McLaughlin-Corea Five Peace Band and a fan’s disappointment

The Five Peace Band — guitarist John McLaughlin, keyboardist Chick Corea, alto saxist Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade — opened the last leg of a multi-month tour with a three-night stand at Jazz at Lincoln Center last night. The players’ musicianship can’t be faulted, their energy was high and they looked like they were deeply  engaged in having fun. So are my expectations and/or standards disproportionate, unfulfillable? Why at concert end did I feel more enervated than invigorated? 

Having informed Al Di Meola, electric guitarist in Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, during a radio program a couple weeks ago that he was never my favorite fusion plectrist (but I have received a passel of his recent albums and I’m trying to catch up by listening to them), I’ve got to admit my overwhelming partiality to McLaughlin. I liked his sound from first exposure to his debut albums of 40 years ago — heavy-weight Devotion, gentle My Goal’s Beyond and the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s unprecedented Inner Mounting Flame, as well as his major contributions to Tony Williams Lifetime’s Emergency!, Miles Davis‘ In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson and On The Corner, Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill — and a fine but under-rated album titled Spaces which he recorded with Corea, Larry Coryell (whose project it really was, though to his credit you can’t tell it from the highly collaborative music played), Miroslav Vitous, Billy Cobham and yes, Corea on electric piano. I was delighted by McLaughlin’s acoustic Indian-collaborative ensemble Shakti, which I reviewed for the original Chicago Daily News in the mid ’70s during its first, little-heralded tour. I’ve interviewed McLaughlin twice (as published in my book Future Jazz and the unauthorized posting here) and have found him extremely articulate, intelligent, modest yet self-aware, humorous — quite the admirable gentleman. The proof is in his music: at its best hot and cool, impassioned and complex, rockin’ and lyrical, balanced and outrageous. I think he plays earnestly and ambitiously every time out, though I’ve seen performances of both his electric and acoustic groups where something intangible keeps my from feeling as happy as I want to be. 

I’m a fan of Corea’s, too — Now He Sings, Now He Sobs is one of the most sweepingly lyrical, original and accessible piano trio albums of the past half-century, and more recently his sextet Origin and trio with drummer Jeff Ballard, among other projects with young musicians, have contained splendid, tasteful compositions and realizations. I have my issues with his Elektric Band, with RTF (in its original state and its reunion) and with his Scientology-themed works, but I’ve interviewed Chick, too and have been impressed by his direct, personable address, his broad perspective and of course his pianism. 
Furthermore, McLaughlin and Corea seem mutually complementary — as they acknowledged onstage at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall. They both spoke nostalgically of New York as it was when they met in 1969, and their collaboration — especially in moments when one accompanied the other — demonstrated considerable imagination and rapport. McLaughlin, trim and elegant but wielding his solid-body gtr as a laser beam he aimed from the gut, shot out zillion-note lines in phrases of irregular length; Corea chorded to contrast and used efffects sparely to offset him. Corea fingered romping melodic figures employing both hands; McLaughlin strummed soft, supportive, sparing chords beneath. 
And it was truly a Five Peace rather than a two-man show: Blade drummed imaginatively yet thunderously, with rapt attention at every moment; McBride laid down a particularly solid yet flowing bottom on electric bass, and complicated ideas on upright (particularly in the three-hour concert’s closer, “Dr. Jackle” hardbop written by the late Jackie McLean to play with Miles). Best of all, saxophonist Garrett was thoroughly integrated into the group, not merely an add-on, and he took some of the most garrulous, blues-drenched solos of show, emerging naturally from the arrangements instead of   seeming to interrupt them for his spots. 
So what was wrong? Anything? Watch this clip from an earlier concert of the Five Peace Band, for reference’s sake. . . 
Nothing, right? It’s great! Well, have I gotten old and deaf? I resist that notion.
Perhaps the FPB’s new material leaves something to be desired: no single melody other than “Dr. Jackle” was memorable, striking in outline or expressivity (they didn’t play Miles’ “In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time” though it’s in their book). There was a lot of melody, especially issuing from Corea (especially in his lengthy multi-part “Hymn to Andromeda,” presented as the concert’s climax but in need to better focus) who has a lot of ideas, so many he doesn’t settle in to explore any in significant depth. We were treated to McLaughlin’s “Raju” from his last album Industrial Zen, and to his “New Blues Old Bruise,” which occasioned the most heady and muscular fusion of the evening, to my mind, but their melodies were lost amid the jamming that issued from them.
McLaughlin’s use of space — brief hesitations he cued the band to respect as a gathering of breath before plunging on into collective improv; brilliant placement of his own statements over the din — was exciting, but he has also developed the tic of constantly double-picking (like trilling) each sin
gle note (maybe he’s doing something else, that’s as close as I could deduce from the sound) which rendered notes’ actual pitches sort of irrelevant. His best solos — for instance, “Air India” on Escalator, “Go Ahead, John” on Miles’ Big Fun — have always included bold, legato inventions besides rapid-fire attacks. The attack was there, but inventive variations seemed at a premium.
Garrett’s improvisations clung to blue notes and incorporated an array of vocalism — gruff tone, hardy-har-har “laughling,” commendable passages of careful note selection (revealing the influence of Miles Davis, with whom he toured in the ’80s, as McLaughlin and Corea had in the late ’60s-early ’70s), infrequent Coltranesque streams of chord-running. These effects had him standing out from either McLaughlin or Corea, giving the front line another strong dimension. And Garrett never seemed less than McLaughlin and Corea’s equal. Same with McBride and Blade — the Five Peace is a true band. It also played some true jazz, launching into episodes of unbridled, intense, genuinely unpredictable group improv of a manner too seldom heard at Jazz at Lincoln Center. 
So maybe I was disappointed because I wanted to hear something I remember from decades ago — and had just not opened myself to what my old heroes are doing now. Or maybe I’m tired of the single-minded dynamic (loud except during introductions, without much transparency) that renders a lot of so-called jazz fusion a macho enterprise. Maybe my own tastes have changed, matured? (NO! — I still love crunchy, funky, explosive music! And I’ve always liked subtle, soft, moody, evocative sounds, too.) The Five Peace Band didn’t have an off-night, they were righteously self-satisfied. Some members of the audience slipped out during the concert — bored with the unit? Eager to relieve the baby-sitter? — but not many. Applause was generous. 
But I left wondering if my standards are too lofty, my responses jaded by too much stimuli, my desires for satisfaction beyond any band’s abilities. Or — was it just a matter of dynamics and sound mix in the House that Swing Built? The Five Peace Band’s live two-cd album is being released this week, so there’s another opportunity to think about all this. Would I have liked the Five Peace Band better and would they have collaborated more musically, more sensitively — if they’d been unplugged? Would that undermine the very essence of fusion?
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  1. Terry King says

