A stormy rhythm section motif and a mournful horn line brings John Coltrane's 1963 masterpiece "Alabama" to a close. Recorded two months after members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama, the song is considered Coltrane's response to the tragedy, in part because that horn line closely resembles the cadence of Martin Luther King Jr.'s eulogy for the young girls killed by the bomb.
Coltrane never confirmed the source of his inspiration. That detail lends an element of timelessness to a new version of the tune, recorded by drummer Jack DeJohnette with the sons of two of his late, close friends: saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and bassist Matthew Garrison, whose father Jimmy Garrison played bass on the original recording.
DeJohnette has known both players since they were toddlers and began touring with them a few years ago. As the project progressed, they headed for Garrison's Brooklyn venue, ShapeShifter Lab, to zero in on ideas for a full album. The result, In Movement, arrives May 6 and opens with "Alabama."
"That song represents a crossroads of where we are in humanity right now," says DeJohnette, 73, a masterful composer and improviser who explores drums' melodic potential while stretching the boundaries of rhythm. "When 'Alabama' came out it was (during) the civil rights movement, and we're still dealing with the same issues."
In their take on the classic piece, Garrison, 45, updates the rhythm section climax by stretching out and amping up the electronic tones and textures he's otherwise restrained just below the surface. Coltrane, 50, delivers a plaintive take on his dad's famous part in a distinct voice. DeJohnette, meanwhile, propels the song.
The tune's revitalized reference to history, both political and personal, reflects how the band approaches working together.
Though he speaks in glowing terms of Coltrane and Garrison's musical development through the years, DeJohnette says this music is about the present.
"There really is no past, present or future — everything happens right now," he says. "You have to be in the moment and be conscious of that to play improvised music and to live your life in a way that can dance and is flexible."
If flexibility is the goal, In Movement more than meets it. The material ranges from an homage to Rashied Ali featuring Coltrane on the very high-register sopranino to an Earth, Wind & Fire cover that makes funky use of Garrison's often thickly textured loops, samples and electric bass. The inventive title track, which showcases the band's knack for pushing one another forward, is a standout.
"Our whole feeling about playing music is that we're all sensitive to what's going on," DeJohnette says. "Through the power of the music and the intentions that we have in recording it, we hope the music would send out an energy that would help to heal some of the imbalances in the planet."
Working with musicians he considers family has more tangible advantages, too.
"The music is a sort of home base where we can experiment and have dialogues, musically and personally, to try and help one another grow as human beings," he says. "I think that's what I've learned from them."
• Colin Lake