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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

In 1979, jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette founded a new band called Special Edition. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it was one of the great bands of the 1980s, not least because DeJohnette wrote such good tunes. Their first four albums are in a new box set. Here's Kevin's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AHMAD THE TERRIBLE")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Jack DeJohnette's "Ahmad the Terrible" by his band Special Edition, from a new box collecting their first four albums. Two of those are gems, and the other two have their moments. DeJohnette's quartet/quintet was fronted by smoking saxophonists on the way up, set loose on catchy riffs and melodies.

The springy rhythm section could tweak the tempos like no one this side of '60s goddess Laura Nyro. "Ahmad the Terrible" is named for pianist Ahmad Jamal, another Chicago jazzer who mixes progressive ideas with good tunes and a good beat. The saxophonists here are Chico Freeman on tenor and John Purcell on baritone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIN CAN ALLEY")

WHITEHEAD: In Special Edition, Jack DeJohnette sometimes played keyboards, as well as drums. On the band's classic debut, he often reached for his breath-controlled electric melodica. That handheld keyboard that didn't sound like much on its own, but it could fill out the harmonies when the band morphed into a chamber quartet, with Peter Warren bowing his bass or cello.

As composer, DeJohnette mined a movement in contemporary music that was leaking into jazz then: minimalism, with its layered repetitions, a different kind of riffing energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WHITEHEAD: The saxophonists in that first 1979 version of Special Edition were two Los Angeles transplants making a big dent in New York: Arthur Blythe there on alto, and David Murray on tenor and bass clarinet. In that quartet, minimalism, swing riffs, collective improvising and rhythm and blues got tied into one neat package. This is from DeJohnette's "Zoot Suite," with Peter Warren's simple, but irresistible bass line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZOOT SUITE")

WHITEHEAD: It wasn't always that good. Jack DeJohnette also liked to sing a little, as in his early '70s band Compost, and still needed to get that out of his system. He revived Compost's "Inflation Blues" over a reggae groove jazz musicians had just begun to master by the early '80s. As blues singer, DeJohnette's main influence seems to be England's John Mayall.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC, "INFLATION BLUES")

JACK DEJOHNETTE: (Singing) But they won't find the solutions to win this confusion. That's why I sing these inflation blues.

WHITEHEAD: Jack DeJohnette, with Rufus Reid on bass. The four albums in ECM's Special Edition box take the band to 1984. DeJohnette kept the band going into the early '90s, now as a quintet, with hot new saxophonists Greg Osby and Gary Thomas, and more electronics. Jack DeJohnette still plays some Special Edition classics with his current touring band, and no wonder: Their best tunes are timeless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and emusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition on the ECM label. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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