Back in the era when Chick Corea and John McLaughlin pushed jazz-rock to its virtuosic limits, the musicians assembled before a packed Royce Hall Thursday night would have been called a “supergroup.” Even the name Five Peace Band evokes that time, when “peace, love and understanding” was a deeply felt rallying cry, not a marketing slogan. But unlike many a supergroup, this well-rehearsed — but not too tight — collective is the real McCoy. Its precise, often inspired summit meeting dazzled the aud at the start of the North American leg of the band’s world tour.
Indeed, Corea has been on a grand tour of his electric past since 2007. First there was the ’80s Elektric Band, then he reached back to the ’70s with the Return to Forever reunion — and now, with his current project, he has arrived in 1969. That was the year in which Corea hooked up with McLaughlin during Miles Davis’ recording sessions for “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” — and the resulting Big Bang soon spawned Corea’s RTF and McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Oddly enough, the two have rarely collaborated since — a single track on McLaughlin’s 1978 “Electric Guitarist” album comes to mind.
Yet it may be fitting that they waited until their senior years to form a band, having reached the point where they have distilled their styles closer to their essences.
McLaughlin wears his mastery of the electric guitar lightly; he laconically peeled off flurries of notes as in the old days but now left large stretches of silence between them, everything lucidly articulated. Alternating between an acoustic grand and a pair of synthesizers, Corea also used space to his advantage, always the attentive listener.
Kenny Garrett, the alto saxophonist from the next generation of Miles alums, displayed a blunt timbre associated with smooth jazz but also a searching intelligence that finally exploded into the outside on Corea’s new half-hour exploration, “Hymn to Andromeda.” Christian McBride’s thunder-fingered electric and acoustic basswork added a formidable fourth solo voice, and Vinnie Colaiuta’s complex drumming kept up the tension below.
The result was a band of equals, which the evenly matched sound balances reflected. No one got in the others’ way — and when Corea, McLaughlin and Garrett traded riffs in a three-way exchange at supersonic speed during “Senor C.S.,” it was a breathtaking display of timed teamwork.
Nostalgia was not in the driver’s seat on this night — not with all the new Corea material and the McLaughlin pieces from his 2006 “Industrial Zen” album. Only when they concluded with a beautifully played encore of “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time” did these masters cast a fond glance backwards to the deceptively quiet birth of jazz-rock. At long last, they had come full circle.