Apparently April was CD-release party month at the old-British guitar legends home! Hot on the heels of Jeff Beck’s Emotion & Commotion comes To The One from John McLaughlin. While McLaughlin might not carry the same name recognition as Beck outside of the jazz world, the impact of the contributions of the 68-year old McLaughlin rival if not exceed those of his younger country-mate. Another similarity is that neither of these greats have rested on their laurels, constantly pushing ahead. Yet there is always a common thread and respect for their own history and fan-base. Such is case with the latest release by McLaughlin and his 4th Dimension band, To The One.
With his new album To The One, iconic guitarist, composer and 2010 Grammy Winner John McLaughlin looks backwards and forwards simultaneously. The six original songs are hauntingly evocative – with roiling rhythmic swells, modal expanses, and telepathic group interaction echoing the profound influence of John Coltrane’s 1964 spiritual jazz masterpiece A Love Supreme. The music of To The One was set down in the studio with very few overdubs, by McLaughlin’s current performing outfit, the Fourth Dimension: Gary Husband (keyboards, drums), Etienne M’Bappe (electric bass), and Mark Mondesir (drums). Compositional devices clearly inspired by Coltrane are fused with elements of McLaughlin’s own multifaceted approach, all delivered with a group empathy and shared vision that harkens back to Coltrane’s fearless mid-’60s quartet of Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison. The effect of Jones’ kaleidoscopic approach to rhythm and drumming is especially felt, brilliantly recast and explored via McLaughlin’s gift for complex metrical structures.
I discovered John McLaughlin through his work on Miles Davis seminal ‘In a Silent Way’ and ‘Bitches Brew’ recordings from 1969, as did many. Yet by that time he had already established himself as a session player and had come to the US to join Tony William’s Lifetime band after recording his first solo outing Extrapolation. So 1969 was a busy year for jazz-rock fusion, and John McLaughlin was involved in a large part of the revolution!
Spirituality has always been a large part of John McLaughlin’s music, and by 1970 he was infusing spirituality heavily into his music, with recording such as My Goals Beyond and Devotion. He took the name Mahavishnu, and was studying with an Indian devotionalist named Sri Chinmoy. In fact in 1973 he created a recording with Carlos Santana called Love Devotion Surrender, featuring some songs by John Coltrane and entirely focused on the spiritual meditation practices both Santana and McLaughlin had with Sri Chinmoy. As an aside I remember buying that record in the 70’s and finding it dreadful, and listening to it again recently only confirmed that opinion.
During the 70’s, ‘Mahavishnu’ John McLaughlin gained huge success with his Mahavishnu Orchestra, producing some of the finest jazz-rock fusion music of the period, particularly their first two recordings The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. In the 80’s he reformed Mahavishnu, releasing two records – an eponymous 1984 record with some solid work, and a throw-away from 1986 that attempts to add pop hooks but winds up feeling contrived. I was fortunate to see this Mahavishnu early on and suffice to say that neither recording does the power and talent of this unit justice. Actually, that held true any time I saw him live.
Like so many fusion pioneers, John McLaughlin has had to figure out how to reinvent himself numerous times since the 1970’s. As mentioned, he had limited success with the new Mahavishnu group but it was clear that idea had run its course. He kept working with Indian-fusion music combines such as Shakti, had a guitar trio with fellow fusion alum Al DiMeola and flamenco master Paco de Lucia, and so on. During the 80’s and 90’s I found his output rather scattershot, careening wildly between bad and brilliant.
Over the last few years he has produced some amazing stuff – in 2003 he released Thieves & Poets, a interesting recording I have still not fully digested – and am still not sure I like, and more recently he has returned to more fusion-tinged working bands which have produced 2006’s Industrial Zen and 2008’s Floating Point. Last year he teamed up with Chick Corea, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride and Vinnie Colaiuta (yeah, the one from the Jeff Beck recording) to tour as the Five Peace Band, which later produced a tour DVD and CD. Now we have his latest effort, and the first to fully capture the work of his latest group, the 4th Dimension.
To The One continues his use of music to voice his spirituality, and also his admiration of the way that John Coltrane did the very same thing so successfully. Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme was barely over 32 minutes long, but is widely held as one of the most significant recordings ever made.
For this recording, McLaughlin is joined by the interesting combination of a bassist and two drummers. The bassist is Etienne Mbappe, and the drummers are Mark Mondesir and Gary Husband. Husband also adds keyboard duties on several songs, but the impact of a strong set of drummers on the rhythmic dynamic cannot be overstated.
Discovery – From the opening lines of this song you feel that McLaughlin is making a statement – his isn’t holding anything back in his statement of devotion. Too often spiritual recordings end up subdued and introspective. Not here – after a quick statement of melody accompanied by punctuating keyboard, pulsing bass and pounding drums, McLaughlin is off on an amazing musical journey.
One problem many virtuoso fusion guitarists had coming out of the 70’s was that they had focused so much on technical mastery they had lost the ability to be subtle. Much of McLaughlin’s output over the last twenty or more years has reversed that course and actually been too tame and gentlemanly. Not so here – he positively rips through everything, with sheer technical mastery, passion, fire and grace all resplendent. We also discover how talented the rest of the band is during the opening minute. Mbappe lays a solid groove but adds consider mid-range harmonic interest, Husband lays down solid keyboard work, and Mondesir is both subtle and thunderous. Great opening track – 6:20 and over too soon.
