It’s always instructive to attend opening and closing nights of an extended engagement. Often, a given band will hit its stride on the bandstand over the course of the week and be flying by the final night. Sometimes the opposite happens. The excitement of opening night and thrill of the first-time hit can result in sheer sparks on the bandstand that only become more muted and predictable with repetition.
Then again, there are bands that don’t hold to a prescribed set list, where each night is entirely its own unique entity. These bands not only don’t play the same thing twice, they don’t even play the same thing once. Such was the case with the Five Peace Band, which occupied the stage for the first weekend of Chick Corea’s month-long 70th birthday celebration at the Blue Note. In its initial phase, this fusion supergroup composed of Corea on keyboards, John McLaughlin on guitar, Kenny Garrett on alto sax, Christian McBride on bass and either Vinnie Colaiuta or Brian Blade on drums played large concert halls on tour in 2008 and 2009. To fit these cavernous venues and play to the back row, they necessarily affected a rock-band aesthetic. This scenario invariably led to the kind of bombastic chops-grandstanding that defeats nuanced interplay. But on Nov. 4, the opening night of their three-night engagement in the intimate Greenwich Village nightclub, these seasoned virtuosos were cooking on a low flame and conversing in subtle ways that would never read in the big concert halls.
With John Patitucci filling in for McBride and Blade expertly manning the kit with an almost Billy Higgins-esque knack for playing inside the music rather than on top of it, the Five Peace Band came across in its initial performance at the Blue Note like the modern day Jazz Messengers. This was particularly apparent on new, previously unrecorded material like Corea’s “Spirit Rise,” which swung triumphantly while carrying allusions to John Coltrane’s “India,” and an as-yet-unnamed uptempo number reminiscent of “Giant Steps” that had McLaughlin burning in jazz mode à la his groundbreaking 1969 album Extrapolation. Corea’s complex suite “Hymn to Andromeda” (from 2009’s Five Peace Band Live) was chockfull of intricate, mindboggling unisons between Corea’s electric piano, McLaughlin’s warm yet slightly distorted guitar (his best tone in years) and Garrett’s pungent horn lines. McLaughlin’s restful “To the One” provided some lyrical moments by Corea on the piano, though the guitar hero’s double-timed solo on that tuneful number was absolutely teeth-chattering.
They closed out that opening night in jam-band fashion with McLaughlin’s “Señor C.S.,” an explosive Latin-tinged homage to Carlos Santana that had Corea wailing on his Minimoog, engaging in torrid exchanges of eights with fellow pyrotechnicians McLaughlin and Garrett, who reached deep into his Pharoah Sanders bag for some tumultuous blasts on alto. Afterwards, upstairs in the green room, Corea was overheard commenting on Blade’s contribution on this highly interactive set, calling him “a musical miracle.”
The final night, Nov. 6, had a different dynamic altogether. Eschewing the more casual, acoustic jazz vibe of their successful first night, Corea and company came out with big guns blaring. In retrospect, it was as if opening night was a rehearsal, a chance to experiment with some different things and just feel it out on the bandstand as it went along. But this closing night was for keeps, as if they were very conscious of the red light being on: Indeed, Chick Corea Productions plans to record everything throughout this incredibly diverse month of music at the Blue Note, no doubt leaving an overwhelming number of choices for whatever release results from this engagement.
They kicked it off in hard-hitting fashion with McLaughlin’s Indo-fusion gem “Raju,” a powerhouse number from his 2008 album Floating Point that also appeared as the first track on Five Peace Band Live. With Brian amping up his attack, laying into this opening number with equal parts power and precision while being guided by his uncanny instincts, McLaughlin responded with gritty rock chording between rapid-fire unison lines with Corea, who jumped on Minimoog right away rather than feeling out the room with piano first. Blade’s whirlwind drumming, which incorporated some of Elvin Jones’ rolling thunder across the bar line, set the tone for this intense opener, which bore more than a small resemblance to the seminal rock-jazz anthem “Right Off” from Miles’ Jack Johnson.
Throughout the set, Blade locked in tightly with Patitucci, who primarily played electric bass throughout the evening. As a drummer, Blade is so attuned to what each soloist is doing that he not only orchestrates subtly behind them but also anticipates crescendos with well-timed hits that accentuate drama. Only a remarkably intuitive, empathetic drummer can do that, and Blade does it through every bar of every song on every bandstand he ever plays on.
Corea’s “The Disguise” opened with beautiful solo piano before resolving to some beguiling harmonies between McLaughlin’s guitar and Garrett’s sax. Blade underscored this affecting melody with a buoyant, “Poinciana”-like groove during the piano trio section, deftly switching from playing with hands on snare and tom to playing with sticks before the expansive piece built to mindboggling unisons and more furious exchanges between McLaughlin (clean-toned this time), Corea and Garrett.
McLaughlin’s earthy, John Lee Hooker-influenced “New Bruise, Old Blues” provided some of the most spine-tingling moments of the set, particularly in the loose give-and-take between Garrett’s transcendent testifying on alto and Blade’s organic explosions on the kit. McLaughlin, a lifelong blues hound, added his own authoritative contributions here with urgent speed licks and cathartic whammy-bar articulations.
Corea’s wife, coloratura soprano vocalist Gayle Moran (a one-time member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and key contributor to Chick’s 1976 album The Leprechaun) joined the band for a rendition of the ethereal “Smile of the Beyond” from the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Apocalypse album. She called it “a moment in musical history to be standing between two oak trees like Chick and John.” McLaughlin beared down on this spiritual number with unparalleled intensity and was matched stride-for-stride by Garrett’s wailing soprano sax, bringing this final night at the Blue Note to an ecstatic conclusion.