Album Review: John McLaughlin’s Black Light

john mclaughlinSettled band line-ups in jazz are pretty rare. The Duke Ellington Orchestra, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk Quartet (1964-1968), Medeski, Martin And Wood and The Bad Plus spring to mind.

But now master guitarist John McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension quartet, also featuring Gary Husband on keys/occasional drums, Etienne M’Bappe on bass and Ranjit Barot on drums, surely belongs in that illustrious company. John has built this band around slick interplay, interesting Western/Eastern rhythmic and harmonic approaches, sizzling guitar solos and unapologetically complex fusion compositions. Though he has intimated that Black Light may be his final studio album, he remains a remarkably energetic figure.

I have been a giant McLaughlin fan since my dad took me to see him at the Hammersmith Odeon (12th July 1984) when I was 12. I was initially drawn to the gig because my hero Billy Cobham was billed to be on drums, though he was replaced for the tour by Danny Gottlieb. But no matter. I loved the concert (and Danny’s playing) and quickly became obsessed with a Mahavishnu Orchestra best-of and also the 1979 album Electric Dreams. Since then, every new McLaughlin album was been an event in my house.

John_McLaughlin_in_the_Mir_Gitary_festival

And Black Light is no exception. But, to this correspondent, the album it most resembles from John’s past is 1975’s Inner Worlds, the swansong for the original Mahavishnu Orchestra; it sounds more like the culmination of a band project rather than a new start, with more of a Latin influence than usual. Of course there are outstanding tracks too. As ever, John has one foot in the future and one in the past – manic opener ‘Here Come The Jiis’ refers to the famous bassline in Miles Davis’s ‘It’s About That Time‘, while ‘Being You Being Me’ mixes mid-’80s-style guitar-synth textures with the rhythmic feel of 1973’s ‘Lila’s Dance‘, though the result is unfortunately more Di Meola than Mahavishnu. ‘Clap Your Hand’, the album’s standout, is a superb, menacing modal piece in the classic McLaughlin tradition of ‘Jozy‘, ‘Honky Tonk Haven‘ and ‘Radioactivity‘. Notably, the groove is given a lot of room to breath, and there’s an exciting swing in the dichotomy between 4/4 and 6/8 time. Elsewhere, ‘Gaza City’ hides a beautiful composition behind a rather mechanical (militaristic?) Barot backbeat, not helped by an airless, muddy drum sound. ‘Kiki’ initially impresses with a frantic, treacherous theme but doesn’t offer anything particularly different to the other uptempo tracks from the album.

After listening to Black Light a few times, I played the previous two studio albums Now Here This and To The One in quick succession and found the three to be worryingly interchangeable, though 2010’s To The One features the strongest themes and most dynamic band interplay (possibly due to drummer Mark Mondesir’s far jazzier approach than Barot’s). I wonder if the hard-disc technology used by John to structure his compositions is stifling creativity in the studio; gorgeous harmonies are sometimes hamstrung by rather dated drum’n’bass-influenced loops, synth horn blasts and regimented grooves. And though John’s solos are consistently brilliant, they increasingly rely on long lines of sixteenth notes.

But we must applaud his single-minded, heartfelt, joyful approach to music, and one thing’s for sure – the Black Light material will come to life and offer up many of its secrets onstage. Here’s hoping there’s a lot more to come from John yet.

Black Light is out now on Abstract Logix.

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2 comments

  1. David Mason · · Reply

    “I wonder if the hard-disc technology used by John to structure his compositions is stifling creativity in the studio; gorgeous harmonies are sometimes hamstrung by rather dated drum’n’bass-influenced loops, synth horn blasts and regimented grooves.”

    Is this to SAY he’s using computers to “Do the Teo” to his own stuff, that being the cut’n’paste stuff Teo Macero did to Miles Davis’s stuff? Because, It CAN be done, pretty swell, some would say. I guess, not here, is that what the reviewer is just “wondering?”

    “And though John’s solos are consistently brilliant, they increasingly rely on long lines of sixteenth notes.”

    I don’t know what this means? Are they brilliant long lines of sixteenth notes? Great! Are the NOT wonderful, because they’re long lines of “sixteenth notes.” I mean these criticisms have ALWAYS followed J-Mac, cause he can light that li’l puppy UP, pretty much anytime. I’ve long carried an insulated pod of hilarity under wraps, the result of peeps like Frank Zappa & even JERRY (Cap’n TRIPS) Garcia expressing their distain for “that type” of playing. And within a few years, the Captain was ALL ABOUT blistering 64th’ers in synthetic superlocrian modes, in 22/93rd time, or some such shit. And Zappa, my oh my. As a guitarist long-versed in convincing people of his own genius, he had real mental problems with Mahavishnu. The first night of Mahavishnu opening for the Mothers, Zappa somewhat endure the shouts of “Bring Mahavishnu back!” The 2nd night, Zappa just refused to go out. The 3rd night and thenceforth, Zappa opened for Mahavishnu.

    My own take, Mr. McLaughlin has greatly enhanced my own life, for ME, both a fanboi and a guitarist. But people who take lots of chances are destined to muff one, every once in a while. And while I fully support (mentally!) his right to go out and trade 32nd notes with Chick Corea, even winning a “guilt Grammy” in the process… that album was duller n’mud. There’s an interesting process by which all these cosmically-attuned, mellow. worldly vegetarian types go out and try to slaughter each other onstage, ever-so-politely. And McLaughlin NEEDS that, and it ain’t happened for way too long. Sadly, I count his last real PEAK as the 1999-2000 version of R. Shakti, with just the little kid with the toy guitar, no vocalist yet. From what I hear, Mac may still “have it” – but who can scare him? (Anoushka, hint hint… I dream that she & Beck & John will hammer out a threesome for a tour? Indrajit Bannerjee? Kartik Seshadri? SOMEBODY dammit – HURRY…..)

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    1. Hi David, thanks for taking the time to comment. To start with, I’m also a giant John fan and have followed all periods of his career – my other posts about him on this site reinforce that. His music has enriched my life in many ways, both musically and personally. My point about John’s hard-disc compositions was that many of the tunes on the last three albums have apparently been cooked up at home using click tracks/guitar synths/keyboards and then brought in to the studio for the band to overdub their stuff. It feels like quite a rigid system though has sometimes produced effective results. I would just occasionally like to hear a bit more of a ‘live in the studio’ kind of sound, without any extras. It’s just my taste.

      On the subject of John’s solos on ‘Black Light’, I meant that they are of course technically fantastic, flawless, superb, but extremely 16th-note based. That’s also a bi-product of the point I made above, in that many of the recent compositions are rhythmically similar. I’d just like to hear some more dynamics and phrasing from time to time. Again, it’s just my taste, one opinion. Personally I’m just delighted that John is still releasing albums and playing brilliantly.

      I agree with you re. that period of Remember Shakti. And you saw Mahavishnu opening for Zappa? Jealous doesn’t cover it…

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