About midway through last night’s concert with John McLaughlin and Chick Corea’s Five Peace Band, McLaughlin paused, glanced over to Corea at the keyboards, and said quietly, “We have a history together going back 40 years.”
40 years – 1969. It’s a history forged, as many musical relationships are, in a recording session. In this case, a musically and historically important one. Early that year – February 18th, 1969 – a bitter cold winter day in New York City, Miles Davis met up in the Columbia studios with some of the best progressive jazz artists of the time: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, Tony Williams, Chick Corea, and the 27-year old English ‘newcomer’, electric guitarist John McLaughlin.
That single session resulted in yet another career turning point for Miles, his first fusion album, In a Silent Way: the electricified counterpart to the legendary Kind of Blue from 10 years earlier. And that session was the genesis of the Five Peace Band, as the lifelong McLaughlin/Corea friendship played out in last night’s show at Burlington’s Flynn Theatre.
The rest of the Band is Philly bass man Christian McBride, former Miles bandmate Kenny Garrett (alto sax), and one of my favorite players in today’s jazz scene, the always-entertaining drummer Brian Blade. (His broad smile works as well as his fine percussion to keep the energy burning under the rest of the group!)
Any single one of the band members could have headlined solo, and most of them have. Ensemble they offered a great night of hard grooves, wide-open landscapes of unfolding improv exploration, and the kind of tight, intuitive connection you can only find with groups that have been playing together for a long time.
And they sure have. In fact I didn’t realize before the show that the Burlington stop is the end of the line for the Five Peace Band. They’ve been on the road since October – incredibly, I thought, since only a month after I caught up with McBride as artist-in-residence at the Detroit Jazz Fest, over Labor Day weekend – seems like so long ago! Since then they’ve been leaving a smoking trail of stages all over the world on a tour that took them to Europe, Japan, Australia, and over 20 dates in the US since mid-March. Intense.
The highlights of last night’s show came less in the tunes themselves, than in the special moments of musical and personal interaction throughout the whole performance, and the collective pleasure of experiencing music in the hands of folks who were so obviously loving playing together.
Chick Corea’s introduction of a smouldering McLaughlin tune brought a few whoops from the audience – “New Blues, Old Brews”. But wait a minute folks, – is that ‘brews’, as the audience seemed to think, or ‘bruise’? Turned out to be ‘bruise’, I found out later from reading the New York Times review of the same show. The language confusion didn’t take away a thing from the simmering, steamy scenario that began with Blade’s moody, ruminating soft-mallet percussion intro.
About Blade: you’ve heard all the names. “The engine”, “the sticks”, the “straight man” – for some reason there are as many drummer clichés as there are percussion instruments. Blade encompasses the best qualities of all of them. He’s tight, he’s driving, he’s sensitive and nuanced and what IS he doing with the back end of those brushes, is he really tapping them on the mic stand!? Yep. Sure looked that way. When your job gives you express permission to beat, tap, shake, rattle and thump anything within reach you SHOULD have that kind fun with it. And when Blade pulls the string of bells out to get them ready for the next passage, the soft jingling in the act of picking them up and draping them over his left leg is a calculated, lovely effect of its own. What a joy!
Other nice moments were the interwoven, clockwork 4-bar tradeoffs between McLaughlin, Corea and Garrett – exciting and riffy with an energetic overdrive. Corea’s “Hymn to Andromeda” began with a few cloudy acoustic piano chords, followed by a glassy glissando that prompted a spontaneous bowed-bass response of the “Lush Life” melody, from a grinning McBride on the upright. Everyone on stage (and many in the audience) chuckled at the reference, and then Corea continued in his solo intro to the piece. (And yes, your eyes saw it right: he DID drop in a few tone clusters courtesy of his right elbow. It was just that kind of piece.) “Andromeda” further developed with support from McBride, softly plucking the bass in low, soothing tones, and Blade offering quiet, musical touches on the tambourine and bells.
As for McLaughlin: let it be known, at 67 he is absolutely still a badass. With distortion and feedback in just the right places and outright fire fueling the rest, his playing resonated with the maturity of decades and the freshness of a musician who still finds new inspiration every time he picks up his instrument.
As if the occasion of the band’s last show didn’t lend enough positive energy to the evening, at the end of the concert, the stage hands, sound engineer, and supporting staff were all invited on stage to emerge blinking in the light, looking a little sheepish and getting in on the group hug with the band. I’ve never experienced anything quite like that before – maybe at the end of a theatrical show’s run, but never in a music performance. It was real.
Whether it’s 40 years, or an audtitorium of 1,450 other listeners – last night’s show proved that a great music experience can (should) be absorbing enough to melt away the externals. When the musicians are playing they are playing for you, and you alone.
The show was the end of the tour but not, we hope, the magic that is the Five Peace Band.
Five Peace Band: Live (2009)
John McLaughlin: After the Rain (1995), Extrapolation (1969, recorded exactly a month before the Miles Davis In a Silent Way session), Birds of Fire (1972, with his Mahavishnu Orchestra), Shakti (1975, with tabla artist Zakir Hussein),
Chick Corea: anything with Return to Forever, Crystal Silence (1972, with Gary Burton)