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While audiences see the end results of a group's labors, there's much that they don't get to experience. Even for the relatively spare set-up of guitarist John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension, hours of work go on behind the scenes at every venue to make sure everything is as it should be when the doors open. McLaughlin's soundman Sven Hoffman and tour manager Christophe Deghelt arrive on the scene as much as six hours ahead of the show to ensure all the equipment is properly set up and all the necessary rules of engagement with the venue are organized before the group arrives. The primary goal of Hoffman, who has been working with McLaughlin for a decade, and Deghelt, who's been managing the guitarist's tours for seven years, is transparency, so that the group needn't worry about anything but the music.
Still, snags do happen beyond their control, and then it's up to them to ensure that things are resolved as quickly and smoothly as possible. When the group arrived in Toronto at Canada's legendary Massey Hall for the October 5, 2007 performancethe final date of the tourthere was a problem with the amplifier supplied for McLaughlin. The good news was that, while McLaughlin used the sub-par amp for most of the sound check, the proper one was ultimately located, just in time for the end of the sound check, about two hours before the 8:00 PM show.
The sound check itself can, once appropriate volume levels are set for all the instruments on the stage, be as routine as simply running down a song to make sure everyone can hear everyone else on the stage. Sometimes, after some preliminary discussion, difficulties with a tune encountered the previous night are ironed out at the following day's sound check. At other times, especially with a group as consistently inspired as this, there can be as much magic at the sound check as there is in the performance occasionally even more.
If the band is really in a playing mood, there are moments at sound check that really deserve to be documented. In Ottawa, those in the hall during sound check were treated to an intense and frenzied workout between keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband, on his "jungle kit," and McLaughlin; it went on for over five minutes and was one of a number of "goose bump" moments at the various sound checks. Many North American fans were hoping that McLaughlin would pull out an old Mahavishnu Orchestra tune or two, but it ultimately never happenedat least in performance. In the Durham, North Carolina sound check, McLaughlin launched, albeit briefly, into the familiar arpeggio of "Meeting of the Spirits," from Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971), and in Montreal the group played around with "Lila's Dance," from Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia, 1975).
Another memorable moment was in Toronto, where bassist Hadrien Feraud, while trying out a couple of fretless basses brought to him by a Toronto luthier, began to play Jaco Pastorius' "Continuum." While McLaughlin's calling Feraud "The New Jaco" in recent press is more about the young bassist's already remarkable innovations at the age of twenty-three, hearing him play a Pastorius tune confirmed that Feraud's already done his share of wood-shedding with the late bassist's work. And when he launched into the late Joe Zawinul's "A Remark You Made," from Weather Report's classic Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977), and Husband joined in with a phase-shifted piano, the two brought into clear focus just how influential the keyboardist, who passed away on September 11, 2007, was during his lifetime, and will undoubtedly continue to be.
The Toronto performance was a repeat of the two sets played in Montreal three days priora first set with the up-tempo reworking of an as-yet-unrecorded tune originally played by Remember Shakti, "Raju"; Husband's imaginative rearrangement of Miles Davis' "Jean Pierre"; the beautiful ballad "Nostalgia," from Mahavishnu (Warner Bros., 1984); and the energetic and often-covered "Hijacked," a strong feature for Feraud. After a brief intermission, the group returned with a powerful "Senor C.S." from Industrial Zen (Verve, 2006); a grooving take of the gospel-tinged "The Unknown Dissident," from Electric Dreams (Columbia, 1978); another reworked Shakti tune, "5 Peace Band"; and a last ballad, "Maharina," before closing with one of the best versions that McLaughlin has played yet on the tour of another often- covered tune, "Mother Tongues." Again, like Montreal, for the encoredemanded by the enthusiastic audienceMcLaughlin and his group ended on a tranquil note with "Light on the Edge of the World."
But while the set list was the same, it's a safe bet not just that this group will take the material to new places every night but that everyone will continue to think out of the box during each moment of a new performance. Husband, for example, relied more on piano for solos in Toronto than at the other shows AAJ has covered and, using the same phase-shifted tone from the sound check's take on Weather Report, it was clear he was "channeling" Zawinul that evening, while still sounding unmistakably himself. Feraud brought out a fretless bass for the ballads, creating a deep, in-the-gut vibe, while his fretted bass playing was particularly vibrant and, at times, unexpectedly percussive. Drummer Mark Mondesirwho has as much fun finding the place where swing and funk meet as he does intuitively responding to the smallest (and, sometimes, largest) of gestures from his band mateswas, once again, on fireloose, limber and interactive.