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John McLaughlin & The Free Spirits

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JOHN MCLAUGHLIN & THE FREE SPIRITS

Sometimes it gets a little tough for modern guitar junkies to recall that before Scofield and Metheny and their many musical progeny--even before (God help us) Al Di Meola--there was John McLaughlin. McLaughlin came to the U.S. from his native England in 1969 to perform in Tony Williams's subversive organ trio, Lifetime, and then caught up with Miles Davis on the pivotal album Bitches Brew. But even before he'd left England, McLaughlin successfully blended rock and jazz in a way that only Larry Coryell had previously managed. Coryell sputtered in and out of different bands; McLaughlin, with a discipline reinforced by his studies in yogic meditation, quickly established himself as the guitarist for all seasons, digging into rock's jackhammer energy with the jazz curiosity of John Coltrane. (I suspect that McLaughlin is well aware of Coryell's pioneering role in the jazz-rock fusion; Coryell's first band bore the name Free Spirits, just like McLaughlin's current trio.) Armed with an astounding technical command of his instrument, McLaughlin has led a chameleonic career, punctuated by phases dedicated to Indian raga tradition, to hard electric music, to acoustic-guitar textures drawing on his early idol Django Reinhardt, and now again to the organ trio sound that drew him to America in the first place. Elements of all these styles distinguish The Promise, newly released on Verve, which includes one track by the band McLaughlin brings to Chicago this week. It features the versatile Joey DeFrancesco on organ and synth and the hyperkinetic drumming of Dennis Chambers, and it shows that McLaughlin hasn't lost a step when it comes to full-tilt fusion. In its last visit to Chicago, this band drove toward excess, wiping away nuance with a wash of sound and fury--a notable contrast to McLaughlin's affecting and efficient album of last year, After the Rain, on which Elvin Jones replaced Chambers in a tribute to Coltrane. In terms of which band shows up here, I'd expect the blunt power of the Free Spirits--driven by McLaughlin's unmistakable sheets-of-sound solos--while hoping some of Trane's textured musicality seeps in as well. Wednesday, 7:30 PM, Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison; 327-1662. Next Sunday, February 18, 8 PM, Prairie Center for the Arts, 201 Schaumburg Ct., Schaumburg; 847-894-3600. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Arthur Elgort.

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