John McLaughlin defies the years with a blindingly fast yet spiritually moving show at the M Theatre
Encountering a guitarist whose breadth of spirituality and technical expertise far exceeds that of much more celebrated musicians like, say, Eric Clapton, or even his friend Carlos Santana, is doubly daunting. There is the astounding virtuosity on display, and then there is the awareness of how much influence he has exerted over the years.
John McLaughlin, one of the great pioneers of jazz-rock fusion, brought to the stage of Bangkok’s M Theatre on Tuesday night an overflowing klong jar of adulation and experience amassed over five decades in the music business. He is 72 now, and has lost not a drop of his talent since I first saw him perform in Toronto 41 years ago.
With a player of such calibre performing in Thailand for the first time, it’s hard to understand why even a fairly small theatre like the M would be far from packed. But at least those knowledgeable enough to realise the importance of the concert made up for the lack of numbers with their enthusiasm. The show ended amid standing ovations with two encores, and at least 100 fans waited more than an hour afterward for the band members to autograph posters and albums.
The group McLaughlin has been playing with since 2007 is called the 4th Dimension, and that name sums up the concert experience much better than did Mahavishnu Orchestra, his outfit “back in the day”. With keyboardist Gary Husband (the only other member remaining from the quartet’s original line-up), bassist Etienne M’Bappe and drummer Ranjit Barot, McLaughlin conducted a guided tour through time and space, of the sort that only jazz can propel.
Tuesday was the day his latest album was released, though McLaughlin declined the chance to plug it, but many of those in the audience will be buying “The Boston Record” because it’s a live recording – from a gig in that US city last summer – and because we got basically the same show here, as have the crowds in Singapore, Hong Kong and Manila.
Perhaps McLaughlin had more to say about the new CD the evening before, when he conducted a guitar clinic for aficionados at the Prart Academy.
Just four years ago Jeff Beck, who’s always in the top echelon on Rolling Stone magazine’s guitar talent list, called McLaughlin “the best guitarist alive”, suggesting his countryman ought to be much further up the list than midway. Pat Metheny, often found plucking in these parts, credits McLaughlin with altering the instrument’s evolution.
Frank Zappa, no slouch with an axe either, once offered a backhanded compliment – “The guy has certainly found out how to operate a guitar as if it were a machine gun” – but he thought McLaughlin played “too fast”. There’s a lot to be said for speed, however, if precision and harmonic control don’t slip behind.
Slowhand Clapton is slowing down in his 70s. Not so McLaughlin. The Yorkshireman – who started out with Alexis Korner, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, the Graham Bond Organisation and Brian Auger before making the move to America and the quantum leap to Tony Williams’ Lifetime and Miles Davis – doesn’t seem to comprehend the meaning of slowing down.
Almost all of the tracks he played Tuesday featured astonishing lightning riffs, and here’s the thing about the 4th Dimension: They all kept pace. Husband’s keyboard work was never less than absolutely essential to the sound and the mood, but several times he left them behind to hop up on his own drum kit and go nuts, much to the evident appreciation of Ranjit Barot, who duelled ferociously with him on one piece.
Barot, amazing on the drums all night, added his own dimension with some outstanding Western-style singing and a few dazzling displays of what might be called Eastern “scat”, rattling off the notes vocally at blinding speed.
For his part, Etienne M’Bappe warrants worship a bass-guitar god, and it’s easily argued that he eclipsed McLaughlin several times during the evening, pummelling his fretless Fender in silk gloves (to keep the strings shiny, he has said, but also sweat-free, surely).
The set began and ended with freeform yet tightly arranged jazz, between which blues and heavy rock took turns and the spiritual shimmer of a slow-moving, soul-stirring aria glowed.
Apart from what his guitar, a Paul Reed Smith PRS, was conveying with tremendous clarity, lucidity and sustain, McLaughlin had little to say. He didn’t introduce all the songs by name, but we heard among others Pharaoh Sanders’ “Light at the Edge of the World”, his homage to Santana, “Senor CS”, and a track called “The Unknown Dissident” – composed, he said, “because there are so many dissidents in the world today”.