The Heart of Things
Oct. 25, 1998
Obviously a fan (but not without reason)
On a rainy evening in Stockholm, Sweden I saw the Heart of Things (HoT) for the second time and John McLaughlin for the nth
time since about 1984. This concert was part of a jazz festival celebrating the city's designation as 'Cultural Capitol of
Europe'. Other scheduled concerts in the series included Ornette Coleman and Michael Brecker.
The concert was held at a hall in the city center. Though the acoustics and sound was good, the 18th century feeling of the
hall, and the bright white light on stage during the whole show, didn't help set the mood for the music to come.
The concert got to a late start (about 40 minutes), apparently due to the instruments arriving late. After a brief introduction in
Swedish, the lady introduced 'John McLaughlin and the Heart of Things' to everyone's applause. You could here the opening
guitar arpeggios of Seven Sisters already as John and the other musicians took the stage. The lady continued introducing
the rest of the band over the opening chords. John made a funny gesture as she finally concluded with a big '.. AND ... JOHN
McLAUGHLIN!'. When he introduced the band later, he said "I'd like to now present the musicians, though the Boss has
already done so..".
The material was essentially the same as on the HoT CD and as I'd seen on their first concert. The difference was that it was
now more developed and the band is even tighter.
"The one and only" Dennis Chambers, who in earlier days sometimes overpowered the music with his explosive style,
was relaxed (he chewed gum most of the time) and drove the band without holding back, except during his solos
(*monster*). He also supported the other players very well (e.g. Victor Willams' percussion solo, Gary Thomas's
hip-hop duet on Mr. D.C.).
Victor Williams, who's been on John's albums before (but never on stage with him), is a tasteful player, avoiding a lot of
flash. I'm sure as he plays more with the band, he'll feel more comfortable making the tunes his own.
Mathew Garrison - who John introduced as "taking the name Garrison to new heights in the bass world" - plays a crucial
role in the band both in terms of rhythm (with Dennis), and - more recently - harmony. There are a few passages where
there's only the soloist plus drums and bass, and Matt kept the whole thing interesting, thru his creative use of harmony.
Still I hope he can stretch out and explore more during his solos.
Otmaro Ruiz ("from Los Angeles via Caracas Venezuela" really held his own on keyboards. His solos were interesting
- both in terms of rhythm and harmony - and especially fitting on the latin-tinged sections (e.g. in Mr. D.C.). He made
good use of keyboard pads and patches, as well as straight-ahead piano sounds. I have to admit I was a little worried
for him in the beginning, but as I said, he really held his own: you could see the other guys nodding in approval when it
Finally Gary Thomas - on tenor, soprano, and flute - is a McLaughlin's melodic partner and a creative improvisor in his
own right. In fact, Thomas and McLaughlin are set up center-stage in front of 3 mikes, where they come to play their
unison melodies. And play in unison, they do.
Seven Sisters, the opening piece, gives everyone a chance to solo and an extended trading section for guitar and sax. The
composed sections, alternately catchy, then dark, then complex serve as separators between solos. After this song, you feel
as though you've heard a compressed version of the whole concert.
Mr. D.C. started out with the unison melody played by bass and keyboard, to be joined the second time by sax and guitar. It
included an extended tenor solo, with other instruments dropping out leaving only drums and sax, and then just sax.
Fallen Angels started out with a percussion solo - reminiscent of Trilok's "nature sounds" solo - by Victor Williams. The
arrangement seemed close to that on the CD, except that the dynamics pick up at the end of the tune for a climactic finish.
The other HoT concert I saw (L.A. 1997), went straight through with no breaks. In Stockholm there was a break (30 minutes)
at this point for "refreshments". I got the feeling that the band was just warming up and would've liked to continue, but had to
break to please the concert organizers.
Jazz Jungle opens with a bit of chaos, and goes into a long driving blowing piece with ashort head and bridge (mostly 4/4/
with an occasional 5/4 measure). Everyone solo'ed on this one.
At this point someone from the audience yelled 'We love you, John', to which John - still with his back to us - yelled back "I'll be
right there!". Though John's music is jazzy and sometimes loud, it is still spiritual and serious (although there's always humor
too), but sometimes we (audiences) still think in terms of rock concert mentality.
The Divide is a syncopated piece by saxophonist Gary Thomas. Gary took the first solo. I remember John's solo as funky
and tense, partly because it stayed 'in a different key' most of the time. The keyboard solo was also interesting in that is
included a section with slow-moving chords alternating with (and superimposed on) a funky beat, and also a
middle-eastern-sounding section played with a patch sounding like an Armenian dudek.
John introduced the next song as "a piece written for a friend that has left us ...Tony". A solo piano introduction, leading to a
melancholy melody played in unison by Gary and John, set the stage for an extended solo by Dennis Chambers (amazing
stuff!) that started with a snare roll crescendo and ended with a snare roll diminuendo. The opening melody was then
recapped. A very appropriate and touching homage to the late great Tony Williams.
After a standing ovation the band came out again to play Acid Jazz as an encore.
Overall it was an excellent concert, and one that still has me pumped up! I'm really looking forward to the live CD they're
recording in Paris later this month.