    I was happy to see Howard’s substantial coverage of the opening show of 5PB’s New York stay, although I was sorry to see that, after enumerating many more positive aspects of the concert than negative ones, he still felt obliged to focus his review around his sense of disappointment. But if that was his feeling then he’s right to be honest.
    I enjoyed the concert immensely, although maybe I had an advantage in having listened a number of times to the live 2-CD recording from the band’s initial concerts (the CD has been available for about a month). I will grant that, at 3 hours (in which 6 pieces were played), it was a bit of a test of stamina for anyone except a devotee. Strikingly, the band’s energy didn’t seem to flag.
    I think Howard has a point about the volume and mix in the house — it wasn’t always easy to distinguish the various voices. This has historically been a problem with amplified bands who play on the loud side, in clubs and concert halls alike. It was clear at the beginning of the evening, and periodically throughout, that there were sound problems onstage — it seemed like Chick couldn’t hear himself. I hope some of that will be corrected in ensuing evenings. It seems to be something of an insoluble problem that when the energy rises to a certain point, and everyone has the capability of increasing his volume at will, then the ultimate volume threshhold is set by the drummer, who feels that he is trying to match the sound-energy of the rest of the band. Snowballing ensues.
    I suspect that the sound balance issues may also have played a large part in Howard’s sense that there was a lack of memorable melody in the compositions. Again, I had the advantage of knowing all the tunes they played quite well. Having been doing intensive McLaughlin-listening for the past few years, three of the compositions were ones I know backward and forward, and I think they’re all extremely memorable: “Raju: and “New Blues Old Bruise”, which Howard mentioned, and “Senor C.S.”, the opener of the second half, which I think is a beautiful jazz composition, and which was the high point of the concert for me.
    I’ll be there again Saturday night, and I hope the sound will be better. It wasn’t *bad*, but certainly there was room for improvement. For me this was one of the musical highlights of the year. It’s hard to imagine a higher-caliber assembly of musical talent on one stage.

