Monday, July 16 , 2018, 12:12 am | Fair 66º


McLaughlin, Corea Serve Up Hot and Cool Fusion, but Certainly Not Cold

An evening of instrumental flourishes from John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and the rest of the Five Peace Band

After the blazing first piece at the Five Peace Band’s concert at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Friday night — guitar hero John McLaughlin’s “Raju,” which featured awe-inspiring lightning-speed musicianship — McLaughlin told the audience it was “not just a pleasure” to be playing for us, but it was “meaningful on many levels.” In particular, this year marks the 40th anniversary of his first collaboration with keyboard virtuoso and fellow Five Peace Band member Chick Corea on the “pivotal recording In a Silent Way,” Miles Davis’ calm-album-before-the-Bitches Brew-album-storm.

He joked that this made them “old hippies.” Of course, McLaughlin and Corea also both played on Davis’ Bitches Brew, which kicked off the jazz fusion genre and ignited further fusion explorations by McLaughlin and Corea with Davis and in the legendary bands Mahavishnu Orchestra (McLaughlin) and Return to Forever (Corea).

At this point in the concert, McLaughlin also introduced Corea and the rest of the Five Peace Band, here with my descriptions: the whole-spectrum-from-raw-to-lyrical saxophonist Kenny Garrett (who also played with Davis years after McLaughlin and Corea did), the all-over-the-neck electric and standup bassist Christian McBride, and the he-must-have-more-than-two-arms-to-be-able-to-play-like-that drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

Next up was Corea’s new composition “The Disguise,” which was more reflective than the “Raju” firestorm. It started with solo piano and featured expressive but still flurried guitar runs articulated by whammy dives by McLaughlin, a tasty saxophone solo, and adventurous standup bass during a quieter part that reminded me of instrumental nightclub jazz at, well, a super cool nightclub.

Corea then somewhat incoherently talked about the band’s current tour (including “gigs on the moon”), and dedicated the entire evening to jazz legend (and longtime Santa Barbara resident) Charles Lloyd, who stood up in the audience and waved. In fact, the next piece, the McLaughlin composition normally called “New Blues Old Bruise,” was retitled “Blues for Charles” for the evening. This piece was certainly more jazz than blues, with McLaughlin avoiding blues cliches with tasteful bent notes that managed to avoid standard pentatonic flash. This piece also featured a spirited saxophone solo by Garrett and an amazing cymbal-heavy drum solo by Colaiuta.

After a well-deserved break — the first three pieces added up to more than an hour of music — the next piece, “Senor C.S.,” began with atmospheric keyboards by Corea and earnest soloing by McLaughlin. Eventually the whole band joined in, with both a saxophone solo and a keyboard solo building in intensity to set up one of the evening’s truly transcendent moments: McLaughlin’s solo, which exploded into a frenzy of fancy fretwork. “Go, Johnny, go!” This led into another highlight: Garrett, Corea and McLaughlin trading rapid-fire licks. At the end of the piece, McLaughlin revealed that it was for “another old hippy,” his fellow traveler Carlos Santana who is the “C.S.” in the title.

This was followed by Corea’s new composition “Hymn to Andromeda,” which explored the most musical territory of any piece performed. It started with abstract piano that included Corea reaching into his grand piano and hitting the strings with his fingers and a mallet, as if his boundless creativity couldn’t be restricted to just using the keys. This was both intriguing and impressive, and immensely expanded the available timbre. Standup bass and drums then joined in, giving abstract lounge jazz before a bowed bass interlude. McLaughlin and the others came back in, and after some brief chaos the band fell into a groove. Then Garrett, who had absorbed the vibe up to this point, joined in and at first reflected it back, and then ultimately created a transcendent vibe as he led the band through the landscape he was painting on the fly with his extreme, raw playing. I half-expected Garrett to collapse into a cathartic coma after his soul-baring solo. Wow! The piece ended with a simple piano motif.

The last piece of the evening was Jackie McLean’s “Dr. Jackle”, which started with McBride’s how’d-he-do-that mega-run on standup bass. This piece featured more inspired soloing by all players, including McLaughlin’s solo, which made me think this might be what “Flight of the Bumblebee” would sound like if it were instead an improvised jazz solo. By the time this piece ended, the band had played almost another hour and a half after the intermission.

The band’s interactions displayed profound respect for each other’s playing, plus a tightness that can only come from extended touring. I missed the heyday of fusion back in the 1970s (although it lives on through recordings), and the taste Friday night made me wish for more.

Click here for a Paul Mann’s related retrospective article on John McLaughlin.

1. Raju
2. The Disguise
3. Blues for Charles (New Blues Old Bruise)

4. Senor C. S.
5. Hymn to Andromeda
6. Dr. Jackle

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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