Jazz-fusion, jazz-funk, jazz-rock…we’ve never been quite sure how to define the music that plugged in around 1969 with Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way and burned out some five years later when “jazz” pretty much left the hyphenate and all the other components—the things that hybridized it—began to short-circuit in our ears. Oh, sure, lots of good electric and cross-cultural improvisational music has been recorded in the intervening 35 years. But nothing quite matches the frantic burst of creativity unleashed by the melding of electric instrumentation, rhythmic innovation, cultural assimilation and avant jazz improvisation, all played with amazing speed and dexterity. We’ll never forget the first time we heard Miles Davis’ Live At the Fillmore East or Tony Williams’ Emergency! or John McLaughlin’s My Goals Beyond or Chick Corea’s first Return To Forever recording. Here was music that matched the era’s cultural shift, played at speeds that paced changing times, that embraced global influence, that turned on to the electricity and promise of those psychedelic days. In the parlance then current, we were blown away.
And then it was over. Miles, as documented on Pangaea and Agharta, melted down and disappeared. McLaughlin and Corea, having recruited massive audiences with Mahavishnu and Return To Forever, began to repeat themselves (to the delight of their fans). I can’t tell you what happened to Tony Williams after the release of the excellent Turn It Over (with Cream bassist Jack Bruce), even as he continued to play like no one else. Like the rest of the fusion movement, he seemed to be reaching for something that was never there.
So forgive the Rabbit for getting all nostalgic—and a bit bitter—about those days of once-and-future glory. The mood’s been brought on by the new McLaughlin-Corea project Five Peace Band, which was recorded live at various European concert locations in the fall of 2008. The double album, while not exactly a rehash of those bygone energies, certainly recalls the spirit of that time—dig the word “Peace” in its name–as well as something of what it became. Much of it is good, even great, in surprising ways. And some of it–the minority–disappoints in ways that fusion came to disappoint us. A good part of the music is new, and what isn’t—“It’s About That Time,” Joe Zawinul’s “In A Silent Way,” Jackie McLean’s “Dr. Jackle” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”—all traces back to Miles.
So does the core of the band. Corea and McLaughlin both appeared on In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew as did guest keyboardist Herbie Hancock. Saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who provides much of FPB’s (sounds like a florist, eh?) linear excitement, was a member of Davis’ last bands. Though we’ve never been able to confirm Davis’ alleged comment that Garrett played like he was wearing Sonny Stitt’s “dirty shorts,” we can confirm a certain rank tone to his often suggestive play. Rounded out with frequent Corea collaborator Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and bassist Christian McBride, the quintet has definite super band credentials. But that doesn’t mean it always flies.
The first problem here, as with a lot of post-glory-days fusion, is a tendency to riff. The principles aren’t so much guilty of this in their play as they are in their composing. The main offender is Garrett who too often sets up camp when he should be breaking it. Then there’s the drumming. The best fusion drumming brought funk and poly-rhythms to otherwise straight beats. The worst of it just played it straight and Colaiuta, as quick and agile as he is, often falls into this trap. When he’s challenged with less obvious rhythms, he rises to the occasion with color and shading.
The disc opens promisingly enough with McLaughlin’s “Raju,” its theme moving as quickly as a summer thunderstorm with plenty of lightning-like punctuation. As he does throughout the set, Corea tinkers with his electric sound as much as he does with the lines he improvises. Listen to McLaughlin comp behind the keyboardist and you can’t help but recall the fine, unpredictable backup he provided on Bitches Brew. Corea’s “The Disguise” is one of the recording’s better pieces, with the composer’s quirky acoustic piano making something hopeful of the minor-key theme. McLaughlin’s “New Blues, Old Bruise,” is more bruise than blues but his “Senor C.S.” with melancholy suggestions of “My Funny Valentine” in its introduction, takes to soaring like a wide-winged glider once Colaiuta and McBride get it air borne. The tune also features Garrett’s best play and is the disc’s standout piece.
The other standouts are those that look back, both to the fusion era and past. With Hancock on board, the group makes something new out of the Zawinul tune Miles made famous. McBride’s electric bass on “It’s About That Time” is a monument to what the instrument’s become since Jaco, Stan Clarke and others first broke from the ranks. “Dr. Jackle” is played at a much slower tempo than what’s heard on Milestones and with a bit of stride. Corea thoughtfully introduces “Someday My Prince Will Come,” even as McLaughlin anxiously races around the piano as if that day will never come. By the time they break into the familiar theme, the two, unaccompanied by bass and drums, show how well attuned they are to each other. In a sense, the piece represents what the recording is all about: making something new out of something old. Saying this is one of the best fusion recordings of all time is a lie. Saying it’s one of the best in the last 35 years, well, that’s not saying much. But it is. Who should buy it? You know who you are.—Cabbage Rabbit