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John McLaughlin/Chick Corea: Five Peace Band Live

Looking back while looking forward isn’t easy, especially for legendary musicians who know that exploring new vistas trumps sentimental nostalgic journeys nearly every time. Still, it will be difficult for longtime fans to approach the overdue re-teaming of John McLaughlin and Chick Corea without high expectations based on the shared history of both musicians.

That history began in 1969, when the budding English guitar great and the Massachusetts-bred keyboard wizard came together under the auspices of Miles Davis to record In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Those heady albums created the rich template for what would soon become known as fusion. In their wake came such pioneering bands as McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Corea’s Return to Forever and several equally significant groups led by other Davis alumni.

For better and worse, the result was a melding of jazzy virtuosity with a raw, funk- and rock-fueled sense of rhythmic propulsion that emphasized groove over swing. This was coupled with a shift from acoustic to electric instrumentation (hello, ARP synthesizers!), which required high-decibel amplification more suited to arenas than nightclubs. Alas, what began as a vital movement became overrun by opportunists cashing in with slick formulas and empty chops. How this later begot the numbingly reductive banalities of “smooth-jazz” is better discussed another time.

Having first come together in the late ’60s, McLaughlin and Corea are now both in their late 60s. Yet, while young lions no more, both maintain stylistically diverse recording and touring schedules, and each roars at length on this live, two-CD set. Recorded in Europe last fall, it features eight selections that together clock in at nearly two hours and 20 minutes. They include three classics from the Davis canon: a slow-burning, at times diffuse, guitar-and-piano duo version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” and-paying homage to fusion’s genesis-an alternately meandering and charged medley of “In a Silent Way” (with guest Herbie Hancock contributing memorably on piano) and “It’s About That Time.”

The concept for the Five Peace Band, which is named after the concluding song on McLaughlin’s 2008 album, Floating Point, was proposed by Corea. So was the group’s lineup, which also features electric and acoustic bass master Christian McBride, Frank Zappa/Jeff Beck drum dynamo Vinnie Colaiuta and saxophonist and fellow Davis alum (1987-1991) Kenny Garrett. Like McLaughlin and Corea, all three perform with power and precision here, even when essaying mostly high-octane music that allows little time to catch one’s breath.

The challenge, then, for the Five Peace Band’s two iconic co-leaders is to acknowledge their legacies without resting on their laurels or offering a calculated, “best of” set. For the most part they succeed, although one wishes the album had been recorded after the group’s 2008 debut tour, not during it, the better to create and nurture a repertoire specifically crafted to reflect its multifaceted musical personality.

Corea, fresh from last year’s Return to Forever reunion, contributes two ambitious new songs, “The Disguise” (which features a bravura solo by McBride) and “Hymn to Andromeda” (the album’s longest cut at almost 28 minutes). All three of the songs by McLaughlin-“Raju,” “New Blues, Old Bruise” and the samba-inflected “Senor C.S.”-are from his two most recent albums. But each appears in extended form here and his dazzling playing, perhaps even more than Corea’s, exudes joy and wit.

Intriguingly, the most satisfying selection is also the oldest, Jackie McLean’s rousing “Dr. Jackle.” It begins with an unaccompanied Corea piano solo and goes on to deftly weave in references to everything from Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk” and Juan Tizol’s “Perdido” to Leonard Bernstein’s “Cool” from West Side Story. An unexpectedly liberating display of 21st-century bebop, “Dr. Jackle” suggests that, sometimes, looking back and forward isn’t so hard after all.

Originally Published