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Good bands make due when faced with disadvantage; great bands turn disadvantage into advantage. While Ottawa's Dominion-Chalmers United Church is a beautiful venue for chamber music, or even acoustic jazz, its cathedral ceiling and ten-second natural reverb could have spelled real trouble for John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension. Even with the ever-capable Sven Hoffman at the soundboardwho has been working with the guitarist for a decadethe sound check didn't bode well for the evening's performance, despite the fact that, once there was an audience in the room to help absorb some of the sound, things would likely improve.
And while they did improve, the performance got off to a shaky start. With a set list that has settled into a fairly standard order, the energetic "Raju" had its moments, but it was clear that the group was struggling with the room sound coming back at them and muddying the waters.
But by the time the group launched into keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband's arrangement of Miles Davis' "Jean Pierre," something magical began to happen. As abstract as Husband's reworking is, the group settled almost immediately into a defined swing, with Husband and McLaughlin playing off each other rhythmically before the guitarist found his way to the sing-song theme, twisted on its side by Husband's heavily altered accompaniment. With drummer Mark Mondesir fluidly shifting to a funkier backbeat, the song took off in a way that it hadn't in either Durham or Montreal.
It was a greasier, sleazier groove, with the group taking advantage of the sound of the room and playing with more space and greater nuance. Husband's solo was stunning, and McLaughlinwith a slight delay added at the soundboardseemed to break new ground, bending notes and adding a touch of B.B. King- style vibrato to his rapid-fire runs and visceral whammy bar twists. His solo built to a near frenzy, with a real sense that something different was happening, and not just with him but the entire group.
Bassist Hadrien Feraudwho'd already set the bar high during his impressive first solo on "Raju"grooved hard with Mondesir; the eye contact and smiles between the two made it clear just how much fun they were having. As was everyone onstage.
The dynamics came down for a lyrical version of "Nostalgia," a ballad that, nevertheless, possessed its own kind of insistent power, and featured another strong solo from Husband, this time on synth, with a flute-like tone and near-vocal expression.
McLaughlin's solo ranged from economical elegance to flexible dexterity. For a guitarist who has redefined and reinvented himself so many times over the course of a career entering its fiftieth year, he still continues to surprise with new approaches to melody, rhythm and style. In an interview with Husband before the show that will be part of a wrap-up article after the final show, the keyboardist/drummer talked about just how terrific a rhythm player McLaughlin is, citing his work on Miles Davis' A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970) as a defining moment. It's too easy to be overwhelmed by McLaughlin's inestimable skill as a soloist, but over the course of this tour he's played more accompaniment, something that he's often avoided in previous bands like The Heart of Things band where, with a larger line-up, there was less room to move. Here, his rich harmonic sense was coupled with a rhythmic intuition that ran the gamut from arpeggiated chords to chunky punctuations.
Like a conversation, the smaller the group, the more intimate the interaction can be, and it's rare that McLaughlin has toured with just a four-piece band, but it's that efficient size that's allowed this group the freedom of expression to take the material to unexpected places. Husband began the up-tempo "Hijacked." as always, with a synth sequence, but when McLaughlin and Feraud joined together on its complex theme, things really took off, as the evening made another significant leap forward. Feraud's solo, accompanied by the twin-percussion of Mondesir and Husband (on his "jungle kit"), was one of a number of standing ovations that the enthusiastic, near-capacity audience gave throughout the 100-minute set. It turned into a fast-swinging blues for McLaughlin's solo, the perfect nexus of focused energy and balanced restraint.