DeJohnette first formed his Latin Project for the Montreal Jazz Festival, where he was the artist in residence. Allowed to do whatever he wanted as the festival’s guest of honor, which celebrates the work of a legendary jazz musician each year through numerous concerts, DeJohnette chose, out of all the musical possibilities that lay before him, to delve into Latin percussion. Performing with the Latin Project for the first time at the 2003 festival, DeJohnnette has taken the group on tour as opportunities arose. Fortunately, Ohio State is on its limited schedule consisting of only six performances in February and just one in April. Making the event even more special is the fact that this group hasn’t recorded, and so the excitement of his Latin Project is known...so far...only to those who have heard it live in concert.
Lanky and looking 20 years younger than 62, DeJohnette, ever the unassuming and respectful statesman, read from his own hand-written notebook to introduce the accomplishments of the members of the Latin Project: Don Byron on clarinet and tenor sax, Edsel Gomez on piano, Jerome Harris on electric bass, Giovanni Hidalgo on congas and Luisito Quintero on timbales and percussion. Once DeJohnette sat down to play the drums, though, all of his apparent diffidence disappeared as he took command of the instruments...and of the audience. Strangely enough, Charles Lloyd initially was criticized for recruiting DeJohnette for his quartet with Keith Jarrett and Cecil McBee because DeJohnette, Lloyd recalled, played too loudly. Now, DeJohnette’s force is legendary.
Multiply that force by three and overlay the polyrhythms of timbales and congas, and the energy projecting from the stage into the audience was irresistible, a tidal wave of sound washing over the listeners. Obversely, in the realm of DeJohnette’s Latin Project, the melodic instruments played by Byron, Gomez and Harris act as the back-up for the percussive instruments, rather than the normally presented equation of drumming providing unspotlighted character to the work of horn, singer, piano and/or guitar as leader. Even on the opening number, Don Byron’s "You Are #6," as the melody on clarinet is stated, and as Gomez contributes a solo that cranks up the intensity so much that he levitated from his seat, the remainder of the piece consisted of, yes, Byron, Gomez and Harris providing the repetitive vamp for the improvisation by DeJohnette and the percussionists. More than on the other pieces, "You Are #6" was a reminder of tension between the meters of three and four that distinguishes Latin music as the percussionists combined seemingly opposed rhythms into a sound blanket of polyrhythmic complexity with which most American drummers are unaccustomed. Sticks went a-flying-literally at one point as one flew from DeJohnette’s hand and into the backdrop-and sticks went asunder-Quintero breaking at least two of them in the midst of furious timbales work. No matter. They all came with their own bag of sticks, and more. Throughout the concert Quintero pulled one instrument after another-wind chimes, finger cymbals, shakers, and more-from his black canvas container. As Byron sat on his stool playing or directing the group while DeJohnette concentrated on the drumming, or while Byron at one point stood yawning in the crook of the piano, DeJohnette, Hidalgo and Quintero could hardly contain their joy as they shot smiles at each other or exchanged ideas for unpredictable percussive elaboration.
And elaborate they did. DeJohnette kicked off "You Are #6" with a five-minute solo, and the next piece by Gomez astounded the audience with Hidalgo’s introduction, an amazing demonstration of the potential of the instrument for melodic and rhythmic uplift, his hands literally a blur. Until then, Hidalgo’s work had been meshed into that of the entire sextet for full-group synthesis. After that point, it became obvious why Hidalgo is revered as one of the world’s greatest contemporary congueros; the audience’s level of excitement rose even higher.
The rock-steady Jerome Harris unobtrusively laid down the bass lines in the background with serene maturity until DeJohnette gave Harris a chance to perform his own composition, "Hand By Hand." He briefly sang it wordlessly until the piece moved once again into an unparalleled percussive tour de force, the likes of which are so seldom heard. Next, Byron was allowed to solo as he led into another of his compositions, "Homegoing," with an extended quote from "The Shadow Of Your Smile" comprising most of the introduction before the piece settled into another heightening of percussive abilities made possible by a spirited exchange from three of the leading practitioners of their instruments.
By the time the concert ended, the audience jumped to its feet as one, clamoring and whistling and genuinely impressed by the realization that something special had just happened on stage. They didn’t want it to end. The members of DeJohnette’s Latin Project were obviously gratified by the reception, and they graced the stage of Weigel Hall once more with its encore, "Six Into Four."
As Jack DeJohnette works to establish his own label as a commercially viable entity, he would do well to record his Latin Project so that it can create the same level of excitement in people’s homes as it does in concert halls.