Jazz/Rock guitar the way we remember it from the '70s: hot and fast and ripping.
I'm not normally superstitious in record reviews, but this is a John McLaughlin recording -- Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, a man with an interest in The Infinite and The One and a whole lot of other cool concepts that I don't understand. I figure a little supernatural mysticism is in order.
So I'm staring at the cover of To The One, McLaughin's latest recording featuring a band called the 4th Dimension. And the photo on the cover is a point-of-view shot of someone holding a CD in his hands -- the master for this very recording -- and seeing himself in the disc's reflection. And the face we see in the reflection certainly seems like it could be that of McLaughlin himself: coolly waved long hair across a noble face, though it's a face with no apparent wrinkles.
John McLaughlin is now 68 years old -- still cooking but no spring chicken -- so it seems to me that Johnny Mc is look into a musical mirror and seeing his own past. And To The One is the musical equivalent of that. Fans of McLaughlin's searing fusion recordings from the 1970s have long wished for a return to form. With his groundbreaking Mahavishnu Orchestra (The Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire), with the Tony Williams Lifetime (Emergency), and with Carlos Santana (Love Devotion Surrender), McLaughlin created a role for the electric guitar in jazz that was as linked to the legacy of John Coltrane as it was to Charlie Christian or Wes Montgomery. In no other figure did the short-lived term "jazz-rock" have such a promising embodiment.
To The One returns us to that promise with fire.
First, McLaughlin tells us in the album liner notes that To The One was inspired by his feelings about Coltrane and A Love Supreme. And, indeed, in the compositions here, McLaughlin uses 'Trane's modal structures to set up wide canvases on which his band can play with surging freedom. He also establishes his 4th Dimension band as a vigorous dialogue between guitar and drums, with the robust presence of piano -- a structure that brings to mind 'Trane, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner.
Second, the sound of this recording is most often a triumphant return to the busy and muscular sound of his '70s bands. Four of the six tunes find McLaughlin using the piercing, driven electric guitar sound that is his signature and placing it against a tight, rocking rhythm section of electric piano, burbling electric bass and rat-a-tat drums that play with drive and rock energy. It takes almost no effort to imagine that Jan Hammer and Billy Cobham are again on hand here.
In fact, McLaughlin's new sidemen are perfectly terrific on their own terms. Drums are busy and remarkable on every tune, with duties shared by Mark Mondesir and Gary Husband (also on keyboards throughout). "Recovery" finds bassist Etienne M'Bappe playing in locked-up unison with the guitar on the melody, and it features astonishing playing from Husband both on kinetic drums and keyboards. Husband accompanies with a punchy perfection using a Fender Rhodes sound, and then he solos using a synth sound that somehow evokes the High Fusion era without sounding cheesy.
In fact, as great as it is to hear McLaughlin playing so well, there are moments when Husband steals the show. His brief Rhodes solo on "To The One" is knotty and crackling with interesting intervals. It's great to hear him solo on acoustic piano during "Discovery". Even though it is a busy fusion tune of the old school, Husband's attack, energy and invention is all the fire the tune needs. And when he takes the first Rhodes solo on the swinging waltz "Special Beings", it's hard to imagine the leader doing much more with the tune.
In fact, McLaughlin's solos on To The One are extremely fine. While his feeling for speed and ornamentation have often defined his playing, his ability to craft a melody is the heart of his playing. His "Special Beings" solo has terrific shape. McLaughlin's playing leaves nice gaps of silence -- presumably what drew Miles Davis to him in the late '60s -- and he bends his notes here incessantly, getting a particularly human sound out of the electric guitar. The very end of "Special Beings" finds him playing a repeated phrase that is specifically reminiscent of Coltrane's toggling effect from "My Favorite Things". On most tunes, McLaughlin charges forward with guitaristic abandon, just like he used to, but he never forgets that we're looking for some connection to the themes.
My misgivings about To The One are centered on the technology here that could not have been used in 1973. Not that I'm against progress, but I'm just against inorganic sounds that give a record a chilly, artificial vibe. So the ballad "Lost and Found" is very nicely written, setting a cool melody against a spare and syncopated drum groove, but McLaughlin's spooky-flute guitar synth sound leaves me cold. Presumably the dry hum that sits in the background of the tune is one of Husband's synth shimmers, and that is flat, too. The acoustic piano solo takes you somewhere nice, but there's no reason why this tune could not have been given human feeling by a great guitar tone and some whirring Hammond organ pads. "To The One" uses that same flutey-guitar synth, and I dare you to listen to McLaughlin's astonishing runs and inventions without wishing he had played them on an old hollow-body through a tube amp.
But it remains that two-thirds of this album (and a good portion of the synth-ed out tunes too, when you hear something real vibrate) is a brilliant look backward to what we've always liked best about John McLaughlin. It's not nostalgia because these are new players and new tunes and, in fact, a new set of ideas that merely uses the past as a partial touchstone. But To The One is a useful and happy reclamation project. The fire of yesterday and the exuberance of youth blend here with a mature sense of identity. It's nice to feel something fresh for "fusion" again.