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Two and one-half weeks on the road and thirteen dates later, John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension left the United States for Canada and its final three dates of the 2007 North American tour. The first stop was Montreal, sponsored by the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal at the beautiful two thousand-seat Théatre Maisonneuve in Place des Arts. Montreal has always been a favorite stop for jazz artists the world over, and it was clear, from the guitarist's response to the enthusiastic audience, that it's a city close to his heart.
The quartet, rounded out by Gary Husband on keyboards and "jungle kit," Hadrien Feraud on bass and Mark Mondesir on drums, has come a long way since opening night in Durham, North Carolina on September 13. Although the nervous energy of a first gig provided for some magical moments, the group has become far more comfortable as a working unit. While comfort can sometimes breed complacency, there was none to be found at the Montreal performance. Instead, all the loose ends have been dealt with and the band sounded both tighter and loosertighter, in that there's communication taking place at a deeper level and some of the fat has been trimmed from the arrangements, and looser, in terms of the degree of risk being taken by everyone, both individually and collectively.
The set list was very close to the Durham performance, a mix of rearranged material dating as far back as "The Unknown Dissident," from Electric Dreams (1978), and as recent as "Senor C.S.," from Industrial Zen (Verve, 2006). There was also some new material, hopefully scheduled for inclusion on McLaughlin's next release, due out in early 2008.
It can often take a few shows to determine how best to order the material, and it's clear that the rearranged set listwhich, in Montreal, included a brief intermissionworked better for the group and its presentation, creating a more compelling ebb and flow. McLaughlin deserted his solo guitar intro to "Raju," which also opened the Durham show, instead launching straight into its dense power chords; but if the energy level was high in North Carolina, it was positively through the roof in Montreal. Odd though it may seem, the fiery, high velocity opener demonstrated a group that was operating with far greater attention to nuance. The ways in which everyone picked up on what was going on around them were almost subliminal- -many subtleties, in fact, that would have gone right past any audience member not paying complete attention.
Twenty-three year-old Feraudonce again introduced by McLaughlin as a rising starcould be heard much more clearly in the superior acoustics of Maisonneuve, and the articulation that sometimes got lost in Durham made his lightning-fast solos even more remarkable. While there are those who consider the kind of dexterous playing exhibited by everyone in this band to be more about chops and less about substance, the truth is that Feraud's solos were never less than focused, filled with strong melodies alongside some mind-bending shifts between linear phrases and chordal swells.
The same could be said about the entire group. There's no shortage of melodism; it's just that McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension sometimes simply hear the melody more accelerated than mostand the more complex harmonies often contribute to the abstruse quality sensed by an inexperienced listener. Every artist hopes that their career will be about growth, and McLaughlin's playing, while still unmistakably him, has adopted some new approacheseven since the opening night of the tour. Blending staggering and relentless rapid-fire lines with even more visceral whammy bar bends, the guitarist has always understood the meaning of space, but perhaps no more profoundly than now, as he lets some notes breathe for tension release, and uses sharp punctuation to hammer home specific musical ideas. He also played more accompaniment during Husband's solos in Montreal, and some of the night's most sublime moments were when the two locked together briefly on the most passing of figures.
Husband has been suffering a very painful back condition throughout the tour, but a spectator would be hard-pressed to detect it. He's using all three of his keyboards more seamlessly now, an intuitive accompanist and imaginative soloist who alternates between melodies with broad intervallic leaps and curiously abstract motifs. Alternating among a piano toneRhodes-like or acousticdense synth chords and expressive monophonic synth sounds that, as in Durham, ranged from retro to forward-thinking, his ability to shift tones on the fly created an ever-changing soundscape for the rest of the band.
Husband also regularly moved over to his "jungle kit"bass drum, snare and one tom, along with two very industrial-sounding cymbalsa highlight of the set occurring during the second set closer "Mother Tongues," which featured some especially strong interplay between him and Mondesirsometimes playing in tandem, sometimes with one supporting the other, and at still other times trading off, with each taking brief solo turns. Husband and Mondesir have worked together for a number of years now, and the love of each other's playing was even more apparent in Montreal. They were clearly having a lot of fun (as was the entire group throughout the night) as they traded off support behind Feraud's mind-numbing solo.
As in Durham, Mondesir only took one solo, but his near-telepathic interplay was key throughout the evening, especially notable on Husband's abstract arrangement of Miles Davis' "Jean Pierre," this time moving from unshakable swing to greasy funk. His one solo, on "Mother Tongues," was, however, all that was needed to hear his own sense of conceptual development. Like the rest of the group, he's an encyclopedic player who's assimilated a wealth of diverse influences to create a style that comfortably sits between hard-line groove and loose-limbed dexterity. Still, it was terrific, at one point during his trade- offs with Husband, to see him reference Tony Williams with a series of Swiss (flam) triplets between cymbals and drums, a trademark technique of the late drummer. Ears ever open, he locked in with McLaughlin beautifully throughout the set, subtly when the guitarist was off to the side providing accompaniment to the solos of Husband or Feraud, but also on "Mother Tongues," when the two launched into a robust and unrelenting duet half-way through.
Besides just tighter playing, looser and more adventurous interaction and consistently impressive soloing, the group's overall focus was stronger, which was clearly picked up by the audience a number of times throughout the performance, various highly charged moments earning partial or full standing ovations. But as much as the group impressed with its stunning virtuosity, lyricism was in equal supply. The encore, Pierro Piccione's simple but beautiful "Light on the Edge of the World" (made famous by Pharoah Sanders), was a gentle ending to an evening that amazed with prodigious pyrotechnics yet traversed considerable emotional territory.
It's too easy to dismiss the electric music that McLaughlin has made for four decades as nothing more than chops and technique. But even in his earliest Mahavishnu Orchestra days there was a thematic sense that imbued even the most ambitious and complex material. Certainly on this occasion the Montreal audience was treated to a stellar evening that proved that fusion is far more than mere bombast: it's a meeting place where, in the right hands, virtuosity is a means to a very musical and richly resonant end.
Part 5 of AAJ's extensive On the Road series picks up on October 4, when McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension converge on Ottawa for a show sponsored by the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival at Dominion-Chalmers United Church.
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