Like his hero John Coltrane, John McLaughlin has always been in a state of constant flux. But unlike Coltrane, who pressed ahead relentlessly and seldom looked back, McLaughlin’s musical life has been a succession of irregular zigzags, the latest of which has been a return to the power jazz-rock quintet format that made him a guitar hero in the early 1970s.
His current band, named after the title of his fine new album “The Heart of Things” (Verve), has virtuosity to burn — and most of the time, they burned fiercely at the Wadsworth. Yet McLaughlin typically didn’t go all the way back home to the screaming, compulsively competitive frenzy of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Dennis Chambers, a holdover from McLaughlin’s organ trio of the early ’90s, is the most incendiary drummer that the guitarist has worked with since Billy Cobham; when they went at it as a duo toward the close of the two-hour set, it brought back memories of blitzkrieg sessions with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. McLaughlin’s conception of tone however, is much more refined and softened these days, so even when going toe-to-toe with Chambers or with Gary Thomas’ hot tenor sax, the volume was not extreme and the edge not quite as slashing.
The old, rapid-fire, unison hammering of the main lines was back, and McLaughlin reached back to his Miles Davis days with his distinctive rhythm comping and use of the wah-wah pedal. Other stretches of music displayed the funkier feeling that McLaughlin has cultivated at times over the past quarter-century. Indeed, the sharpest number of the evening was Thomas’ “The Divide,” which had a tough funk beat that set off McLaughlin’s best solo and gave keyboardist Jim Beard a springboard for some impressive Herbie Hancock-inspired licks.
A historical connection was made by the presence of electric bassist Matthew Garrison, the son of Jimmy Garrison (from the Coltrane quartet). If anything, though, Matthew’s primary inspiration seemed to be Jaco Pastorius, and thus, he proved to be a strong independent solo voice.