John McLaughlin: On The Road, Part 6: Sound Checks and Closing Night
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.
As for McLaughlin? Any good improvising musician will tell you the goal is to avoid preconceived ideas, but few actually succeed in doing it. To be sure, there are certain ideas, certain motifs that McLaughlin returns to time and again, but the contexts in which they're heard are often so different as to make them new each time. His ability to execute seemingly impossible phrases, either through speed, intervallic leaps or unimaginable shifts up and down the neck, has never been more vivid, and his rhythm playing in Toronto was some of the best of the tour. With so many "how does he do that" moments, it's a good thing he's released an intensive instructional DVD, This is the Way I Do It (Mediastarz, 2004), that provides a window into his approach to improvisation, along with The Gateway to Rhythm (Abstract Logix, 2007) on which, alongside Remember Shakti's S. Ganesh Vinayakram, he explains the Indian Konokol, a universal system of mastering rhythm without drums.
Perhaps because it was the last night of the tour, everyone was just that extra bit loose. Fun has been a defining characteristic of the tour, but the group took it up a notch for the last show, especially during the drum trade-off section of "Mother Tongues" between Mondesir and Husband. Throughout the evening Husband was doing a number of different things with his "jungle kit"a small kit with bass drum, snare, tom and two industrial-sounding cymbalsbut by the time of "Mother Tongues" nothing was off- limits, including a hilarious trade-off of rim-rolls and Husband slapping his face for percussive effect.
While the evening was over far too quicklyand the same can be said for the touras the group splits off into different directions, the good news is that they'll be reuniting in May, 2008 for a European tour. In the meantime, those fortunate enough to have caught McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension in North America were treated to a rare opportunity to hear the legendary guitarist in a streamlined electric context, with a group that kicked his ass as much as he did theirs. They were also witness to a guitarist who could easily rest on his significant laurels, but instead continues to evolve and pursue new musical territory each and every day. The 4th Dimension was the perfect vehicle for McLaughlin's avoidance of safety netsa group where anything was possible because there was nothing less than complete trust.
With The Official Bootleg, featuring six tunes from the opening night, already sold at concerts and available through Abstract Logix, there's even better news. The majority of the performances were recorded, and may well see the light of day in part or in wholelikely as digital downloadsonce McLaughlin has had the opportunity to review them, to see how much he feels is worth releasing to the public.
All About Jazz's extensive coverage of this North American tour will conclude on Tuesday, October 9 with the seventh and final parta tour wrap-up, a couple of "road warrior" stories about the life between gigs, and portions of an interview with Gary Husband, who reflects on the group and the tour.