What is the role of the electric guitar in jazz music? Since Charlie Christian‘s revolutionary bebop permutations in the ’30s and ’40s, the guitar has undeniably held a fascination for jazz fans specifically and music fans in general. And when volume levels were increasing and minds expanding in the mid-to-late 1960s, in some ways John McLaughlin was fortunate to be armed with an electric guitar – though there was nothing fortunate in his unwavering devotion to marrying disparate styles to forge one of the most distinctive sounds in all of jazz.
In a sense, McLaughlin’s career has come full circle with his latest band The 4th Dimension and new album To The One – he’s essentially revisiting the kind of music he instigated with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and then returned to at various points through his career, notably on 1979′s Electric Dreams and 1997′s The Heart of Things – that is, high-octane jazz/rock highly dependent on group interaction with a distinct blues feeling. In a remarkably humble move, last night’s gig only featured one tune from his new album in a two-hours-plus set, though in typical McLaughlin style older tunes were revised and adapted to suit his current co-conspirators. Drummer Mark Mondesir was a particularly happy beneficiary of this approach, his playing an engaging mix of two former Mahavishnu drum monsters, Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden. McLaughlin himself was bizarrely youthful, typically elegant and an always fascinating presence, at times prowling the stage in Miles mode, other times even showing occasional irritation with his own playing but always teasing performances from his younger players with smiles, nods and sometimes even encouraging hand signals.
And yet McLaughlin’s extraordinary guitar playing was undeniably the star of the show, still with the ability to surprise and thrill after all these years. Playing with a biting, aggressive tone, reminiscent of his sound on Miles’s Aura album, he consistently found interesting paths through his own often labyrinthine chord sequences. On Gary Husband’s composition ‘Solly’, he produced some stunning modal explorations over a heavy one-chord vamp channeling his extraordinary playing on Miles’s ‘Katia‘. The feeling of the blues was never far away, especially on the majestic ‘The Unknown Dissident‘ where his emotive soloing was offset beautifully by Husband’s soulful Rhodes comping. ‘Nostalgia‘ was a surprising but welcome inclusion, showing McLaughlin’s winning way with a ballad, while ‘Hijacked‘ was a perfect showcase for this band with its intriguing stop-and-go structure and killer tempo. Glove-wearing bassist Etienne M’Bappe shook the very foundations of the Barbican hall with a couple of stunning solos, while Mondesir and Husband’s drum duel on ‘Mother Tongues‘ was like a lesson in metric displacement. It seems McLaughlin’s extraordinary approaches to rhythm have found extremely fertile ground.
All great artists have distinct periods and McLaughlin is no exception, yet it’s ironic that his latest project is a consolidation of sorts while being one of the most adventurous and inspiring in jazz today. His signature sound is intact but he’s consistently finding younger – and, intriguingly, mainly English – musicians who continue to challenge him. Go ahead, John.