Writings About Music

Conflagrating Rag and Tal: Jackie McLean and Jack DeJohnette

Alto saxophonist Jacke McLain's Jacknife and Demon’s Dance albums, recorded on Blue Note Records in 1965 and 1967, respectively, are among the finest recordings in jazz history. This accomplishment stems from a historic synergy arising from the pairing of McLean with drummer Jack DeJohnette, together with trumpeters Lee Morgan and Woody Shaw, and with pertinent contributions from trumpeter Charles Tolliver, pianists LaMont Johnson and Larry Willis, and bassists Larry Ridley, Don Moore and Scott Holt.

During my time in college, I noticed that some of my absolute favorite jazz recordings were linked by a common denominator: an omnificent and exalted drummer. Preferred albums by alto saxophonists Sonny Stitt (also tenor saxophone) and Phil Woods, Tune-Up and Musique du Bois, respectively, both feature drummer Alan Dawson. Similarly, favored albums by McLean and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, the previously mentioned Demon’s Dance and Jacknife; and Satori by Konitz, are all collaborative efforts with DeJohnette: the male percussion principle of Shiva (tal) aroused to a joint frenzy by the female melody element of Shakti (rag), in terms of Hindu metaphysical philosophy.

My love and fascination for the percussion element in jazz was fed during my college years by carefully watching the Village Vanguard schedule, and whenever Elvin Jones appeared with his group, I would arrive early to claim the small table next to where the drums are situated, alongside a pillar. This was a waterfall-like saturation of sublime drumming, yet my strongest memory is how Jones would give me a warm handshake together with a brilliant smile after every set.

Later on, after moving to Los Angeles, and shifting my focus to the classical music of India, I noticed a familiar pattern: the finest raga improvisations, both live and recorded, were actuated by a tabla artist who matched the artistic level of the soloist. The most famous example is how sitarist Ravi Shankar was astute enough to collaborate with the greatest tabla player of the time, Alla Rakha, for decades, preceded by a pairing with Chatur Lal, another percussion genius. Conversely, whenever premiere Indian classical and jazz soloists mix with percussionists who have not yet achieved their level of individual accomplishment, the musical yield is greatly diminished.


Jackie McLean has, arguably, the most magnificently fermentative sheer sound in the entire history of jazz. No jazz artist encapsulates the teeming urban grit, violence, danger, and desperate passion of our world more effectively than McLean. His deeply personal intonation stretches the concept of blues tuning to the limit and beyond, and this extreme vibrational essence was most perfectly realized when distilled inside the arsenal of metal disks (cymbals) and skin drums meticulously calibrated, and launched into the sonic maelstrom spontaneously by DeJohnette.

Another essential element of McLean’s incantatory improvisation was his ability to absorb and assimilate within the mantle of a personal style the titanic influences of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane more effectively than any other musician. When I related this observation to Jack DeJohnette he concurred.

It is the magic of a liberated sound that initially draws us to jazz, where the united spirits of improvisers, composers and lyricists collaborate to triumph over oppression in determined, fearless and joyful form.

On the two separate days Jackie McLean entered the studio to record Jacknife, December 22, 1965; and Demon’s Dance, September 24, 1967, he met his sonic match in the personage of DeJohnette, whose playing leaps into the invisible space above the bandstand where improvising minds and spirits gain entrance by merit and boldness. Most percussionists defer to the soloist, but DeJohnette possesses the confidence and agility to co-inhabit this domain, and the results are historic.

While pondering over a subtle element of big band drumming I detected in DeJohnette’s playing, I was eventually able to put my finger on the unexpected visage of Buddy Rich, also notable for a dramatic presence, insatiable drive, and technical perfection. (I do not know whether or not Jack agrees with this linkage.)

Adding to the splendor of these recordings is the presence of a favorite trumpeter, Lee Morgan, whose tone shines like the dome of a great temple in fabled Shangri-La. Morgan is featured on Jacknife, and Woody Shaw, who also possessed a magnificent sound, colors the marvels found in Demon’s Dance. Another gifted trumpeter, Charles Tollivar, alternates with Morgan on Jacknife, and contributes the compositions On The Nile and the title piece, which are highlights of the album, together with Climax by DeJohnette. Shaw's composition, Sweet Love of Mine, is one of the two main highlights from Demon’s Dance, along with the title work penned by McLean.

An earlier mention of DeJohnette’s playing on the Satori album with Lee Konitz deserves some explanation. The opening selection, Just Friends, is one of the most perfect improvisations the alto saxophonist ever recorded. Here DeJohnette manages to “out-Konitz” Lee Konitz, a musician noted for his abstract improvisations. Following Lee’s tempo-less statement of the song, accompanied by Dave Holland on bass, and Martial Solal on piano, Jack enters without the traditional stating of pulse, and rather, deftly interpolates elegantly crafted skin, wood, and metal hues into the timbral mix. This abdication of the drummer’s expected role sets into motion an inspired quartile dialog where Konitz himself becomes the primary timekeeper in places! This is miraculously subtle drumming reminiscent of the esoteric practice of masking tempo (lay) and the first beat of a rhythmic cycle (sam) in Indian classical music.

Supporting my contention about the crucial role assumed by primary drummers to reach the heights of jazz, two of my other choices for Konitz’s greatest recordings feature Kenny Clarke on the Lee Konitz With Warne Marsh album (There Will Never Be Another You and Topsy), and Elvin Jones on the Motion album (I Remember You.)

Technically speaking, the piano is classified as a percussion instrument, and another of Lee’s finest achievements is 'Round Midnight, a duet recording with pianist Michel Petrucciani, found on the Toot Sweet album. In fact, this is my personal choice for the greatest jazz ballad recording of all.

A while back, I had opportunity to ask Lee about this 'Round Midnight, and he divulged that one reason it went on for so long – sixteen minutes – was due to Michel misplacing his glasses, and thus was unable to see Lee cueing him to end the piece! On top of that, Lee was experimenting with a new metal mouthpiece for the first time. Talk about being spontaneous …

Having noticed that the Jack DeJohnette Trio was coming to Los Angeles, I expressed an interest in interviewing DeJohnette, and was fortunate to receive a confirmation. Following our conversation, I asked if it would be possible for the trio to perform the aforementioned, Climax, a composition that follows brilliantly and originally after the template formed by the Miles Davis Quintet in So What, and Impressions by the John Coltrane Quartet. Jack demurred, and this was disappointing because I am confident it would have been an extraordinary extemporization. DeJohnette’s bandmates were two musicians who would have collectively driven the music out of the Catalina Bar and Grill and west on Sunset to the sparkling sea: pianist Chick Corea and bassist Stanley Clarke.

For Jack to achieve the rarefied level of his performances with Jackie McLean, I wonder if it would be possible for him to perform and record with Pharoah Sanders, a jazz musician who possesses, among other pertinent qualities, what might be termed true grit. There is a compelling, vocal-like, and physical force manifesting in horn players of Pharoah’s stature that inspires a realm of drumming distinct, in general, from the context of piano trios.

During my interview with Jack, we discussed McLean at some length, and for a few moments during that evening’s performance, DeJohnette began playing with a considerably louder white-hot urgency and intensity, which drew a startled glance from Clarke. The brief outburst passed, and I had an instantaneous sense that Jack had experienced a flash of desire for music with a different import and fervor, perhaps even thinking of Jackie McLean.

– Michael Robinson, August 2013, Los Angeles


© 2013 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, pianist and musicologist. His 199 albums include 152 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.