Based on first impressions, the ’70s were back at Royce Hall on Thursday night. Led by two titans of jazz fusion, that controversial sub-genre that began with Miles Davis’ « In a Silent Way, » John McLaughlin and Chick Corea opened their North American tour with an ensemble dubbed the Five Peace Band.
The UCLA event brought the guitarist and the keyboardist together for the first time since before the two left Davis’ band to further blend jazz with rock and world influences — McLaughlin with his Mahavishnu Orchestra and Corea with Return to Forever.
But this wasn’t necessarily an evening tethered to the past. Rather, this was a night where previously explored avenues in jazz were opened up and taken past top speed, thanks in no small part to the genius-level musicians Corea and McLaughlin enlisted to support their return.
A Grammy-nominated saxophonist with experience backing Davis in the ’80s, Kenny Garrett nearly stole the show, most impressively during a new Corea composition, « Hymn to Andromeda. » A shape-shifting piece that recalled the exploratory impulses of the avant-garde era, the song spiraled through each player’s virtuosic turn at the lead before reaching Garrett, who unleashed a simply devastating solo that never stopped straining for new heights.
As far out as Garrett reached, octopus-armed drummer Vinnie Colaiuta matched his intensity beat for beat.
« That’s what you call messing with the muse, » a beaming Corea said as the crowd’s ovation for Garrett held long after the song’s close.
The many guitar-worshipers on hand had plenty to absorb as McLaughlin lit into a swampy take on « New Blues, Old Bruise » from his 2006 album « Industrial Zen. » With swept back silver hair, the elegant guitar master’s fingers darted up and down the neck with almost inhuman precision as his partner Corea bent notes around him on electric piano.
« Señor CS » again gave the fleet-fingered McLaughlin plenty of room to run, but the skill on display became somewhat oppressive.
The song rose out of a bed of sighing synth washes from Corea at the outset and featured a brain-scrambling solo from bassist Christian McBride on a fretless five-string.
Note after note flew from the stage with such grace and technical veracity that, unfortunately, few had a chance to stand out very much.
Corea and McLaughlin celebrated their former bandleader with an encore of an abbreviated take on Davis’ « In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time. » Their faithful rendition merged funk, jazz and ambient soul with a burning economy that was utterly engrossing.
Some purists might still hesitate to label that song (or anything else from the evening’s set list) as « true jazz, » but anyone listening at Royce Hall on Thursday night would be hard-pressed to find much meaning in such limiting notions of genre.
Former Miles Davis bandmates Chick Corea (left, pianist) and John McLaughlin (second right, guitarist) lead their Five Peace Band perform at UCLA’s Royce Hall Thursday night. (Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu)