Twenty four albums in, and John McLaughlin is still blowing minds — both musically and, with the zen title here, conceptually. Still recording live, even in the digital age, even at the age of 70. Still kicking some serious, serious guitar ass.
His band on Now Here This, due on October 16, 2012, from Mediastarz-AbstractLogix, tells you a lot about what’s ahead: There’s Gary Husband on piano, and Ranjit Barot on drums. Prog rock? Check. Indian stuff? Check. Then there’s Cameroonian Etienne M’Bappe, who appears on electric and fretless bass. Some serious groove? Check. Couple all of that with McLaughlin’s molten style of genre-bending brilliance — coalesced over a career which included Miles Davis’ fusion-template projects In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, then came into its own with the electro-jazz/raga rock of Mahavishnu Orchestra — and you have the makings of a defining moment.
Whereas 2010’s To the One, featuring drummer Mark Mondesir in Barot’s place, connected McLaughlin’s vocabulary with John Coltrane’s, Now Here This aspires to a more timeless, quintessential vista. McLaughlin plays with a power and accuracy that thrillingly recall his 1970s successes with Mahavishnu, combining the stone-free improvisational wonder of Jimi Hendrix with a R&B-soaked, very modern take on the jazz aesthetic. It’s less psychedelic, probably because Jerry Goodman is not going wild on the violin, but not less involving.
On “Trancefusion,” the opener, McLaughlin plays with a riffy reserve that’s shaped like a question mark, even as M’Bappe leads a thunderously propulsive underlying groove. (Later, on “Take It Or Leave It,” he plays with all of the dance-floor rattling authority of legendary Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham.) Meanwhile, the appropriately named “Riff Raff” recalls McLaughlin’s late-1960s work with Lifetime, so intense and remarkably heavy is his playing. For “Echoes from Then,” McLaughlin settles into an organic, tongue-wagging cadence — with Barot mashing the gas pedal all the way down.
Tracks like “Wonderfall” and “Not Here Not There,” unfortunately, slow things to a nearly malaise-level inertia — but Now Here This recovers nicely with the ear-melting “Call and Answer,” which finds McLaughlin and Co. bursting out like a covey of startled birds. The track never varies from this piston-popping speed, as Husband moves in and around Barot’s boiling retorts while McLaughlin answers with a series of aneurysm-inducing runs.
Then there’s “Guitar Love,” which reconnects McLaughlin with the Eastern forms that dominated his work in the 1970s, though in an intriguingly subtle manner: It’s more in the way the track swirls, mantra like, ever skyward — with overdubbed guitar lines responding to one another.
Make no mistake, McLaughlin remains someone who demands your attention. Now, hear this!
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