The cover art prominently displays the last names of the all-star participants as if the music inside were the work of a jazz dynasty — which, in effect, is the case. But in even bolder lettering is the word “Hudson,” which doubles as the album’s title and as the name of this remarkable new jazz collective.
You can’t blame the marketing folks for making sure drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Larry Grenadier, keyboardist John Medeski and guitarist John Scofield receive prominent billing. They represent multiple generations of jazz innovation, from Miles Davis’ pioneering electric groups of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s (DeJohnette, Scofield) to multiple groove-directed fusion and progressive-minded acoustic ensembles from the ’90s onward (Medeski, Grenadier). That explains why “Hudson” skirts through material, and stylistic shifts, from a nearly 50-year period to produce a sound that is loose, cohesive and tremendously fun.
The 11-minute, album-opening, band-identifying title tune opens as something of a blank canvas as each member slowly paints with sharp but sparse blotches of color — guitar punctures from Scofield, a light-handed groove from DeJohnette, warped Rhodes piano phrases from Medeski. The music gradually coalesces around DeJohnette in a way that references a more ordered version of Davis’ early-’70s fusion experiments. Once the album eases into Scofield’s “El Swing,” however, we hear the magic of a more distinctive ensemble sound. The guitarist offers a spring-like melody that dances about a boppish backdrop set up by DeJohnette and Grenadier. Medeski is the joker here, switching to acoustic piano but alternating between breaks that match Scofield’s sunny lead and darker rumbles that hint of a storm in the offing.
The quartet curiously mines several 1960 nuggets by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix and The Band, but that hardly suggests a revivalist’s approach. Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” becomes a Pan-American and slightly mambo-fied groove celebration that DeJohnette, youthful at age 74, and Scofield play with discreet but pronounced zeal. Medeski, though, is equally animated, with a calliope breakdown mix of piano and organ during the intro to a gospel-esque “Up on Cripple Creek” that seems to channel The Band’s mischievous keyboard giant Garth Hudson.
Especially intriguing is a revisit to “Dirty Ground,” a 2011 tune from DeJohnette’s album “Sound Travels,” recorded with lyrics and vocals from Bruce Hornsby. On “Hudson,” DeJohnette takes over the mic for the album’s only non-instrumental work. As unexpected as the singing seems after 50-plus minutes of astute jamming and rhythmic reconstruction, the results come across as a warm greeting — an outstretched hand of invitation and accessibility into Hudson’s brave new-old jazz world.