Settled 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.
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.
The oddly-titled ‘Clap Your Hand’ is the standout, 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. John’s solos are consistently brilliant, but 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.