John McLaughlin has used the electric guitar to explore musical boundaries for over a half-century. The English-born icon played with Miles Davis in the Sixties, headed up his own Mahavishnu Orchestra in the Seventies, and experimented with acoustic Indian music in Shakti. Since the early ‘80s, McLaughlin’s issued one jaw-dropping solo album after another—in between numerous guest-spots and “super-groups” with fellow musical monsters Al DiMeola, Paco DeLucia, Stanley Clarke, and Steve Morse (One Truth Band, Guitar Trio).
After releasing his acclaimed Industrial Zen and Floating Point CDs, McLaughlin once again surrounded himself with elite players for another all-star band—albeit one bearing his name. McLaughlin and his aptly-named 4th Dimension band turned heads on 2010’s To the One on the Abstract Logix label, then followed up with the equally brilliant Now Here This in 2012.
For the chameleonic McLaughlin, music truly is a universal language. Whether he’s waxing electric or going it “unplugged,” the guitarist always captures the imagination with his fleet-fingered forays. His otherworldly songs and are the love children borne of playful (yet sincere) dalliances between jazz, rock, and Eastern cultures; his work defies cut-and-dry categorization.
It also transcends time and space: Thus, the 4th Dimension.
The septuagenarian (who boasts records in six different decades) still possesses superhuman skills and demonic speed, yet retains childlike mirth and a humility tempered by holistic living and spirituality [McLaughlin routinely ranks near—or at—the top of magazine and trade lists of best guitarists ever]. Keyboardist / drummer Gary Husband rose to fame in the ‘80s in the preppy British pop band Level 42. Indian drummer / percussionist Ranji Bardot sharpened his sticks as a film composer and touring musician. And Cameroon-born bassist Etienne “ATN” Mbappe pureed African and Caribbean rhythms in the multinational jazz-rock groups Ultramarine and The Zawinul Syndicate before bringing his silken touch to Mahavishnu.
Summer 2013 saw McLaughlin and company tour across the United States, performing Now Here This selections and older gems to enraptured audiences and rave reviews. The last show (at Boston’s Berklee College of Music) was recorded for posterity, but John and the boys so liked what they heard on the tape—er, hard drive files (or whatever)—that they stamped it for official release.
Eight-minute opener “Raju” establishes the band’s loose-but-not-lost chemistry, with McLaughlin and Husband riffing in synch over Bardot’s loose percussion and Mbappe’s thick bass. More than a mere exercise in fusion, the piece features numerous tempo changes and allows each player a chance to shine—but their dead-on, perfectly-timed recapitulations of leitmotifs serve notice that yes, these songs have both form and structure, and that any apparent instrumental noodling occurs within agreed-upon parameters. McLaughlin’s flitting, butterfly-wing fret board excursions and Husband’s space-synth tinkling piano breaks may suggest they’ve gone off script and wandered too far, but then the ensemble reconnects, having followed the musical bread crumbs back to the start.
Therein lies the true hallmarks of virtuosity. It’s likely McLaughlin and friends could work from any sheets given them—or personalize the sounds suggested by the tiny black dots on the pages with jaw-dropping technical proficiency—without straying too far from home. These guys are master musicians whose years of study and performance have allowed their brains to absorb all pertinent theory. Muscle memory guides their hands, but practice affords the freedom to deviate from the charts, follow their Muse, and yeah—show off a bit without fear of toppling the complex house-of-cards compositions.
“Little Miss Valley” commences with a twelve-bar country riff, the Mpabble’s palpitating grooves nudge the measures into jazz-funk territory. McLaughlin lets loose with serpentine guitar scales, then abdicates to Husband—who conjures disparate keyboard textures by playing two (or more) instruments simultaneously. The riff is reinstated halfway through, then Mpabbe steps up with a conversational solo spot incorporating percussive thumb-slaps, broken chords, and melodic, Pastorius-like passages on the neck of his bass. McLaughlin wraps the nine-minute sojourn with additional rapid-fire runs.
The guys take a more restrained, relaxed approach with “Abbaji,” passing the baton and trading licks during an instrumental round-robin. The music’s still busy—Bardot’s drumming becomes increasingly kinetic, and McLaughlin tosses in some tapping and pinch-harmonics—but enough air exists between the notes to let the overall piece breathe easy. .
Listen to a sample of “Boston Record” here: http://soundcloud.com/abstractlogix
The disc’s longest cuts—“Echoes from Then” and “Call and Answer” (both from Now Here This)—are soulful showpieces whose many turns and dynamic shifts provide ample opportunity for individual displays of prowess. Both selections feature break-downs and build-ups wherein Mpabbe’s bass boogies and bubbles and Bardot’s kit shudders and shimmies. McLaughlin delivers searing leads, executes some bluesy bends—and continues defying speed limits with spindly, exotic-sounding guitar scales. Husband alternates between graceful piano pastiches and menacing, exclamatory synth stabs, coloring the mix with cosmic chords.
Sandwiched between longer, flashier epics “Echoes” and “Call” comes Santana-esque “Senor C.S.,” another subdued, elegant, outing that maintains a “soft,” organic vibe—even when Maestro McLaughlin rips some bumblebee-frantic bursts with trademark mechanical precision
Bluesy and soulful, “Maharina” is the set’s wine-sipping intermezzo, an easygoing number on which Bardot restrains himself to a laid-back rim tick—even while Husband’s fingers pirouette over the ivories and McLaughlin conjures more of his stratospheric string magic. Cymbals sizzle on “Hijacked” as Mpabbe and McLaughlin replicate each other’s leads, matching notes for a stretch before the bassist assumes control, knocking out deep grooves, trebly twists, and muscular thumb-slaps, the guitarist interjecting with occasional insectoid asides.
The audience reacts enthusiastically to Mahavishnu Orchestra classic “You Know You Know,” the applause evincing recognition of the old-school favorite. McLaughlin provides a framework for The Inner Mounting Flame staple with a mildly-distorted arpeggio, over which he and his cohorts swap solos with a democratic, “Whose turn is it?” brand of musical nonchalance. It’s an effective, memorable closer that underscores the band’s synergy and sense of adventure. These guys can listen as well as they play, and one suspect their ears—and ingrained intuition—would allow them to vibe off one another absent all visual cues.
Though Boston Record can be considered an entirely instrumental affair, “Abbaj” contains a sweetly-sung “Love and Understanding” anchor—and the midsection in “Echoes” features lively, “Dakkata-dot!” scat vocal [we’re guessing it’s Etienne on microphone]. The receptive but courteous crowd reserves applause for the ends of songs, notwithstanding a few golf-claps for the more dexterous jams and solos.
Fans of jazz / fusion / guitar rock will appreciate Boston Record for the 4th Dimension’s phenomenal chops and audacious interplay. If you like Al Dimeola, Mike Stern, or Frank Zappa and haven’t yet delved into McLaughlin’s prolific pool, the album’s “greatest (or recent) hits live” lineup renders it a fitting point-of-entry to the legend’s extensive catalog. We highly recommend McLaughlin’s latest albums, but the live performances are so spectacular and “on” here—and the recording so pristine and the mix sublime—that for many listeners these Boston variations may well supplant their studio counterparts.
McLaughlin and 4th Dimension will tour Asia in Spring 2014. Among the nations to be dazzled: Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines, Korea, Japan, and China. The jaunt culminates with a festival stop in Palestine.