  2. says

    With all due respect, is it too difficult to accept what is there, rather than projecting what could have been?
    Musicians change or resurrect the music they once knew, I would hope, because they need to say something different for themselves in order to understand where they are now.
    HM: Hi Lyn — I am not really serious about being foolishly wanting to hear what I heard years ago — about wanting something ELSE than what I experienced. I accepted what I experienced, that’s what this entire posting is about! But still I didn’t get the lift from the music I’d expected based on my experience (even of the YouTube link) or believe is possible from these musicians. The fault may indeed be my own, I acknowledge that. But another correspondent who was at the concert has commented that maybe my consideration about the mix is pertinent. Maybe so — more tonal quality would have lent the melodies some of the substance I found disconcertingly absent. What I’m saying is not that these musicians are presenting something now that’s not what I remember, so not as good, but that what they presented didn’t do it (for me, I emphasize) and I’m not sure why. Glad that others’ had more gratifying listening. I do think the honest, thorough, thoughtful reaction of a devoted fan who can also function as an “objective” observer — a critical thinker — is relevant when judging the success of a concert or reviewing same.

  3. says

    Hey Howard,
    I dug your posting and review of the 5 piece band. I think I might be able to put a word on what you were missing – “mystery”! Or “surprise”. All these guys are obviously individually some of the greatest ever, but there’s a difference between putting together a band of seasoned all-stars like this for a project, and then carefully honing and developing a band over the years, even including changing personnel along the way, the way that Joe Zawinul, for an example, did with his Syndicate (& Weather Report of course). Or Miles did with all his bands. The Miles adage of “playing what you don’t know” probably didn’t come much into play with the 5 piece band, I can imagine, and that’s probably what you were missing?
    Best – Anders
    HM: Thanks for this note, Anders. Mystery, is that what I was missing? Perhaps. They seemed to have stakes in mind — but did the game develop, did the stakes change? A couple of times the piece seemed to have ended, then they went into a tutti passage that just seemed to be written, but not necessarily necessary. There was an element of contrivance, which by the way was at odds with their stage demeanor, utterly natural.
    I take the earlier comment to heart, also, thinking that a better mix delivering more of the tonality would have helped me feel I was listening to something more than attack and gesture, something that *sounded* musical. I’ve had my mid-age hearing tests, and apparently haven’t lost a lot of frequency range, but I do find myself impatient when sounds project in less than their true technicolors.

  4. says

    Hi Howard. I think you’ve come to a point that I have, where tone is more important than anything else. We grew up in jazz at a time when chops and attitude reigned supreme, and we celebrate those kind of musicians nowadays, instead of the ones who worked on a truly glorious sound.
    I’ve listened to the cds that just came out, and you could easily argue what Lester Young said,”Lots of notes, didn’t say anything.” Was a story told? Are you drawn into the music by the tone of the instrument? These classic questions that Armstrong brings up are what keeps me at arms length from most modern jazz musicians, and I think you’re getting there as well.
    HM: I hope I’m not getting to the point of keeping “most modern jazz musicians” at arms length, though I appreciate tone immensely. I also don’t think that my appreciation of tone has grown or intensified throughout the course of my listening experience over other values — I’d identify as part of my early-years cultural snobbery an insistence that tone, “authenticity,” etc. be of best quality in order to really get excited about it. But I may be aware of coming to the point where I’m aware that I’m NOT aware of certain sonic frequencies.

  5. says

    I am perplexed and shocked by your mentioning “Spaces” without proper attribution to Larry Coryell. This was a Larry Coryell album, and you did not even mention him as a “sideman.”
    /s/ Marty
    Martin Z. Kasdan Jr.
    Jazz Columnist
    Louisville Music News
    HM: Thanks for bringing this to my attention — it’s totally a typo — my first reference to “Corea” in the sentence about Spaces ought to have read “Larry Coryell” — that was my intention, which is why I wrote “and, yes, Corea on electric piano” at the end. Yes, that was a Coryell-initiated record, and one of Coryell’s best (to me, his work of that period is daringly inconsistent — but Lady Coryell has some great original guitar jazz-beyond-jazz, many his recordings with Gary Burton stand the test of time . . .I’m not an 11th House fan, but ok — Coryell has been a dazzling guitarist for 40 years (another old old favorite comes to mind: his acoustic duets with Steve Khan).
    I’ll correct this in the body of the text — thanks again for bringing it to my attention.

