Jazz fusion battles it out with jam band at Lincoln Theatre

Jazz fusion battles it out with jam band at Lincoln Theatre

John McLaughlin, left, and Jimmy Herring, who performed Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington. (Pepe Gomes)

By Michael J. West

Jazz fusion and jam-band music are closely related — but they are not interchangeable. Some ears can’t tell them apart. Some couldn’t care less. But intentionally or not, guitarists Jimmy Herring and John McLaughlin’s joint performance (together and separately) at the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday night proved that the distinction is real.

Both styles live by the same core aesthetic: “fast, loud and chopsy,” as the critic Howard Mandel has put it. Yet there are levels and degrees. For his part, Herring, best known as the lead guitarist of the jam band Widespread Panic, doubled down on all of them. His set with his band Invisible Whip was mostly rock-and-roll blare (albeit with solos and space for applause). Appropriately, it actually began with a cover of “John McLaughlin,” a song from Miles Davis’s fusion classic “Bitches Brew” (McLaughlin’s breakthrough recording). This was the least blaring: Drummer Jeff Sipe swung hard, while Herring and electric violinist Jason Crosby played smart solos.

But organist Matt Slocum played them into an Allman Brothers cover with a predictably jammy Hammond solo that set the tone for the rest of the set. The next five songs varied in tempo and key, but little else. Herring, Slocum, Crosby (now on Fender Rhodes), Sipe and bassist Kevin Scott melted together into an amplified roar. Their solos had occasional melodic invention (Crosby’s on “Sketch Ballad,” Herring’s on “1911”) but were mostly about flash and groove, with the band’s accompaniment blurring the soloists’ details. The audience loved it — especially an annoyingly thumpy entry from Sipe on “Rainbow.”

Nobody came to this show for subtlety, it seemed then. But McLaughlin did. His 4th Dimension quartet — keyboardist Gary Husband, bassist Etienne Mbappe, drummer Ranjit Barot — gave direction to their virtuosity, and, more importantly, left room for the audience to hear it. (The man sitting behind this writer chattered throughout the set; instead of being an irritant, though, it was a relief that he could talk.) McLaughlin and Mbappe crammed lots of notes into their turns on “Miles Beyond,” but with arcs to them — something to say, not just show off. Husband gave a genuinely delicate piano intro to “Gaza City,” and if Mbappe’s bass deposition on the tune lingered long on some of its flourishes, it felt earned. When Husband joined Barot on drums for “Echoes of Then,” they didn’t just double the firepower: They exchanged language, building up to thunder — with Husband even making a show of muting himself on the way.

In the final set, the two bands converged for a thread of Mahavishnu Orchestra songs; both tendencies came to the fore — but McLaughlin’s won out, probably because they were playing his compositions. “Meeting of the Spirits,” “Trilogy” and “Earth Ship” provided structure and lyricism that couldn’t be discarded, with “Trilogy” giving both Herring and McLaughlin their best solos of the night. “Eternity’s Breath” gave everyone a chance to shine. Which, perhaps was why after a three-hour show, an audience of baby-boomer retirees was screaming for more.