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Zen and the Art of Jazz Fusion

By Mike Hotter

John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension

The Egg, Sept. 25

FUSion legend John McLaughlin could rightly be termed the first guitar shredder, and his recent stop at the Egg’s nearly full Hart Theatre showed that the 65-year-old still has the technical speed and facility that first won him international renown four decades back. Spontaneity seemed to be the byword for McLaughlin and his talented band, and they wasted no time in setting a pace for hyper-charged improvisation with the evening’s first tune, “Raju,” with McLaughlin leaving plenty of room for his fellow musicians to shine between his Coltrane-inspired cascades of sound. Next was a cover of Miles Davis’ “Jean Pierre,” its opening pulse giving way to a bluesy tangent reminiscent of John Scofield’s explorations with Medeski, Martin and Wood.

There’s no doubt that many in attendance were looking for the fire-breathing days of the Mahavishnu Orchestra; the 4th Dimension proved to be a subtler but no-less-impassioned beast. Twenty-three-year-old bass wunderkind Hadrien Feraud threatened to steal the show during the appropriately titled “Hijacked,” displaying a technique that was almost cybernetic in its speed but unerring in its attention to the groove and tonal center (though in this type of fusion, where notes are diffused into fractals, the tonal center can admittedly be many places at once).

Keyboardist Gary Husband played the most compelling melodies of the night, his style encompassing everything from freaky Jan Hammer-isms to cerebral forays into Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett territory. “Unknown Dissident” was a welcome respite from the speed trials, a slow-burning selection from 1978’s Electric Dreams release that set the audience up for “Mother Tongues.” That exploration in polyrhythm had Mark Mondesir (an exceptional drummer whose grasp of band dynamics verged upon the telepathic) dueling with both the band leader and Husband, who left his keyboards throughout the night to bash out a glorious racket on what he calls his “jungle kit”—a spare drum set with a couple of seriously warped cymbals. The resultant drum battle brought to mind the ferocity of Aghartha-era Miles.

For an encore the group played a meditative pass through “The Light at the Edge of the World,” a song previously performed with Carlos Santana, fellow guitar hero and, like McLaughlin, a resolute seeker into the spiritual. Paradoxically, the bravura of McLaughlin’s playing may sometimes be mistaken for egotism, but this memorable performance confirmed that McLaughlin plays like lightning not to show off, but to try to slip the surly bonds of the earthly.

Mother People

Don Preston and the Akashic Ensemble

University at Albany Performing Arts Center, Oct. 1

“I was in a rock band for 30 years!”

That was Don Preston’s way of explaining that if his damaged ears were going to hear the question, the audience member was going to have to speak up. For an audience of mostly students and faculty at the University at Albany’s PAC Recital Hall, the composer-musician—an ex-Mother of Invention and early synthesizer enthusiast, on his “75th anniversary” tour—was as entertaining as he was thoughtful.

“What kind of message are you sending to the audience,” a man asked.

“When I’m playing?” Preston puzzled. “I don’t know.”

The two-hour-long session was evenly divided between talking and playing. Before getting to the things he had to say about Frank Zappa and the Mothers, let’s get to the really interesting part of the afternoon (the show started at 4 PM)—Preston and the Akashic Ensemble’s set. The ensemble is Project/Object founder and guitarist André Cholmondeley and electronic percussionist/multi-loopster Cheri Jiosne; they were joined by two capable UAlbany students, Lee Tanner (vibes) and Daniel Meddalone (bass).

First up was “Solo Piece.” Preston, working his magic on a couple of synths and a Mac laptop all by himself, began by conjuring low, swirling tones around a single repeated note. He quickly segued into high-end space noise with an undergirding of percussive chunkiness—and then handed it off to the Meddalone. The bassist did his spacey-noisy thing all by himself, and then turned “Solo Piece”—get it?—over to Cholmondeley. And so to Tanner on vibes, and then Jiosne, who conjured harsh (but not grating) percussion music from her magic laptop. Finally, all joined together in an electronic swirl that was a blend, not a clash.

After “Part Preston,” with its Indian- Middle Eastern influences, Preston and the ensemble dug deep into the Zappa songbook and pulled out “Help, I’m a Rock.” This complex, experimental 1966 epic remains angry, avant garde and hilarious. With alternately goofy and incantory vocals set over some very sharp musical shards, it was ragged and transcendent.

And what did Preston say about Zappa? He had known him since 1961, and played with the Mothers from 1966-74.

How did Zappa write music?

“In every way possible,” he explained, “on paper . . . in his head.” And even in the rehearsal hall: “I’ve never seen anyone else do that,” Preston said.

How did Zappa, as a guitarist and composer, get to be Zappa?

You have to look at his influences, Preston said. “Stravinsky, Varese, Bartók, Elliott Carter, Roger . . . Roger Crumb, the insurance salesman . . . what was his name?” (A number of people shout out, “Charles Ives!”)

Preston (and the rest of the original band) eventually had legal problems with Zappa—over royalties, of course. How does he feel about FZ now?

“Today, I still love his music. And I love him for writing that music.”

—Shawn Stone


Nine-time Grammy nominee Steve Vai brought his eccentric and electrifying mastery of the electric guitar to the Hart Theater at the Egg on Tuesday. Backed by a six-piece band, the former Zappa sideman turned in a two-and-a-half hour set that featured three costume changes but, sadly, no “Yankee Rose.”

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

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