John McLaughlin calls his new band the Heart of Things–that’s also the title of their brand-new Verve album–and it makes sense that the pioneering jazz-rock guitarist, now 55, might be wondering what’s made his brilliant career tick. Since helping to invent fusion, as a member of Tony Williams’s Lifetime and as a vital ingredient in the bitches’ brew stirred up by Miles Davis, McLaughlin has led a panoply of bands, shifting from electric to acoustic music and back again. At one point in the early 80s, he managed to elegantly blend yin and yang in a sextet that set his acoustic guitar amid electronic textures–a band that seems a template for the Heart of Things. But this time McLaughlin turns to saxophonist Gary Thomas–better known for his kung fu improvising on hard-nosed hip-hop beats–to supply the acoustic element. McLaughlin plays electric guitar and also MIDI guitar, which lets him construct sparsely layered accompaniments with keyboardist Jim Beard. But none of these things makes the Heart of Things McLaughlin’s best band in a decade. Rather, it’s the way they gather up so many aspects of mid-70s jazz fusion–a much-maligned style currently undergoing reevaluation–and pay homage even as they recast them. In addition to the reconstituted textures of his own discography, McLaughlin’s new album uses synth sounds that recall Chick Corea and Pat Metheny, fretless bass lines that nod to the late Jaco Pastorius, and compositions that soften the lines mapped out by Weather Report. But it glaringly omits the Sufi fervor and light-speed tempos that characterized McLaughlin’s great Mahavishnu Orchestra of the early 70s, and perhaps therein lies a cautionary tale about middle age: at times the overarching sensibility veers close to “fusion lite.” But in approaching this material with maturity and perspective, McLaughlin has for the most part created attractive and vital music that not only traces his roots but also extends them toward an electronic chamber music for the new century. Monday, 9 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-527-2583 or 312-923-2000. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Christian Pegand.