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Review: DeJohnette, Grenadier, Medeski & Scofield, 'Hudson'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

/ Courtesy of Artist
Courtesy of Artist

There's a memorable stretch in Hudson, the debut album by a new jazz supergroup of the same name, when a megaton of subtext finds expression in purely musical terms. It happens in the second half of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," a cover of the apocalyptic Bob Dylan song.

Up to that point, the band — drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Larry Grenadier — has been bobbing ahead in waltz time, with Scofield venturing progressively further out on a harmonic limb. Then something begins to warp and buckle in the tune. The tempo pulls apart, and Medeski's coloristic whooshes on organ grow troubled and dark. This swirling abstraction of the theme is true to Dylan's original intention: a flash of dread that manages to be both heady and soulful.

Hudson does well along that razor's edge, giving familiar fare an unexpected new tilt, and making original tunes feel durable and broken-in. The group is a confab of four master improvisers who never hesitate to lay down a groove, with DeJohnette, who turns 75 this summer, setting the bar. There's a tangle of past collaboration in these ranks — look to Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood, or Trio Beyond — but Hudson has its own metabolism, with a name alluding to New York's Hudson River Valley, where all the musicians currently reside.

They recorded the album about a week into the new year, in a studio near Woodstock, a place with multiple layers of resonance. The album includes a version of "Woodstock," the peace-and-love anthem by Joni Mitchell, with exquisite melodic treatment by Scofield. Also in the mix are tunes by the Jimi Hendrix Experience ("Wait Until Tomorrow") and The Band ("Up on Cripple Creek"), along with another one by Dylan ("Lay Lady Lay") — each one approached with hypnotic rhythmic strategies and a willingness to risk looking earnest.

That note of sincerity extends to DeJohnette's originals, like "Song For World Forgiveness," which feels timelier now than it did just a few months ago, and "Great Peace Spirit Chant," an offering to the Native American peoples that inhabited the Hudson Valley before anybody else.

Another relevant touchstone, unstated but clearly implied, is Miles Davis. His furious late-'60s band was propelled by DeJohnette's elastic beat, and the soul-jazz swinger "Tony Then Jack," a Scofield original, alludes to that history. (The other name in the title is Tony Williams, who preceded DeJohnette in the drum chair.)

Scofield, a member of Davis' first early-'80s comeback band, also sparks the ignition for the album's nearly 12-minute title track, an unscripted jam with a serpentine groove. Strongly reminiscent of Davis' Bitches Brew, it's a worthwhile reminder: just because peace and love are in the air, that doesn't rule out the power of hazy dissonance.

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