DeJohnette brings erudite Latin to Hop

by Tom Denison | 1/31/05 6:00am

Six luminaries of the contemporary music world convened at the Hopkins Center last Saturday for an evening of innovative and elegant Latin Jazz. The Jack DeJohnette Latin Project, developed by the legendary drummer while in residence at the Montreal Jazz Festival, brought together some of the most talented figures in Latin and experimental music in Spaulding Auditorium for a program of ambitious Latin originals and standards. Clarinetist Don Byron, pianist Eddie Gomez and bassist Jerome Harris aided DeJohnette and his rhythm section in an elevated interpretation of traditional ethnic music. This was intellectualized Latin, music designed for concert halls instead of dance halls. Yet what it lacked in ebullience, the Project made up for in technical power, playing through a set of difficult songs with a consistently high level of performance.

Most of the night's tunes were originals, composed by Byron, Gomez and Harris. DeJohnette, though the nominal bandleader, did not contribute any songs of his own, showcasing the work of his bandmates instead. Byron's compositions were the strongest, and he served as the on-stage conductor as well, allowing DeJohnette to focus on the rhythm section.

DeJohnette played drums in the distinctive manner that has been his trademark since his participation in the sessions for Miles Davis' seminal fusion album "Bitches' Brew." Even when shifted into the Latin idiom, his style remained explosive and propulsive with moments of great subtlety. Though he provided the backbeat, the three members soloed equally and emphasized instrumental interplay rather than individual displays of virtuosity.

The three percussionists were the focus of the show: DeJohnette on trap drums, Luisito Quintero on timbales, and Giovanni Hidalgo on conga. The drummers showed a keen awareness of dynamic levels, never overpowering the other instrumentalists while creating a powerful and unceasing sense of rhythm. Byron in particular managed to distinguish himself with his adventurous reed playing, but on most of the tunes he and Harris merely served to ornament the increasingly complex grooves that the rhythm section was developing. He played clarinet with a jagged staccato style reminiscent of avant-garde reedman Eric Dolphy, yet demonstrated a clear melodic conception as well. He coaxed a more gentle and fluid sound from his tenor saxophone and exploited the contrast between instruments to create a sense of variation between songs and solos.

The unexpected star of the night was percussionist Luisito Quintero, described by DeJohnette as a "monster" on the timbales, who took the most energetic and polytechnic solos of the group. Quintero's lengthy solos on the first and last songs were the show's highlights. These were the moments when the band overcame the weight of the music and emphasized loose improvisation over technical perfection.

This was serious music, every aspect carefully considered and constructed. While the sheen of perfection occasionally obscured the raw energy of the music with an oppressive attention to detail, the Project managed to transcend this self-imposed limitation with sheer virtuosity. These musicians did not aspire to popular appeal; instead, DeJohnette and his band successfully re-envisioned a populist party music as fine art.