John McLaughlin may not exactly be a household name in the UK but he is legendary in the jazz world. When jazz went electric in the 1960s he was there. Let’s briefly name check “In a Silent Way” era Miles Davis, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti and “the Guitar Trio” with Larry Coryell (or Al Di Meola) and Paco de Lucia as starting points for novices to explore his legacy.
This lineup can be found on McLaughlin’s new album “To The One” –Mark Mondesir on drums, Gary Husband on keyboards and Etienne M’Bappe on bass. Gone are the Indian stylings of “Mahavishnu John McLaughlin” – at 68 years old he is tall, silver haired and distinguished-looking and takes centre stage with a solid body electric (it always used to be jazzy hollow-bodies often with double necks), producing a warm slightly distorted tone not unlike that found on early John Scofield albums.
No one out there can play guitar like this. Speed, dexterity, accuracy and invention are all present in mind-boggling quantities. And stamina? The band played for two hours straight and looked like they are hardly broke sweat. Age has not dimmed McLaughlin’s abilities in anyway; quite the opposite – there seems to be a certainty about his approach that can only come from years of experience and exploration. He knows who he is; he speaks the truth.
Mark Mondesir creates effortless thunder, transformed in a moment to the hushed beating of butterfly wings, and all in complex time signatures. Which he grooves to like an old-time funkster while sitting impassive and smiling surrounded by his kit. Gary Husband plays supporting keyboards, solos on synth and piano, and on Unknown Dissident switches to drums to trade ” fours” with Mondesir over a long looping asymmetrical riff from McLaughlin and M’Bappe. It was so exciting the audience were literally on the edge of their seats, breath being held. Seldom has a solo section being rewarded by such genuine astonished applause.
But don’t think this music is just about technique. It can be achingly beautiful, roller coaster ride fast, surprising, exciting. I read that Jeff Beck said John McLaughlin is the greatest guitarist alive today. I absolutely agree. The precision and musicianship of this band has me wondering if they are also the best live band around. The last few days I’ve woken up smiling just thinking about it.