Thursday, June 22, 2017

Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier, John Medeski & John Scofield - Hudson (Motéma Music 2017)

So this is what happens when a group of old jazz hands get into a Levon Helm kind of way. Hudson is the name of an album, a supergroup and a song on the album by the supergroup, and it’s due out June 9, 2017 from Motéma Music. The combination of Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, John Medeski and Larry Grenadier is capable of so much; Hudson delivers in that it doesn’t kowtow to expectations of what kind of music these four legends should make.

‘Hudson’ is not a name that came about without much meaning; the Hudson Valley region of upstate New York is the land of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, Pete Seeger’s Clearwater movement and more artists per capita than any other place in the USA. NYC artists have found much refuge in the peaceful, natural scenery away from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. DeJohnette, Scofield, Medeski and Grenadier have all eventually made homes here and have all performed with each of the others. A 2014 concert together at the Woodstock Jazz Festival was all it took to provoke them to combine to make music that has a strong connection to not only where they came from, but to where they now make their homes.

The careers of these four follow timelines that only partially overlap each other but the common denominator among them is not just that they are jazz musicians, but musicians and fans of more popular forms of music before they turned to jazz, such as rock, RnB, folk and funk. This is a record of relating to the music they dug growing up as much as it’s about their current environs. All have collectively made plenty of records that indulge their fondness for the music of their youths; Scofield were in such bands at separate times with DeJohnette and Medeski, for instance. But the thing about old jazz hands like these guys is that they have gotten over themselves so long ago; making the musicians around them sound better is ingrained in them and it’s this colloquial manner of making music that makes the whole greater than the great parts. Here, ‘laid back’ is the dominant music style, and the hippie attitude pervades the album so much that the formal styles played are nearly superfluous.

The song of the same name as the album and the band, creeps along on a single chord, taking its own sweet time as Sco noodles away angularly, occasionally sharing growls and grunts with Medeski’s keyboards over a jam-length twelve minutes. That opening salvo that the four created together is a rock song, but it’s DeJohnette’s masterful swing that sets Scofield’s “El Swing” into motion, signaling that jazz isn’t being ignored, just eased up to matching the rural surroundings where this record was recorded. Medeski’s piano solo is a real gem on this cut. “Tony Then Jack” is Scofield’s concise history of fusion drums (from Williams to DeJohnette) culled from the Lifetime-inspired group Trio Beyond he co-led with the latter drummer. This isn’t blistering rock-jazz but DeJohnette does live up to his legacy with another swing number, this time harder and Grenadier’s walking bass holds down this blues with an authoritative hand.

“Dirty Ground,” originally appearing on DeJohnette’s 2012 Sound Travels, was a tune he co-composed with Bruce Hornsby but this time Jack is stepping up to the mic to handle the vocals in his salt-of-the-earth vocals that’s perfect for the occasion. Moreover, it invokes the spirit of the aforementioned Helm.

The covers chosen all relate in some way to the sacred ground near the Catskills; Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” is set to a relaxed, reggae groove and fronted appealingly by Scofield’s lyric lead. Another Dylan number “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is another jam, whereby the boys test dissonance, mostly around Medeski’s swirling B3 and a psychedelic electric piano. Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” — the most obvious choice for this setting — is a spiritual communion. Jim Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” is a funky excursion that isn’t that far removed from Medeski Scofield Martin and Wood. Medeski’s barroom piano intro gives little hint of the Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek” that soon follows, which is played in a mostly straightforward fashion.

The back-to-nature sentiment that’s threaded throughout this album is strongest right at the end with “Great Spirit Peace Chant,” where the crew play wood flutes amid hand drums and Native American chants. The Hudson River Valley is not just a place, it’s a state of mind that’s carried out so earnestly and effortlessly in music by Dejohnette, Grenadier, Medeski and Scofield.