At some point, jazz fans inevitably play "Two Degrees of Miles Davis." Because of the great trumpeter's protean career, the puzzle has easy solutions for virtually every major jazz player since the mid-1940s. But you can jump pretty far afield in two steps: think Cab Calloway, Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson.
The game won't be too challenging, though, when Chick Corea and John McLaughlin take the stage with their Five Peace Band at the Symphony Center. The jazz legends met 40 years ago while playing on Davis' seminal In a Silent Way, and they have remained friends—and occasional duet partners—throughout their remarkable solo careers.
"I love playing with Chick," McLaughlin says warmly. "He has such big ears, such knowledge of harmony and of where it can go. I knew [Corea's] playing before meeting him—I heard him on a Montego Joe album in 1964, and I knew then that he would wind up playing with Miles!"
"The thought of doing a band with John had been with me for a long time," says Corea. A year in advance of the current tour, he enlisted a lineup that would be extraordinary even without its luminous headliners.
Saxophonist Kenny Garrett is another Miles alumnus and a leading voice in contemporary jazz. Bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade are among the most sought-after sidemen on the scene, and are accomplished and original bandleaders to boot.
Corea's band Return to Forever and McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra famously pioneered electric jazz-rock territory in the '70s. But the stylistic variety of each man's output is staggering and summary-defying.
From solo piano miniatures to hard-swinging mainstream jazz to intimate duos with Gary Burton or Bela Fleck, keyboardist Corea maintains a sound at once lyrical and rhythmically driven. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards, and he's had a knack for finding and nurturing young talent.
"I've never made a distinction between categories of music," Corea says. "So much music has come into my life that's affected me, even though my heart has stayed closest to jazz."
Besides fronting numerous electric jazz-rock bands, guitarist McLaughlin has had long-standing collaborations with Indian percussion giant Zakir Hussain and with Flamenco great Paco de Lucia. A beautiful 1994 Coltrane-oriented album with drummer Elvin Jones is just one of his many memorable projects. McLaughlin's dazzling technique attracts the attention of guitarists, but his virtuosity always serves a joyous spontaneity.
Both men are effusive on the subject of their former boss. "I was just fortunate to play with Miles Davis for a couple of years," Corea muses. "He established such a level of integrity in music, he just ignored all the opinions surrounding what he wanted to do."
"Miles was my hero from the time I was 15," recalls McLaughlin. "Miles brought things out of me I didn't know were there. He would make some cryptic remark, and I would say, 'What on earth does he want?' He wanted you to play what you wanted to play.
"He also kept me alive in the late '60s," McLaughlin adds with a chuckle. "He would stuff money in my pockets and tell me to get something to eat."
Five Peace's repertoire is mainly of recent vintage. Corea composed new music for the tour and McLaughlin drew tunes from his recent albums Industrial Zen and Floating Point. The band does make nods to the past, though. Their just-released live album features one jazz standard and the hard-bop "Dr. Jackle" from Davis' '50s bag. "You always understand music in relation to its history," McLaughlin says.
So if you're a history buff, clap extra loud for an encore—you just might get to hear music from Corea and McLaughlin's first meeting on In A Silent Way. In the meantime, I'm going to break out some old vinyl and play a few rounds of "Two Degrees of Chick and John." —Russell Johnston
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