Review: Jack DeJohnette at Montreux

Thomas Rees sees the Jack DeJohnette trio (Matt Garrison, Ravi Coltrane) capture the spirit of John Coltrane on the banks of Lake Geneva

“Jack’s idea was to teach us some music and some history,” says bassist Matt Garrison as he discusses the origins of the group; a gig in Brooklyn in the mid 90s at which they performed a suite of John Coltrane originals. After a break of almost 20 years, they’re playing together once again, celebrating the work of the great saxophonist, with whom all three men have a personal connection. Drummer DeJohnette played with Coltrane in the 1960s, while Matt is the son of his long-serving bassist Jimmy Garrison. Ravi, of course, is Coltrane’s own flesh and blood.

For those who knew him, the pressure to do justice to the great man’s legacy could easily become a burden. But the trio approach his music with freedom and creativity, unpicking classic melodies and varying the set with standards and pieces of their own.

They open with a collective composition that sees Ravi’s soprano slithering over a metallic wash of cymbal and guttural, distorted bass guitar. It builds in intensity before breaking into a fragmented funk groove that sets up DeJohnette’s Seventh D complete with a virtuosic solo from Garrison built on twisting lines, overdriven chords and harmonics that cut through the electronic mist like pinpricks of light.

A nostalgic rendition of Joe Henderson’s Black Narcissus comes next, drifting over textural work from bass and drums, and then we get our first glimpse of Coltrane, with DeJohnette moving to the piano and Ravi stretching out over variations on the theme of Giant Steps.

A slow burner that draws the audience in as it gathers pace, the set feels considered and mature. Lydia, a dedication to DeJohnette’s wife with a three-chord bass hook and a soft soprano solo that peaks with breathless holds, is a further highlight. So too is The Sidewinder, written by Coltrane’s trumpeter Lee Morgan, its loose but steady time refreshing after so much free playing.

DeJohnette, in particular, is inventive and varied throughout, whether tugging at the edges of Blue in Green with impressionistic piano ostinati or kicking his kit around as Ravi leaps off The Sidewinder’s familiar final riff and launches into his second chorus.

The trio’s very best, however, is saved until last when the melody of Wise One breaks through a gentle bass introduction and sends a shiver through the audience. Fragile at first, it grows in strength, culminating in a tenor solo from Ravi that aches with emotion. For a moment it’s as if Coltrane is in the room.

Far from being a burden, the personal connections that the trio have with the great saxophonist’s music prove to be their greatest strength. You can hear how much it means to them to be performing it.

“Some of the tunes we play, things that are more intimate, I wouldn’t want to play it with anyone else,” says Garrison in a pre-concert interview. It’s easy to see why. No other group could play Coltrane’s music quite like this.

– Thomas Rees

Photo credit: 2014 FFJM – Daniel Balmat

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