Tuesday, November 11, 1997

McLaughlin Powers His Band With Rapid-Fire Virtuosity
By DON HECKMAN, Special to The Times



   John McLaughlin seemed to be having the time of his life Sunday night at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater. And it was easy to see why.
     The veteran jazz-fusion guitarist has been one of the more eclectic of contemporary musicians, moving back and forth easily from acoustic to electric environments. But, despite his superb work with the group Shakti, his major achievements have usually come in high-energy situations--with Miles Davis, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and a variety of other ensembles.
     The group he brought to Wadsworth is clearly capable of producing yet another peak in McLaughlin's career. Much of the music came from the band's new Verve album, "The Heart of Things," a high-powered set of McLaughlin originals perfectly tailored for an ensemble that included Jim Beard, keyboards; Gary Thomas, saxophones; Dennis Chambers, drums; and Matthew Garrison, bass.
     Even so, the music took a while to build up steam. McLaughlin's stylistic frame--similar in some respects to that of Davis' late electric groups--uses the drums as a dynamic engine to propel the music forward, with the soloists improvising with relative freedom. With few of the familiar chord structures of straight-ahead jazz, both the soloing and the accompaniment become oriented toward virtuosic displays of rapid-fire technique.
     It's a style triggered by an energy that strongly affected the younger members of the full-house audience, while sending some more mature listeners to the door. ("Don't leave," said McLaughlin jokingly, "it gets better.") And he was right, but "better" in the sense that the interplay of rhythm, energy and solos became fully integrated.
     Halfway through the program, the real ensemble character of the McLaughlin band finally came through with a forcefulness that stamped it as one of the finest of contemporary jazz ensembles.
     McLaughlin's playing was astonishing. He has always had fast fingers, but he now invests his lines with the pacing and timing of a mature musical imagination. Thomas was an adept front-line companion, especially on tenor saxophone, often matching McLaughlin, note for note. (But why did the murky lighting never allow his face to emerge from the darkness?)
     Beard's playing added some welcome touches of mainstream swing, Garrison was discreet but dependable, and Chambers' efforts--in his soloing, his accompaniment and in several duets with Thomas and McLaughlin--virtually defined contemporary jazz power drumming.