The last time I heard drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and bassist Matt Garrison play, the trio did justice to the name of the Brooklyn venue hosting it (which is run by Garrison and his business partner, Fortuna Sung)—ShapeShifter Lab.
The music flowed morphed before us, changing hue and style and mood and form in often surprising ways. It sounded experimental in the best sense of the word—based on clear ideas and solid research but open to tinkering and unpredictable results.
The band returns to ShapeShifter for two shows on October 10.
This is a powerhouse band, led by one of the most kind-hearted and open-minded of jazz’s elder statesmen, DeJohnette, who at 73 is an NEA Jazz Master and a mentor to many.
The spirit of John Coltrane runs through this trio, through bonds of direct lineage, clear influence and even via chance encounters.
Ravi Coltrane, who is 50, is the second son of John and Alice Coltrane. (John died when Ravi was two years old; Alice, a renowned composer, pianist and harpist, raised Ravi on the West Coast and proved a strong role model in her own right.) Ravi has honored but never leaned on his parents’ legacies. It’s worth noting that, not long after Ravi moved to New York City to begin his career, he had a pivotal stint with drummer Elvin Jones, who anchored John Coltrane’s quartet.
Jones played a role in DeJohnette’s development. Early in his career, DeJohnette split his time between drums and piano (he still plays some piano and keyboard). As he recalled for a Wall Street Journal profile:
Saxophonist Eddie Harris, an early employer, told DeJohnette, “You play good piano, but you’re a natural drummer,” he recalled. “He urged me to choose.” He got early validation sitting in for drummer Elvin Jones during a John Coltrane performance. The legendary saxophonist was impressed enough to call on DeJohnette later, for a weeklong gig that also featured drummer Rashied Ali. (“An exhausting, but exhilarating experience,” he said.)
Matt Garrison, 45, is the son of bassist Jimmy Garrison, another anchor of John Coltrane’s quartet. After his father’s death, and after considerable time in Rome, Garrison moved to back to the U.S. and lived for two years with DeJohnette, who is his godfather.
So these three musicians are bound by overlapping connections. And John Coltrane’s legacy is merely one of many through lines in the music they make, separately and collectively. As composers and musicians, these three are distinctly unbound.
Especially DeJohnette—whose achievements can no more easily be confined to a given style than a single instrument. As bandleader, his various ensembles have expressed manifold inclinations. As a sideman, he helped spark jazz’s plugged-in fusion (including Miles Davis’s 1970 classic, “Bitches Brew”), has upheld its acoustic traditions (nearly 30 years in Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio), and remains a go-to player for veterans and rising stars alike. He is a sensitive partner in duos (with guitarist Bill Frisell and kora master Foday Musa Suso, among others) and within collectives (he first recorded “Oneness” in 1995, with guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Dave Holland, in the leaderless Gateway Trio). DeJohnette’s drumming has force enough to create driving rhythms and requisite delicacy for the subtlest nuance. He is both the source of what Davis called, in his 1989 autobiography, “a certain deep groove that I just loved playing over” and a Grammy Award winner in the New Age category for his meditative 2008 CD “Peace Time.”
“I’ve never really planned anything,” he once told me. “I’ve just gone where the music took me, done whatever the sound called for.”
One thing I like about ShapeShifter Lab is the fact that it’s a short walk from my home. Yet that’s the least of it. It’s a smart, nicely sized space with great acoustics, created by and for musicians, with flexible staging and lighting that truly serves the music.
Garrison’s and Sung’s ambitions for ShapeShifter deserve support. I’m told that the proceeds from these shows will fund new initiatives of ShapeShifter+, a nonprofit organization they’ve created to develop more expansive festivals and educational programs.
And here’s he big news: Shortly after these shows, this trio will head into Avatar studios to record its first project for ECM Records.
You’d be foolish not to sneak a peek at what they’re cooking up in the lab.