32. Drawn to the drums

Calypso Falto. From Gateway, Homecoming, 1995

Here’s one way these tracks get chosen. I’ve always been drawn to the drums. Hence to drummer-led groups. I’m more selective about drummers these days. A youthful infatuation with mammoth Billy Cobham solos has been displaced by the conviction that the drum solo, if there is one, is probably going to be the most boring episode of 95 per cent of live gigs.

Still, the great drummers invariably pull me back to their work, and I loved the albums Jack DeJohnette made as leader in the late 19070s and early ’80s in various bands called Directions (a nod to Miles and the original sub-title of In a Silent Way, I guess). They were raucous, loose-limbed affairs, with a brilliant roster of (then) young soloists, and hugely enjoyable.

So I worked through several of them, thinking it only remained to choose the track that best captured what made them so deeply good. And none of them was quite right… There is great playing, and much variety. Some tracks still sound great (One for Eric, for instance) with David Murray wailing on bass clarinet and Arthur Blythe on searing form on alto.

But I really wanted something where DeJohnette really shows that almost ruthless, relentless quality he has at his most intense. And while there are some of those on the Directions albums, none quite do it for me musically. I feel now that DeJ’s own composotions don’t wear so well – too many lean toward pastiche it seems.

Cue a casting of the mind instead over a slew of other recordings where he plays fantastically well on others’ music. Kenny Wheeler’s Gnu High? Still a constantly played favourite, but the drumming, superlative though it is, remains that of a peerless accompanist. Ditto the innumerable Jarrett Standards recordings. Then it came to me: the obvious answer is Gateway.

A democratic threesome who sometimes played delicate, pastoral pieces. Those, I fear are largely forgotten – at least by me. Gateway, in my mind, are the ultimate power trio, from the never to be surpassed Backwoods Song, that opens their first Album, onwards.

And choosing Gateway is an excuse to bring back Dave Holland, who certainly needs to feature here again, and to sing the praises of John Abercrombie, who – in an era blessed with so many fine contemporary jazz guitar players – I long ago concluded was the best of the bunch, because the most consistently interesting.

There are a bunch of Gateway tracks where DeJohnette lets rip, but this one – from their third album – perhaps gives the effect the drummer was aiming for on some of the songs on his own sessions that pointed toward other genres (New Orleans Strutt; Third World Anthem; Zoot Suite) but does it without sounding slight or derivative. Calypso Falto, Abercombie’s tune, could be translated, I guess, as “wonky calypso”, and that touch of humour comes across so it has charm as well as heft.

After the dreamy, lightly fuzzed Abercrombie intro, the trio’s engine fires up. Drums and bass kick in for the theme and we’re off to the races for the next six minutes. Abercrombie’s solo is melody-led, but the sound is strongly in his heavily electric Aberclaughlin-McCrombie mode, which one can never have enough of. Holland has a solo that pounds out the rhythm as he improvises. And the drummer has a fine time underscoring every move the other two make with his most uninhibited, emphatic stick work, and a memorable solo of his own where – well, let’s say dynamics are not his main concern here, at least not ’til the very end. It’s one of many obvious counter-examples to the lazy generalisation that there is an “ECM sound” that dominates all the label’s recordings (not the same as to say there is an Eicher aesthetic that governs the overall outlook, which there clearly is). It’s also an occasion to be grateful for the quality of that outfit’s recording, which captures the drums, in particular, with the clarity and precision DeJohnette deserves.

It’s maybe not the most profound music any of these three have made, but it is one of the Gateway tracks that always brings a smile to my face when it starts that’s still there several minutes after it’s over. A bunch of live shows by this band have appeared on YouTube recently – which often surpass even these great recordings. A couple date from the time of the sessions for this release. Calypso Falto hasn’t been included for an extended workout on the ones that have surfaced so far, though. I’m still hoping…

Meanwhile, here’s a shorter taste of what they looked like in concert first time around (80s, rather than ’90s). I did catch them in those days at the Bracknell festival, but can’t honestly say I remember anything about the set. Those were intense weekends!

Why the No 32? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify

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