Well-educated jazz pianists tend to play like well-educated pianists — all chops and no gravy. Canadian-born Brooklynite D. D. Jackson proves that this does not have to be the case. His classical and jazz training, which includes music degrees from Indiana University and the Manhattan School of Music, shows up in an effortless, precise technique and an obvious knowledge of the full spectrum of musical history, from Bach to Cecil Taylor. But he also knows how to swing and how to move an audience. At Manhattan he had the good fortune to study with Jaki Byard, who synthesized the whole jazz piano tradition into a strong personal style. Jackson also learned from another great modernist pianist, Don Pullen. Byard and Pullen obviously provided models for creating a personal musical voice out of an eclectic blend of traditional influences.
When Jackson first began to attract public attention, it appeared that he had learned his lessons too well, for the influence of Pullen loomed large in his playing. With time, Jackson overcame these mannerisms and moved on in his own way, although he never forgets to tip his hat to his mentor, spicing his improvisations with recognizable Pullenisms. His remarkable progress is documented in some excellent recordings that he has made over the years under his own name and as a sideman to saxophonist David Murray.
Jackson made two widely reviewed but somewhat constrained CDs for RCA before returning to his old Canadian label, Justin Time, on which he promptly released a trio recording, Sigame. In many ways this work is the culmination of the opening chapters in Jackson's musical life. There is a sense of freedom and control that was absent from the RCA recordings, as well as an irresistible joy in creating music that jumps right out of the speakers. The title means "Follow me" in Spanish, and the CD is permeated by Latin rhythms and romantic gestures. There are no standards here, only Jackson's own compositions, and the various pieces fall together into a larger emotional structure that is supported by strong rhythmic propulsion. Jackson has expressed a fondness for Keith Jarrett, with whom he shares a broad-hearted romantic spirit. I am more moved by Jackson, though, because his emotional outpourings have more discipline and are more adventurous, combining classic modern jazz with avant-garde sonorities and complex rhythms.
Most of the pieces on Sigame are performed by Jackson, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Dafnis Prieto, a trio that practically stole the show at this year's Ford Detroit Jazz Festival. Jackson and Prieto return to the area, this time with Hans Glawischnig on bass, to play at the Bird of Paradise on Friday and Saturday, December 6 and 7.