[14 May 2009]
Close to 40 years after they collaborated with Miles Davis on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin reunited to front the Five Peace Band for a worldwide tour that began last fall. Over the years, pianist Corea and guitarist McLaughlin developed independently into legendary, genre-hopping, style-blending innovators. This concert was a chance for two men with parallel careers to reconvene at a point that mirrored their shared roots.
To that end, the set vacillated between static and experimental. While each piece reflected the broad range of genres the two have explored over the years, their performances were thoughtful, deliberate, and seemed to carry the awareness of their age. Yet age was never an issue as this particular show was fully revived by the raw enthusiasm of the band’s three younger members—Kenny Garrett on the alto saxophone, Christian McBride on bass guitar, and Brian Blade on drums.
The chattering between pieces presented a familial collaboration and bond among the band’s five members, but even the staging created a divide between the old guard and new. Someone else I spoke with who attended the show described the set as stifled, but what I perceived was more of a stylistic contrast between the two generations of musicians. In a way, the show served as an opportunity to pass the baton. The compositions of Corea and McLaughlin provided an imposing cornerstone upon which the other three readily built a tower. The older musicians provided a foundation, but the trade off was responsibility. The younger generation brought the uninhibited, impassioned playfulness essential to truly brilliant improvisational work.
During the show, it seemed as though there was pressure on Corea and Mclaughlin to produce a sound that was a culmination of their individual careers and perhaps make good on the program’s promise that neither had ever really forgotten/moved on from their seminal work with Miles Davis. As a result, the pieces packed in a little bit everything, but didn’t quite successfully weave it all together. But the choppiness served to accentuate showy solos and was smoothed over by Blade, whose performance was slick and steady, yet ebullient. He kept a stable beat with lively body movements and facial expressions, exuding an almost otherworldly joy in his own performance and the music.
His smooth energy engendered the rest of the band with freedom and distinctive self-expression. Each seemed able to turn inward and to engage. As a result they made music that could lull, arouse, appease, and instigate the audience all within the boundaries of first and last measure while simultaneously persuading us that these shifts were as natural as the inconsistencies of life itself. At times, the diverse ensemble onstage seemed to form an arbitrary cloud of music-making potential, able to hail, rain, gust, snow, and cease without warning.
To that end, the pieces in this set occasionally demanded patience as the eclectic Five Peace Band gave musical space to each artist and offered a forum for a variety of genres. In some pieces, this synthesis worked better than in others. McLaughlin’s “Senor C.S” was imbued with a samba-esque flare and united the entire band in an original endeavor, igniting each musician’s power to excel. Corea’s keyboard in this piece emphasized his diverse range and capacity for musical evolution.
But in some cases, the experimental nature of the work seemed forced and perhaps almost more suited to a workshop or jam session than a performance. In particular, “Hymn to Andromeda” seemed at times not only to lack direction, but also the variety and exploration necessary to carry such a meandering piece of music. There were measures when the repetition verged on rote, and while the band seemed lost in the music, the audience was not always following.
But that piece and others were infused with the unparalleled and piercing sax solos executed by Garrett. Garrett was radiant and often explosive, simultaneously expelling raw virtuosity and frenzied devotion. Ironically, Garrett’s solos provided the band’s most cohesive moments. His commitment to musical expression strained through every note, and all of his movements. It was subtly, tenderly mirrored, and supported by his band mates. In these moments, all five musicians were undeniably linked in their devotion to uninhibited invention.
Unfortunately, the audience was not always quite in the same place. When the time came for the encore, seats were emptying. Corea eagerly told the audience that he and the band were not tired in the slightest; unfortunately the crowd, though captivated throughout, was unable to match his energy. But as the lower sections emptied out, true fans crept down to fill the seats, eager to get one even one foot closer to the instant of innovation.