ROCK / The rough with the smooth: Jack DeJohnette used to play drums for Miles Davis. Now he's hanging out with the heavy metal kids. Jason Nisse asked him why

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The Independent Culture
Heavy metal fans owe a large debt to Jack DeJohnette. At the back end of the 1960s, the jazz drummer was holding a workshop in Los Angeles when a friend brought in his three-year-old son. DeJohnette lifted the toddler on to the drumkit where the child promptly picked up the sticks and started bashing around. These were the first musical steps of Nick Menze, now the drummer with those monsters of rock Megadeth.

At that time the line between jazz and rock was pretty blurred. Miles Davis, in whose band DeJohnette then played, was talking seriously about recording an album with Jimi Hendrix, a venture thwarted by the guitarist's untimely death. Cream - whose drummer, Ginger Baker, and bassist, Jack Bruce, both had backgrounds in jazz - were taking pop songs and turning them into 15-minute improvisations. Groups like Henry Cow and Soft Machine were forging what came to be called jazz rock (before it became a dirty word) and Steely Dan were recording Duke Ellington songs and tributes to Charlie Parker.

But somewhere, on the Stairway To Heaven or in the Topographical Ocean, the two worlds moved apart. Now DeJohnette, who is very much a stalwart of the more cerebral and experimental side of modern jazz, is rebuilding the bridges. His new album, Music for the Fifth World, unashamedly fuses heavy rock with jazz. It not only features two of the leading guitarists from each field - John Scofield, former axe man with Miles Davis and one of the most critically acclaimed jazzmen recording today, and Vernon Reid of Living Color - but also Reid's sidekick, Will Calhoun, Living Color's drummer.

In nearly 30 years as one of jazz's leading drummers, and occasionally as a pianist, DeJohnette has played with such diverse artists as David Sanborn, John Surman, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheney. His body of solo work stretches back to 1968. He has won the best drummer category in the readers' poll of US jazz journal Downbeat for the last 11 years and his 1990 album, Audio-Visualscapes, was album of the year in the Downbeat critic's poll.

But through this he admits to a great love of heavy rock. Among his favourite bands are Rush, Styx, Yes and, even, Megadeth (well, one has to show loyalty). 'I have two daughters and they keep me abreast of what is happening in the rock music scene,' he says, leaning back on the chintzy sofa of his mother-in-law's flat in Highgate where DeJohnette, with his height, aristocratic looks and bare feet, is rather incongruous.

For his part, Reid is not that much of a stranger to jazz. A few years ago he played with Ronald Shannon Jackson, Ornette Coleman's former drummer. Living Color, along with fellow members of the 'Black Rock Coalition', Fishbone and Bad Brains, profess to blend jazz and soul influences into their version of heavy rock, though at times it is hard to see these influences bursting through.

'Where they're coming from is not just rock music,' says DeJohnette. 'It is very progressive musicianship. I don't look to put any labels on it. I just see it as amplified music.'

Bringing Reid together with Scofield lets the listener compare how the two strands of guitar playing have developed. On two tracks in particular, 'Fifth World Anthem' and 'Miles', the two get a chance to spar. While there are clear differences - Scofield being less showy and more willing to take risks with the tone produced by his instrument while at times Reid appears to be in perpetual climax - the areas where they complement each other are noticeable.

The drummers are less easily identifiable. DeJohnette, who shows great subtlety when playing with the likes of Keith Jarrett, drives a pretty hard beat on his own records. For those whose only memories of two drummers together is Adam and the Ants, DeJohnette and Calhoun are a revelation.

On Fifth World, DeJohnette brings in another strand of influence, that of the native Americans. The album's title comes from the teachings of Twylah Nitsch, a clan mother of a Seneca Wolf Clan Teaching Lodge, who believes the world has been through four ages and there are three more to come. According to Nitsch, who is blind, deaf and crippled, the world is moving from the Age of Separation into the Age of Illumination and for those who are in tune with the voices of the earth, there will be a time of clarity and peace.

Two tracks - 'Dohiyi Circle' parts one and two - are written by Joan Henry, who is from the Seneca tribe, and she collaborates on another track, 'Two Guitar Chant Do Hiyi'. The album also includes a song written by Jim Pepper, the native American saxophonist who died last year and whose records are almost impossible to obtain in the UK. The result is quite a departure for a man who was last seen in the UK in Keith Jarrett's Standards trio and prior to that in a quartet with the guitarist Pat Metheney and the keyboards player Herbie Hancock.

'It's not supposed to be a jazz album,' DeJohnette says, and at first hearing most would be inclined to agree. He is currently in discussions with the relevant parties to see if he can turn the Fifth World line-up into a touring band. Meanwhile he will be in the UK next month with his more regular group, Special Edition, which features Gary Thomas on saxophone as well as Art Blakey's old bassist, Lonnie Plaxico.

Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition play at the Royal Festival Hall tonight and then tour, ending up at the Turner Sims Concert Hall in Southampton on 12 October.

Music for the Fifth World is released on Blue Note in October.