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Matthew Ruddick

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Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Saturday, 14 November 2015 21:56

John McLaughlin - Black Light

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Six-string maestro proves age is no barrier to innovation and creativity.

Now well into in his eighth decade, Doncaster's own John McLaughlin is still in the vanguard of guitarists who stretch our understanding of what that instrument can do. This new album, with eight new McLaughlin-penned tracks, shows that he’s still as vital a part of the modern jazz scene as ever and producing quality music.

For this album, McLaughlin has stuck with his pals from 4th Dimension, each of whom is a stand-out performer in his own right. Not least, for example, drummer Gary Husband, who is I think one of the great drummers of the last twenty years. He’s joined by Cameroonian bassist Etienne Mbappe (who, incidentally, will be performing with his own band at the London Jazz Festival) and drummer Ranjit Barot. This is in fact their third album working and touring together as a group.

The album reflects McLaughlin’s unarguable virtuosity, and also in places the Indian classical musical influence on his performance. There’s plenty of evident passion coursing through each track and a variety of moods.

First track, Here Comes The Jiis, immediately demonstrates in the rhythms and title an homage to one of McLaughlin’s other touring groups, the indian-influenced Shakti. After a quiet start McLaughlin’s guitar meshes beautifully with Barot’s hard drumming style, giving this album a start as frenetic as the race for the first corner in F1. One can hear the connecting dots on the stave stretching back to his seventies Mahavishnu Orchestra days. Second track, the intriguingly titled Clap Your Hand, maintains the starting pace and introduces a feature of 4th Dimension’s live sets, the use of Indian sung rhythms, or Konnokol, by Barot, which provides an interesting alternative to a drum solo. 

Third track Being You Being Me starts off with just keyboards and synths, emphasising the vital duel role that Husband plays in the band through his awesomely inventive keyboard works alongside his drum work. The track then moves into a slower paced guitar melody, a little softer in tone but still evidently McLaughlin. 

The rest of the tracks on the album all do their job in keeping up the intensity and imaginative playing essential to any McLaughlin album. 360 Flip sees all the band members doing their best to throw different chords and rhythms around with abandon and ensure that no drop of potential creativity is wasted. Gaza City evidently reflects McLaughlin’s concern at the humanitarian situation in the region and consequently has a melancholic tone right from the start, with Mbappe’s mournful fretless bass implying a tale of woe and Husband’s minor key playing accentuating the evident tug on the heart strings this track is intended to achieve.

The album takes a handbrake turn in mood on track six, El Hombre Due Sabia - the man who knew - a tribute to McLaughlin's long-time collaborator, flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, on which McLaughlin puts down the electric guitar and plays a nylon-stringed acoustic. Of course, his playing unplugged is still incredible, but this track evidently is the most personal in tone and very warm, unhurried but characteristically McLaughlin. 

I liked this album a lot (for this reviewer, anything with Gary Husband on it automatically passes the jazz MOT test for musical worthiness). McLaughlin can have his pick of players and in the 4th Dimension he has a band of world-class quality which can translate this easily into an album format. 

There’s very little on this album to quibble over - maybe, perhaps, the slightly dull front cover? - but why would one want to seek fault. It’s a John McLaughlin album. You know what you’re in for. 

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