It may not matter to most listeners that John McLaughlin’s latest CD To The One is a tribute of sorts to a virtuoso of another time.
And, truth be told, probably only the most deeply schooled jazz archivists are likely to find much tangible musical commonality between this and the object of McLaughlin’s tribute, saxophonist John Coltrane’s seminal A Love Supreme — an album recorded 44 years earlier, with a different lead instrument played by a man almost three decades McLaughlin’s junior (Coltrane was 38 when he recorded A Love Supreme; McLaughlin, 67 for To The One), in a different era and a different world where jazz music and jazz musicians were still learning languages McLaughlin has now long since mastered.
No, the echoes of Coltrane’s soul-baring masterpiece resonate now through contemporary musicians as faint but unmistakable calls to higher spiritual channeling, and genuine technical expertise in the service of challenging convention. In this regard, one might suggest McLaughlin has been channeling Coltrane for much of nearly 50 years in music.
While his band — The 4th Dimension — has been an erstwhile touring entity for a handful of years, To The One is the band’s first proper studio release. Pivoting around McLaughlin’s still-fleet guitar and guitar synth playing, and the lithe drumming and nimble keyboard work of longtime friend Gary Husband, the CD may just be McLaughlin’s most coherent and satisfying in decades, equal parts post-bop swing, fiery fusion workouts and touching, elegant balladry. Some have characterized this as his best band since the electrifying original Mahavishnu Orchestra left the stage in the early ’70s.
When we interviewed McLaughlin a few weeks back, we suggested that we found the band a seamless and endearingly symbiotic unit completely in control of its destiny — not the kind of virtuoso-with-a-band-trying-to-keep-up kind of scenario we’ve heard on other McLaughlin electric projects over the years
But he did speak highly of this outfit. “Absolutely!” McLaughlin says.
“Though I’m not sure about the line ‘fully in control of its destiny’... But it is a group that has been developing over a number of years now, and it’s no secret that the quality of any venture is proportional to the amount of dedication to it. The CD was recorded quickly, but the advantage of studio recording is that you have the chance to record different versions of the tunes, and select the best performance.
“A wonderful band. ... Gary Husband is an exceptional musician. We’ve been friends for years even prior to playing together. He has always been one of my favorite drummers, but he really blew me away when I heard his piano recordings. That he can play both keyboards and drums in performance is wonderful. It’s also true he has an innate sense about my music that puts him in the best place for interpreting.”
As for the material — all McLaughlin originals — we asked the guitarist how the pieces came to be.
“I’m sorry to tell you that I’ve no idea how this or any music comes to me,” he says. “It’s a big mystery. It was only after writing the music that I realized the connection between the two recordings. Of course, there is the spiritual connection.
“Coltrane is, in a certain way, a guru to me, like Miles [Davis] and even Sri Chinmoy. But with Coltrane, the impact of his Love Supreme recording on me cannot be underestimated. I believe that my own recording is a kind of subconscious expression of that musical and spiritual impact. I should remind you that the impact from this recording was at first spiritual, since the music was way over my head. It actually took me nine months of continuous listening to finally ‘hear’ what he was playing. Some of us develop slower than others.”
One wonders if what Coltrane was playing — or trying to express — on A Love Supreme still has the power to reach across the generations to younger listeners today, so far removed from the communities, and in a very real sense the personal suffering, that gave them voice.
“The great players of the past will always remain great,” McLaughlin says. “The inspiration they generate goes beyond any particular time or fashion. The question of finding a voice will always be difficult for some and easy for others. For me it was not so easy.
“Plus, we are evolving continuously and as a consequence our concepts are evolving with us. Regarding your question about jazz music and its power, it is not the music that speaks; it is the musician and the soul of the musician. It is self evident that if the musician is shallow, the music will be correspondingly shallow and not satisfying to the listener. I would also add that the blues is not the sole domain of jazz. I’ve heard other kinds of blues from Indian musicians, from gypsy and flamenco musicians. It really comes down to the person and his depth of feeling. To have profound music you need profound players.”
This project follows up a successful run, and a Grammy award, with Five Peace Band, a quintet McLaughlin formed with fellow Miles alum Chick Corea a couple years ago. For his part, Corea had just wrapped up a worldwide reunion tour with the essential Return to Forever quartet (with Lenny White, Stanley Clarke and Al DiMeola), and while the shows were generally well received, the reunion splintered at the end of the tour, with DiMeola dropping out from any further participation amid some tensions.
We wondered if the whole notion of reforming old bands was a subject of discussion between McLaughlin and Corea while on tour, as McLaughlin himself had tried in vain some years ago to reform the original Mahavishnu Orchestra.
“Bands can only succeed if the players are inspired, have great discipline, have profound admiration and affection for their fellow musicians, and love to play! Five Peace Band had this in spades,” McLaughlin says. “As far as reforming old groups, in my opinion it can only work if there is real affection and respect amongst the players. If it’s not based on love and only on money, it’ll never truly work. In the ’80s I tried over an extended period of time to reform the first Mahavishnu. I failed because there simply was not enough love between us all. In this case it’s better that we didn’t!” So we wondered if the book on Mahavishnu, that audacious and irreducible hydra of an electric jazz-fusion band, is finally closed for McLaughlin.
No way. “The book on that band and those days will be open till I die,” he says. “I don’t know how you can ask such a question! That band and that music is an integral part of my history, and if you listen to To the One you will even see allusions — musical — to Mahavishnu. There are Mahavishnu influences in Shakti and even in the guitar trio with Paco and Al. I love the music from that era as I love the music from others.
“In a way I’m like a painter. I never know what I’m gonna paint next, but whatever it is, it will be influenced by what I’ve done in the past. It’s impossible to avoid.”
On the Bill:
John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension play the Boulder Theater on Saturday, Dec. 4. Doors at 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $41; reserved tickets are $51.50. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.