Sunday, April 05, 2009

John McLaughlin / Chick Corea Five Peace Band
Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor
Saturday April 4 2009

Jazz/Rock Fusion is a much maligned musical genre, for which some of the blame must be laid at Chick Corea's door for his "Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy" dreck. But the Corea/McLaughlin Five Peace Band had a cohesion and spirit that Joe Lovano's recent show, for example, did not approach.

Back in the 80s at a Detroit concert of McLaughlin's Shakti band, the acoustic Indian ensemble was buzzing along and everytime McLaughlin cut loose with another bristling virtuoso acoustic guitar run, a member of the audience behind me would yell out, "DEAL wid'it!" There was a little less of the guitar hero gunslinger mood this time around. But McLaughlin writes small group arrangements with a wonderful combination of primal rock and blues vamps, time shifts, suspended and exotic harmonies, and intricate unison lines that sound really fun to play. He combines great vamps and great licks. And he LOVES to trade fours, or sometimes fours/twos/ones/2 beats/1 beats/eighth notes/sixteenth notes...

The heart of the band is the cross generational connection between McLaughlin and bassist Christian McBride. Just watching them comp behind other solos was entertaining. McLaughlin, 67, has a slender, hawkish, silver haired profile, and McBride, 36, is a muscular, shaved headed black man with a sunny, expressive stage presence. The rich contrast is something to enjoy. They were having a lot of fun.

The other side of Fusion music is the inclusion of classical influences. Corea's suite, "Hymn to Andromeda", represented this aspect of fusion with abstract melodic motifs and sounds produced from inside the concert grand. Mostly Chick filled a supporting role, filling in harmonies and accenting with the bass and drums.

During the first number Corea had an entertaining gesticulated dialogue with the sound crew in the wings. He finally stood up, turned to them and pointed up in the air with both arms to make his point. Later during somebody else's solo he walked over and appeared to make up with them. Our seats were main floor center 7th row, so for us the mix favored the bass, drums and sax. The guitar and keyboard went out through the mains which weren't really directed at us. The balance seemed to improve during the concert. At least overamplification wasn't a problem as it can be with fusion music, especially in Hill.

The most distinguished alumni of the Ann Arbor based II-V-I Orchestra, Kenny Garrett has a true, powerful alto sound and his solos spurred the energy of the rhythm section and the crowd.

Drummer Brian Blades was very busy most of the time, grinning, laughing, hunching over and launching witty and bombastic fills. But what struck me was the restraint and precision of his playing when he was backing up bassist Christian McBride's stunning solos. In a band of virtuosos, McBride topped everybody, if only because it looks so hard to fly around the neck of an acoustic bass like that.

McLaughlin reminisced about a picture of John and Miles from 1970 in Ann Arbor. There was a little much of mutual admiration in the early introductions, but from the standing ovation that greeted their taking the stage, John and Chick seemed to appreciate the crowd.

For this reviewer, the concert reaffirmed that jazz fusion was the music of my times. Great show.

Here for a taste of John McLaughlin's artistry is his tune "Trilogy", recorded at the 1988 Montreux/Detroit Jazz Festival. This features bassist Jonas Hellborg and percussionist Trilok Gurtu. I recorded it off the live WDET/WEMU radio broadcast and later transferred from cassette to digital. For me this always brings back memories of a rainy day in Teton National Park, driving out to Moose in my brother's beat up Mazda. Enjoy!