Special Beings – after such a raucous start, the group settles into a wonderful swing for Special Beings. McLaughlin states the sparse theme in 3/4 time, immediately improvising all around it. Husband is once again at the keyboard, this time stretching out quite a bit. McLaughlin takes an extended solo full of interplay and wonderful use of space. THIS is what modern jazz interpreted through a fusion lens in 2010 sounds like.
Since McLaughlin and his publishers have made the Coltrane connection clear, each song invites us to look at how the connection plays out. In this case the song is very much in the Coltrane spiritual tradition: there is a theme and harmonic center implied but the group is already transcending that from the opening measure. Yet this isn’t ‘free jazz’ any more than A Love Supreme was, it is simply beautiful music presented in an open concept.
The Fine Line – I wondered how two drummers would work in a hard-driving fusion setting. I mean, I know how it works in free jazz, but what about here? Well, combine the right drummers and the groove just stacks even higher!
The Fine Line feels like reinvented 70’s fusion: you have unison lines running between the bass and guitar with a pulsing backdrop of dual-drummers. The simple yet emotional melody soars above it all and keeps things from devolving into a techno-fest. This is another odd-time signature piece in 7/4 with some masterful soloing and unison playing.
Lost And Found – This is a gorgeous conversation between McLaughlin on synth guitar and Mbappe on singing fretless bass. Husband lays a nice foundation with synth textures, and McLaughlin floats above it all with a flute-like tone. The call and response with Mbappe throughout is just stunning. The song is touching and poignant and gorgeous.
Recovery – Just when you begin to settle into the flow with Lost and Found, Recovery comes tearing in with intricate, high-speed unison lines, complex rhythm and deep harmonic structures. Yet there is loads of open space and the bell cymbal overtones set up a nice counterpoint. Mbappe once again gets loads of play time, and shines as well in the up-tempo setting as he did in the previous song.
Husband adds an intense solo with a synth sounding somewhat like a phat analog synth Jan Hammer might have used back in the 70’s, before McLaughlin returns for some angular, jagged soloing to take the song into the ending. If you need to see how a master technician blends deep harmonic knowledge, rapid-fire lines and passionate emotions together – check this one out.
To The One – The title track is also the masterpiece of this recording. Starting off slowly with more of McLaughlin’s flute-like guitar synth stating a simple theme against polyrhythms from Husband’s drums and keyboards with Mbappe providing deft support.
The song feels like it accelerates, yet the tempo remains slow – Mondesir adds an urgency that dominates the slower keyboard work, until the song transitions into a second more introspective chapter. That segment uses a restating of the structure of Lila’s Dance from the Mahavishnu Orchestra record Visions from the Emerald Beyond.
The last couple of minutes see the theme restated in a quiet fashion, as the band settles in to providing simple support to a subtle chant played against McLaughlin’s guitar synth until it simply fades out.
Wow … just wow. I’ve listened to this recording end to end a few dozen times now, and I really feel this will go down as one of John McLaughlin’s best works. The compositions are sparse and subtle yet rich in their harmonic possibilities, which are exploited by all of the members of this amazing group.
Since I have just reviewed Jeff Beck’s latest, I feel the need to compare and contrast the two recordings. In both cases we see retirement age musicians who have been at the fore of their genres for more than 40 years STILL producing music worth hearing, and doing so with guitar styles and techniques that could teach their younger contemporaries a great deal.
But in terms of the overall quality and impact of the recordings I do have distinctly different feelings. Whereas I was clear in my mixed feelings for Beck’s latest, as I feel it is a step in the wrong direction and definitely not up to the bar he set with his work of the late 90’s and early 00’s, with McLaughlin’s new CD I am wholly positive. I feel he has continued his creative ascent of the last few years, releasing what I feel is one of the best recordings he has ever made.
As for whether or not you’ll like it, that is a little harder to call than with the Beck recording. Whereas Beck’s work easily fits into the ‘instrumental rock’ category, this CD is much more jazz tinged. The rhythms, harmonies, and complex time structures put across by the band are dense and can be an assault on your sensibilities. But if you are a fan of anything in the jazz-rock world this is an easy recommendation, and if you are open to the experience I feel you’ll find it quite rewarding.
Update: I got a kind email from Gary Husband this weekend, noting that he was the sole drummer for Recovery and To The One. I had assumed that since I heard both keyboards and drums that both were present. It is an interesting note that since I bought this from Amazon.com’s MP3 store there was no extra information so I already had to search out what I did know and fill in based on my listening. This is a stark difference from decades ago buying LP’s with extensive liner notes and knowing the model of the echo device Miles Davis used on Bitches Brew … not to mention who was filling what role and where.
Where to Buy: Amazon.com MP3 Store
What I Like:
+ Excellent emotional depth
+ Sparse melodies encourage exploration without dictating
+ Reinvents fusion without falling back to the 70’s hornet’s nest!
What Needs Improvement:
– At 40 minutes short, I want more, more, more!
To close out, here is a YouTube clip of John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension in the studio recording ‘The Fine Line’.