John McLaughlin: On The Road, Part 3: Opening Night
No matter how well rehearsed a group is, opening night represents greater risks than usualeven with a group like John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension, where improvisational chance-taking and in-the- moment interaction are defining characteristics. There's a nervous energy about a first performance that can often make for some truly magical moments. But it's also a time when minor snags that weren't necessarily evident at rehearsal show up. For McLaughlin's opening night at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, North Carolina, the magic far outweighed the snags for a near-capacity audience eager to hear the guitarist and his group, The 4th Dimensionkeyboardist/drummer Gary Husband, bassist Hadrien Feraud and drummer Mark Mondesir.
The hundred-minute set wasn't without its problemsthe occasional raggedy ending and sound in the hall that in some instances was marred by a boomy bottom end, making it a little difficult to hear clear articulation during Feraud's solos. But these were relatively minor issues compared to the chemistry and power that transitioned from the promise of rehearsal to the reality of performance, as the group fed off the relentless energy and enthusiasm of the audience.
After a brief introduction by Walter Kolosky, author of Power, Passion and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra (Abstract Logix Books, 2005), McLaughlin and the group were welcomed, before a single note was played, by a wild standing ovation. It was refreshing to see an audience ranging from early teens to early seniorsclear proof that the guitarist's iconic stature hasn't been diluted in the least, despite the criminal lack of promotion he's received in North America in recent timesuntil now, that is, with the small but incredibly committed Abstract Logix putting its own tireless effort into generating more buzz for McLaughlin than he's seen here in years.
The set list was a mix of old, new and, as McLaughlin said during one of his brief introductions, "medium." Tackling as yet unreleased new pieces like the opening "Raju," material from Industrial Zen (Verve, 2006), compositions that McLaughlin has revisited many times over the years (and with many different bands) including "Mother Tongues," and even older tunes like "The Unknown Dissident" from Electric Dreams (Columbia, 1978), the band was clearly in a "take no prisoners" mood as it wound its way through complex themes and navigated equally challenging and distinctive harmonic and rhythmic contexts.
McLaughlin's name may be at the top of the marquis, and with one exception the material all his own, but this is clearly a group of equals, with McLaughlin a democratic leader clearly enjoying his new group. Blasphemous though it might be, this is a group with far greater potential than many of his earlier, undeniably fine groupsincluding the legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra. McLaughlin promised, during his interview in Part 1 of AAJ's extensive tour coverage, a lean, mean and raw group, and that was exactly what he delivered. His tone ranged from clean and warm to gritty and biting, serving up lightning fast lines that were still given space to breathe, breaking them up with whammy bar bends and sharp punctuations. And while one might wish to slow them down considerably to fully appreciate them, there was an undeniable melodism and thematic construction to his solos, even at their most visceral and chops-laden.
It may have been, at times, about unrelenting energy, but texture was an equal part of the group approach, in no small part due to Husband's retro-to-futuristic arsenal of synth sounds. The only non-McLaughlin piece of the set was Miles Davis' darkly funky yet sing-song 1980s staple "Jean-Pierre," but it was Husband's arrangement from his own Aspire (Jazzizit, 2004) that was the basis for this more abstract and harmonically outré take, still anchored rhythmically by Mondesir and Feraud and grooving hard.
Call what this group does fusionand unapologetically sobut it's fusion of the most forward-thinking kind. Even "Nostalgia," from the often overlooked Mahavishnu (Warner Bros., 1984) took on new life. With McLaughlin eschewing the Synclavier guitar of the original for his more singing guitar tone, it became a fresh tune that, like "Mother Tongues," demonstrated the malleability of his writing and how, with a group as broad as The 4th Dimension, just about anything is possible.
There were many high points, but some of the most memorable were when Husband alternated between keyboards and his "jungle kit"a small kit played standing up with two clangy and industrial-sounding cymbals. Husband, at times, played almost synchronously with Mondesir to create an even more powerful groove, but at other times traded off against him to create stunning rhythmic contrasts. That Husband has the opportunity to demonstrate his strength as both a keyboardist and a drummer is as much a rare opportunity for audiences as it is one that ought to garner him greater attention on this side of the Atlantic.
Mondesir didn't get a lot of dedicated solo space, but his combination of dynamics, endless energy and telepathic/empathic interaction with his bandmates ensured equal attention to his contributions. In fact, if there was any challenge for the audience it was that the entire group played so well and was so brimming with ideas that one occasionally had to make tough choices about where to focus. As much as the solos commanded attention, so too did the greater subtletiesMcLaughlin locking in rhythmically with Husband, or Feraud spontaneously picking up on a line during one of McLaughlin's solos.
"Hijacked" was one of a number of features for Feraud, and while the buzz about this young bassist is occurring, there's little doubt that if there's any justice, like Mondesir and Husband, he's going to be an increasingly in-demand player by the time this tour is over. From staggering unison lines with McLaughlin to fluid and imaginative solos, it's no surprise that the guitarist has been referring to him as "the new Jaco." That's not to suggest he sounds anything like the late Jaco Pastoriushis tone and use of a fretted five-string bass take care of that potential misconceptionit's that McLaughlin views him as an emerging bassist of equal significance. Still, while his dexterity and incredible ears were staggering, the groove was never forgotten, and he worked hand- in-glove with the equally double-edged musicianship of Mondesir throughout.
With enthusiastic applause throughout the show, there was no question that an encore would be demanded, though chances are that the thousand or so fans would have been just fine with keeping the band in the hall until the sun came up. Still, while the show was over far too soon, after a few minutes to cool down the group came out to the merchandise area to talk with the fans and sign autographs for nearly another two hours.
It was a terrific start to the tour, and with McLaughlin promising variations in the set list from night-to-night, no doubt there will be plenty of surprises when AAJ picks up the tour for the final three dates in Canada, beginning in Montreal on October 2. And for those unable to make it to one of the fifteen tour dates, a recording culled from the opening night will be available the following morning from Abstract Logix (and at other dates on the tour), with potential plans to make downloads of other shows available as the tour progresses.
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