John McLaughlin – Black Light (2015)

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When surveying the field of groundbreaking British guitarists who first made their mark in the 1960s and are still with us today — Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page — the one who didn’t play in the Yardbirds may have had the most widely ranging career and arguably, one that’s just as consequential. At seventy-three years old, John McLaughlin doesn’t seem to be anywhere near coasting and his latest band the 4th Dimension is his current means of staying on the edgy side of fusion jazz.

Black Light (September 25, 2015, Abstract Logix) is the 4th Dimension’s third outing and viewed in the context of McLaughlin’s 45 year discography can be seen as a look back and also a look ahead. It combines the highly combustible electric fusion of McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra band, while also incorporating the spiritual Eastern flavorings of My Goals Beyond and his late 70’s Shakti phase. McLaughlin also briefly revisits the flamenco he did to much acclaim with fellow guitar icons Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola. At the same time, McLaughlin picks off ideas from his headfirst dive into the sleek, 21st century sonic countenance of Industrial Zen.

The four piece band has experienced some flux aside from keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband, but drummer Ranjit Barot and the bassist from Cameroon Étienne M’Bappé continue from 2012’s Now Here This , and the stability has given its leader one of his imaginative ensembles since the first incarnation of Mahavishnu.

Songs with staggeringly craggy themes sometimes done in unison with Husband power songs like the first one (“The Jiis”) and the last one (“Kiki”) and several spots in-between, a signature of Mahavishnu’s most imposing performances. They’re turbo charged by the presence of two drummers, and JM seems inspired to take his blizzard of notes to the next level from that (he’s lost none of his fastball, and isn’t shy about letting you know that).

“Clap Your Hand” is built on a shuffle groove but it’s a most raucous shuffle groove thanks to the open competitive between Husband (on drums) and Barot, and Husband also leaves a big impression with his organ solo. Barot engages in a lot of konnakol, a vocal percussion technique originating in the Carnatic music of South India. Starting with “Clap,” he’s heard applying it in a very aggressive manner, syncing with his rapid-fire percussion.

As with all of McLaughlin’s better fusion outings, McLaughlin is mindful to take his foot off the gas before the sheer display of technical prowess overwhelms the listener. “Being You Being Me,” downshifts into a pretty, soulful piece that retains some of the fire. “Gaza City” goes even further into the soft areas of McLaughlin, with tender, ethereal synth washes and guitar synth lead paced by a slightly militaristic snare drum. The band dabbles into electronica on “360 Flip” but ultimately, it’s handmade music; a vintage Moog solo and McLaughlin’s blues-based licks are sure signs that what’s worked in the past won’t ever be completely disposed of.

This is McLaughlin’s first record since his old friend and colleague de Lucia had died last year and he wasn’t going to pass on an opportunity to pay tribute in song. He plays acoustic guitar for “El Hombre Que Sabia,” but it isn’t all acoustic as he combines with Husband’s single-note synth for the unison lines. However, he wrote an unmistakable flamenco melody for it and trades some tasty fours with Husband on piano.

So Black Light isn’t the groundbreaking juggernaut of, say, Birds of Fire, but it shows John McLaughlin with the help of his spirited band the 4th Dimension is incrementally pushing his craft forward and not stagnate. The fusion guitarist who has inspired generations of other accomplished fusion musicians and composers is still holding class.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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