One year after releasing a ferocious live album, John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension return to the studio for a more varied style of jazz fusion.
Ah, the fusion of jazz and rock -- no matter how "old" the genre becomes with each passing year, it still manages to sound so very new. This isn't to suggest that Weather Report, Return to Forever, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra didn't have dated elements in their sound, but to suggest that the very nature of this jazz subgenre still sounds forward-thinking even decades after the fact. Mahavishnu mastermind John McLaughlin is one of the many musicians we have to thank for keeping fusion so volatile after all these years. When I heard The Boston Record, his 2014 live album with the 4th Dimension, I could scarcely believe that the guy was in his early 70s. And after all that McLaughlin has accomplished in his lifetime, he really doesn't need to keep going. What's left to prove? Well, judging by the sudden appearance of Black Light just one year after The Boston Record, he's probably out to prove that he can still hold a band together. After being active in the music business for over 50 years, John McLaughlin refers to 4th Dimension members Gary Husband, Etienne Mbappé and Ranjit Barot as "my three favorite musicians". That's certainly worth something.
Black Light doesn't rock as hard as The Boston Record. It's a studio album so it's bound to be a tamer animal. But McLaughlin can still let his fingers fly with remarkable dexterity while hanging onto a melody. The 4th Dimension remain as professional and precise as ever, particularly drummer Ranjit Barot who debatably has the most precarious and thereby the most important job of the band by keeping all the elements tied together. When McLaughlin and keyboardist Husband are firing on all cylinders on "Panditji" because Barot and bassist Mbappé's brick-solid foundation enables them to do so, it certainly could pass for a adrenaline-fueled live performance.
On the flipside, Black Light captures John McLaughlin in a sad moment due to the recent passing of his friend and colleague Paco de Lucía. Despite their differences in backgrounds, McLaughlin playing for Miles Davis while de Lucía kept the flamenco guitar flame burning, the two shared the stage many times over the years and his sudden death of a heart attack at age 66 prompted McLaughlin to compose "El Hombre Que Sabia" in his memory. The song is a paradox. On the one hand, it's written on the heels of a friend's passing. On the other hand, it isn't a somber or mournful tune. The beginning passage is a little on the quiet side yet strikingly percussive, likely coming from a digital effect used by Husband. McLaughlin plays the acoustic on this track and his passages can't qualify as joyous nor sorrowful. The rhythm section is active without being full-on energetic. Usually when music is composed in dedication to a fallen individual, there are clear lines drawn and unmistakable emotions at play. "El Hombre Que Sabia" keeps us guessing.
The remainder of Black Light is played on electric guitar. And if you enjoyed any of the 4th Dimension's prior studio albums like To the One or Now Here This, then you will cherish this one. There are just a few contemporary elements you need to look out for if such things make you uneasy. First, there are brief but still frequent moments of scat singing that will burst from nowhere. Fear not, these vocalizations are in time with the music and more complimentary than distracting. The other surprise to note is the beginning of "360 Flip" where Husband gets the song started with a motif that has more in common with trip-hop, synth-pop, or electronica than fusion. The song returns to this element a few more times over the course of six-plus minutes, but it does not dwell on it. Aside from those few moments, it's solid mid-tempo jazz-rock fusion.
Black Light, on a grand scale, is also solid. I realize that this is not the most flattering adjective to use when describing music. However, John McLaughlin's name is already listed on dozens of jazz masterpieces. He and the 4th Dimension are not out to reinvent the wheel, but to make it spin even faster. That is, after all, how you go places.