Two leading players from fusion's heyday reunite with a hot new band, trying to make sense of the past, but in the present.
Almost 30 years after exiting the stage, jazz-rock "fusion" has been returning. Old practitioners are back on the bandstand, and young folks again seem interested in hearing loud instruments played with dazzling precision. Pianist Chick Corea and guitarist John McLaughlin were both critical participants with Miles Davis in the fusion revolution of the late '60s and early '70s, and they both led their own acclaimed bands -- Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, respectively. Last year, Return to Forever headed back to concert halls to play long solos on medieval-themed melodies.
And so it was reasonable to assume that Corea -- almost 70 now -- had some fusiony nostalgia in mind when he contacted McLaughlin to propose a new band with considerable fusion pedigree: the two leaders, then saxophonist Kenny Garrett (who played for years in Miles Davis's last electric bands), bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. No doubt, an all-star band. But, as assembled here, exactly what kind of band is it? Named the "Five Peace Band" by mystic McLaughlin, the group's new live double disc is festooned with graphics that suggest a throwback to the original fusion era. Is it?
The news about the Five Peace Band is very good. When you see that there is a song by Corea called "Hymn to Andromeda" that stretches to 27 minutes, you've got to be expecting a Return to Forever-ish electric epic, rife with complex unison runs and spacey synth passages. What a thrill, then, to find a subtle and mainly acoustic tune that unfolds slowly and in free time. Corea and McBride play with ruminative abstraction in the opening, and eventually McLaughlin and Garrett join in a slow-moving written counterpoint. This is all prelude, however, to a skittering/quick theme that establishes a free rhythm section groove over which Garrett plays an ingenious solo: a bevy of textures that finally explodes in a series of delirious overblown shrieks. It's grooving high drama, but it is the very opposite of fusion indulgence.
Indeed, amazingly little of Five Peace Band Live conforms to fusion clichés. The opener, "Raju", dishes out fast runs and complex grooves that set the table for long solos, but the bulk of the record is much harder to categorize. Fusion fans will note, right off the bat, that the band covers "In a Silent Way/It's About That Time", an entire side from the great Miles Davis album that arguably defined the whole idea of "electric jazz". But this long and wondrous performance is subtle and exploratory (like the original), amounting to a kind of chamber jazz that celebrates a classic piece of the music's history. With Herbie Hancock guesting on acoustic piano (while Corea plays a digital keyboard that combines a classic Rhodes sound with synth sustains), this track builds to several extraordinary climaxes. It's Fusion Classic, and it's about the best the genre has to offer.
The bulk of Peace Band Live is complex modern jazz, minus overwhelming electricity or pounding groove. "Dr. Jackle" is a playful blues workout that quotes Monk, Ellington, and others before landing on the Jackie McLean theme. "Someday My Prince Will Come" is a gentle and astonishing duet between Corea and McLaughlin on the theme that will always be associated with Miles Davis. "The Disguise" is a lovely Corea composition that marries an ambling melody to an abstract Latin groove. Even McLaughlin's tribute to his sometime partner Carlos Santana, "Senor C.S." -- which uses McBride's popping electric bass to great effect -- feels less like bombastic FUSION than like a superior example of amped-up Latin jazz -- not unlike Corea's original Return to Forever (with Flora Purim and Joe Farrell).
The main events here are the long-form improvisations of the leaders. Corea is overflowing with ideas, typically executed on acoustic piano or a keyboard using the attack and sound of a Fender Rhodes. Corea's improvised melodies never fail to skip and then fly, ripping like lightening across the sky. In this context, his use of the pitch-bender on his keyboard seems out of place, however -- an unnecessary affectation. McLaughlin may be even more impressive because his tumbling phrasing still has no equivalent in rock or jazz. His solos are torrents of energy, and he manipulates the tone of his guitar to suggest that they come from a place of inherent urgency.
It's great to note that Kenny Garrett is not lost in the fray. Garrett is a fiery and daring player capable of pushing straight jazz playing to the emotional brink, yet he's made more than a few sideman appearances that had little weight. Here, Garrett is alternately searching and searing, and he brings a pleasant sense of harmonic adventure to his solos. "The Disguise" gives the alto player a wide harmonic plain on which to weave interesting textures and to find unusual intervals that pluck against your ear. In other places, Garrett digs deep into his blues bucket, but not in a facile, "fusion sax" way -- "New Blue, Old Bruise" lets him rip, but with a joyous sense of freedom.
Five Peace Band Live was recorded toward the beginning of the band's tour, and reports from the road are of a truly exciting live show, with Brian Blade replacing Colaiuta in North America. The promise of the early recording is that of a band that is using the past -- fusion, sure, but really much more than that -- to create contemporary music that is not trapped in time. With this level of talent, success might seem preordained, but the Five Peace Band is succeeding where many others have failed. These performances are fresh and powerful, yet also wise to certain elements of vintage.
With any luck, this band will be more than a one-off and we might find out what it is truly capable of going forward. Still a kind of "fusion", but less a commercial calculation, this quintet reminds us that jazz still has acres, many many acres, of unexplored territory. Somewhere between the bombast of fusion and the elliptical beauty of modern jazz lies the Five Peace Band. It's rich territory.