24 February 2009

Five easy Peaces

Text by Daniel Wild

Under the tiled roofs of Sydney’s majestic and architecturally bemusing opera house, two of jazz’s post-bop luminaries showed Australia the treacherous and twisting paths that jazz has taken since Miles Davis liberated the genre in the late sixties. The line-up was second-to-none: a melange of talent par excellence, a conglomeration of super-human skill. Christian McBride was on bass – he’s not bad, ain’t he? And Mr Kenny Garrett on saxophone. Garrett and Corea played with McBride on the bass player’s probing album, Number Two Express. On drums was Brian Blade.

To cut to the chase, to hunt down the hounds, all that needs be said is that McLaughlin was fantastic. Corea did the right thing and allowed him to steal the show. McLaughlin has done a Paganini at some point in his life and had a date with Mephistopheles. If you could compare how many notes McLaughlin can fit into a minute with the RPMs of a Maserati then McLaughlin would exceed the speed limit even on Germany’s autobahns. But unlike a lot of Tal Farlow (and even some Charlie Christian), who has the chops-supreme, McLaughlin also has the scales-supreme, and has access to a store of musical knowledge that Farlow never seemed to tap into. Any one who’s willing to gather an esoteric collection of instruments and then give the so-called assembled band an Indian name – and then create some formidable music – is going to be versatile; able to listen, plan, build tension, make the audience gasp with fear, writhe with enjoyment and applaud with enthusiasm.

But what can one say of Kenny Garrett? He’s obviously spent a lot of time practising in his attic. He began the gig with mild tones, searching for the sounds of his horn as they rebounded willy-nilly around the Opera House Hall with its bamboozling acoustics. By the fourth song Garrett had worked this place out and launched into what would become a Coltrane-esque solo. Who knows how long it went for? The time did not pass and the audience did not budge. Where did the last 20 minutes go? Oh, it’s interval. As we promenaded on the Opera terrace and watched the lights of Sydney’s CBD swirl on the harbour below, we thought of the weird places Garrett had taken us to. The elephants of Africa are in his song; the yowls of mistreated slaves; the liberation of the human spirit. Garrett has a repertoire of feeling and experience to draw on and knows how to wheedle an audience into his confidence.

Blade was a crowd favourite throughout the night. He knows when to embellish the lead player’s riffs and can construct extended meditations and rhythmic confluences in his solos. This also allowed Corea and McLaughlin time to rest and have a bit of a chinwag behind the piano. Christian McBride was a rock. If two formidable weavers of melody are at the fore the bass needs to be steady, ready to buttress the fall of the musician who misplaces a toe on the tightrope. He took a couple of solos, but spent more time ensuring Corea and McLaughlin had enough the space to unfold their matrices of sound.

Nothing more should be said about McLaughlin. He has to be seen or heard. Chick Corea provided searching and thoughtful accompaniments, only occasionally stepping into the limelight to build tension or take a few choruses. His soloing was refined and well-thought. In this quintet he has less scope to go out and can take fewer liberties than he might take in the Akoustic Band. He made a good decision to play the role of purveyor of rhythmic and harmonic nuances and let McLaughlin show the world what the human race is capable of.

This gig was worth a trip to the metropolis. It has been 40 years since Corea and McLaughlin played with Miles on In a Silent Way and this was their encore piece. A standing ovation was assured.

Chick Corea (keyboards) and John McLaughlin (guitar) led the Five Peace Band at Sydney Opera House with Kenny Garrett (sax), Christian McBride (bass) and Brian Blade (drums).

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