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.