gomez, reedman Don Byron, and electric bassist Jerome Harris.

Before the pounding started, DeJohnette read a poetic invocation, a plea for peace, which the other members of the band complemented with understated swatches of sound. Byron, on clarinet, echoed the arch of the lines, adding a few playful squeals when DeJohnette mentioned the media.

Then DeJohnette got down to business. Introducing Byron’s “You Are #6”, he started solo with a simple figure that moved from muffled snare to toms, evoking the hand percussion that would come. He took kernels of rhythm and stretched them, accumulating rhythmic complication while that basic figure remained evident. The solo lasted more than ten minutes, much to the delight of those who came to hear drums.

Then he segued into Byron’s tune. Byron played the theme on tenor saxophone, an instrument he returned to frequently during the evening. His theme statement seemed diffident, querulous. He adopted a more assertive tone as he began his solo, as well he needed to given the white caps of percussion he was surfing. Both he and Gomez who followed him were pretty near swallowed up by the percussion’s thunder, and Harris was inaudible.

The band was heavily amplified and—during the first two numbers—the instruments lacked individual presence. The sound improved as the evening progressed (or maybe my ears adjusted). I later spoke with someone who’d heard the band in Columbus, Ohio two nights before the Ann Arbor show and he reported the sound was even worse there. The piece ended with exchanges between Hidalgo and Quintero.

That set the pattern for the evening—long, fiery percussion jams full of polyrhythms and crosshatched Latin cadences with passages by Byron and Gomez sprinkled in for variety. They also provided the bulk of the charts, all originals save for Byron’s arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Entr’acte”. DeJohnette’s sole contribution to the book, “Six Into Four”, served as the encore. Regardless of the composer, the music had compositional integrity and subtlety that eschewed the clichés of Latin music.

Hidalgo opened the second number, Gomez’s “Bayoman”. Again the audience was treated to an extended pyrotechnic display. Hidalgo’s dancing patterns possess a deep-seated lyricism. He seems to be summoning songs from deep within his congas. At one point, he played a bit of “Camptown Races”, the “doo-dah” drawing guffaws from the listeners. And then with Quintero’s collaboration he instigated a call-and-response with the audience, who accented his lines with handclaps. This just helped to further draw the crowd into the performance. And while there were the requisite number of early departees as the two-and-a-half hour show progressed, most listeners were hooked.

And well they should have been—no number passed without a highlight. Gomez in particular delivered several ferocious solos. He tapped the inner percussion section within the depths of the house Steinway (which was for some reason closed and miked—just another sign of the intrusion of pop aesthetics on concert sound). He cascaded across the keyboard, pushing his solos beyond tonality. Even when he played catchy melodic lines early in a solo, they evoked tunes that would spring from a balafon. His piquant “Coqui Serenade” was as close to a ballad as the band played, and even here the peeping, pastoral line glided on a percussive breeze.

Byron proved an effective tenor player. While his work on the larger horn is less virtuosic than his more familiar clarinet playing, it proved the right sound for the band, a mix of fluid abstraction with sudden bursts of earthy funk. His clarinet work was, as expected, stunning. He opened his own “Homegoing” with an extended cadenza. He climbed a ladder of notes with classical power and grace only to slip down to a tart note that winked at the preceding formalism. Throughout he pushed his playing so that passages were forced off the instrument into rasps of air and squeaks. Harris, whose bass was buried most of the night—though when it emerged under a piano solo we got a taste of the fluid counterpoint we were missing—stepped out front on his own “Hand in Hand”, both singing a wordless line and playing a fleet, blurry solo.

Still the night belonged to the drummers. DeJohnette introduced his solo that opened “Entr’acte” by noting: “We’re near Detroit. You’ll pick up on this.” Then he launched into a primal funk beat that he marched all over the percussive landscape. All three percussionists appeared to be having a wonderful time, and that joyousness was expressed through their playing. “Homegoing”, with its 7/4 vamp, inspired a round robin with solos that had the tape flying from Hidalgo’s fingers. DeJohnette almost levitated on the next to last go-around.

After a display that capped more than two hours of driven performance, it would have been reasonable to expect the encore would be short and to the point. Instead DeJohnette set the tone with another extended solo, again emphasizing his toms and muffled snare, much in the same manner he had opened the show. The band charged through, seemingly unwilling to stop, until Hidalgo slapped out a final two notes to add the exclamation mark to a night of bold, stomping music that in the end even seemed to leave even the most enthusiastic drum junkie a bit wasted and very satisfied.