Vitous/Garbarek/McLaughlin/Corea/DeJohnette, Universal Syncopations


John Fordham
Friday October 3, 2003



The most spontaneously musical jazz bands often only need one genie and a supporting cast of beautiful assistants. Drop five genies into one show and the pyrotechnics frequently produce more noise and smoke than revelation. This happens occasionally on the international touring circuit, when promoters hurl the likes of Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny and other American stars on stage in the flailing hope the collision will be magic.

Miroslav Vitous, the Prague-born bassist and co-founder of fusion superband Weather Report, has done something similar, but with patience, forethought, and a better reason than just gawping at the sight of all those jazz names printed side by side. Between 2000 and March this year, Vitous assembled a team of famous players for a single dazzling record project - including Jan Garbarek, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette. And the music this quintet of bandleaders produced over the three-year gestation of Universal Syncopations is as big as the idea.

Vitous's remarkable achievement has been to dissolve the egos and reputations of his partners into an integrated programme of his own music (all the pieces are his, though three involved collaborations with Garbarek and DeJohnette). By virtue of his own unique combination of Slavic folk roots and the American jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, he coaxes all the players into leaving their own familiar luggage at the door. Norwegian saxophone dreamer Garbarek, for instance, hardly ever plays on sessions other than his own; nor has he recorded such a consistent display of unambiguously jazzy improvisation since the mid-1970s. Corea, often a florid and sumptuously romantic player, operates more like a sideman here, and his dramatic and staccato chording behind his partners often suggests his own and Herbie Hancock's pivotal harmonic and rhythm impact in the great 1960s Miles Davis bands. Guitarist McLaughlin plays in brittle, impulsive bursts of sound, exploding into the spaces in the music and then falling silent, as he did in his pre-guitar-hero early years. Vitous, making his first ECM recording for a decade, plays with reverberating authority, and improvises with bounding agility and invention; and DeJohnette plays like a percussionist and a kit-drummer simultaneously, his cymbal sounds humming with overtones, his tempo-playing full of ambiguous intent.

If this quintet has a core, it is the trio of Garbarek, Vitous and DeJohnette, with briefer appearances from the other two. But the opening Bamboo Forest is a parade for them all, with Garbarek's silvery soprano sound entering over DeJohnette's chattery Latin pulse and ringing cymbal exclamations, the sax-phrasing growing closer to Wayne Shorter's (where it stays for much of the disc) as the undulations of Corea's piano figures and the elastic snap of Vitous's bass appear around it. McLaughlin's opening phrase is a quote from the late Wes Montgomery's West Coast Blues, as if to announce his intentions to rekindle old fires.

On Univoyage, the ensemble sound borders on free-jazz, but is constantly throttled back to the lazily taut group textures of the mid-1960s Miles band by the contributions of a very selectively deployed brass trio. Garbarek then roundly dispatches all purist gripes that he's a Euro-folkie who can't play "real" jazz with a slyly swinging exploration of Vitous's Tramp's Blues that makes you want to get up and applaud. The piece turns into a Mingus-like call-and-response exchange with the bass, muted brass purring beneath.

Sunflower begins as a brooding drifter, before surging into an urgent bass/drums groove, again eagerly explored by a now deviously dynamic Garbarek, and with Corea's abstract flurries even suggesting Britain's Keith Tippett.

But if all this sounds like a jazz-purist's exercise, check the ecstatic funk on Beethoven, or the dark, ambient murmur of Vitous's majestic bass on the slow Brazil Waves. This is a wonderful contemporary jazz set with a sense of the past, but in which all the players reconsider their histories to maximise the intensity of the present.