  6. Terry King says

    Following on the discussion provoked by the 5 Peace Band’s Thursday concert, I offer a brief update.
    On Saturday night I heard the band for a second time. I don’t think it was due to the fact that I had a better ticket that I found Saturday’s peformance even better than Thursday’s, and, perhaps, the kind of experience Howard found himself missing.
    Everything seemed better(although I loved Thursday) — the sound, the interaction, the freedom in performance. It’s hard to say whether the mix was better, since I was in a much closer position, but it certainly seemed better to me, and I perceived the musicians as having an easier and more enjoyable time.
    The rep was much the same as Thurday’s, but everyone seemed more relaxed, especially Chick, who played brilliantly in solo as in accompaniment. The rhythm section was even more compelling than on Thursday. And John McLaughlin was on fire, especially in his solo on “Senor C.S.”, the second half opener. It felt as though the audience heard what it was waiting for, and it exploded.
    I don’t know — Saturday night, maybe a more unbuttoned audience, maybe the band’s response to the last night of the NYC stay which is within a week’s time of this 6-month-plus tour — but it really registered as a short-list memorable concert for me. And most of the audience seemed to share my feeling.
    HM: Wish I’d been there, I wanted to be moved. Thanks for the report, Terry.

  7. brett says

    I really admire this attempt to discern exactly why a performance didn’t work as well as the journalist might have expected. So many of us in music journalism encounter shows that just don’t quite come off, but it’s difficult to figure out exactly why that happened. It’s even tougher with jazz than classical or rock music because you have the added variable of melodic and harmonic improvisation, which of course varies from night to night. Why, exactly, was last Saturday’s show, featuring the same players, so much better than Thursday’s? Well, you can say a certain soloist was “uninspired” or “predictable” or any of the other vague impressions we journalists often resort to when we don’t have the time or space or understanding or energy to really focus on the particular causes of a disappointing performance (or even a terrific one, for that matter). But I rarely see a writer really grappling with such specific elements as Howard does here.
    I also appreciate the honesty — even courage — necessary to admit that he’s trying to figure it out, and not assuming the know-it-all stance that we often take, sometimes because space limitations prohibit the kind of nuance and chronicling of the journey to understanding, not just the destination.
    This may be one of those rare cases of criticism that actually provides useful feedback to the performer as well as the audience and readers. It takes real perceptivity, experience and depth of knowledge to write analysis this astute, and real confidence to admit the truth so often unstated: that figuring this stuff out isn’t easy, even for the best critics. Bravo.
    HM: Thanks.

  8. Tom Rudd says

    It’s a shame you did not enjoy the show as much as you could have. I am going to the Boston show this evening. Very much looking foward to hearing these world class stellar jazz players. These players are all about improvisation. That is why something you say puzzles me. If you would like to hear memorable melodies, go see Spyro Gyra, or the Rippingtons and such. These guys are not into playing melodies you can whistle along to. Not this time around anyway.
    HM: Thanks for your note. Both McLaughlin and Corea have composed many melodies besides playing thrilling improvisations that rank in my satisfaction and memory much higher than anything by the groups you mention. Great improvisation, however, is most often part and parcel of great — if allowably sketchy — composition. Ornette, Cherry, Ayler, Coltrane, Parker, Gillespie, Miles, Monk, Rollins, Mingus, Dolphy, Ra, Rahsaan, Cecil Taylor, Braxton, Ellington, Armstrong, Rollins: each of them launches their improvisations from a set foundation which they depart from (and very seldom completely abandon) only with esthetic reason. Also, McLaughlin and Corea are proud of their composing. I hope it’s a transcendent show and you love it.

  9. Matt Harpster says

    I think you’re spot on. The recording in my opinion has the creativeness that the live show that I saw (Burlington VT), lacked.
    However I don’t feel you give Christian McBride nearly enough credit for this outing, or maybe he just didn’t wow as much at your particular show. He was amazing and flawless, when I saw him. I also just like watching him cause he makes a bass (even an upright) look so damn small.
    So to what I thought the problem was, at least at my show, I feel what needed to happen was just a big boost to the house system, I saw it at the Flynn theatre, beautiful sound but it was just set up fairly quiet, at least for how I wanted to hear it.
    The nice thing about the CD is that you can play it as loud as you damn well please, which is how all of those musicians need to be enjoyed.
    HM: You’re spot on, too, Matt. I seem to be missing the new McLaughlin tour, Fifth Dimension, sad to say. He’s a fascinating guitarist and musician, not afraid to reach for the moon and sometime touch it.