John McLaughlin displays a romantically endearing bit of modesty in the liner notes for his latest Verve release Thieves and Poets. The project began as a work for orchestra and guitar at the behest of Jurgen Nimbler and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonic. While struggling to find personal meaning in the work and settle upon a fitting title, McLaughlin “realised that throughout my life, I ‘borrow’ from everyone who inspires me in some way, and not just musically: to the point that I wonder what an ‘original’ thought truly is.”
This artistic notion of thieves and poets recalls the medieval guilds and artisan associations where craft is achieved through dedication and immersion in a specialized field of study. The evolution of the title piece and its three movements reflects McLaughlin’s diligence to his chosen vocation.
McLaughlin’s skill should come as no surprise. The guitarist’s background certainly speaks to his feverish wanderlust. McLaughlin logged time with Tony Williams’s Lifetime and the seminal Miles Davis lineup that recorded In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew before collaborating with Carlos Santana and Shakti and performing in trio formats along with DiMeola/DeLucia and DeFrancesco/Chambers. And of course, there’s his legacy as the founder and musical director of Mahavishnu Orchestra, which confounded critics and audiences by merging the power of rock with jazz’s improvisational spirit.
It would be difficult to separate the two aspects of McLaughlin as they manifest themselves on the new project, his first in several years. “Thieves and Poets” is comprised of three movements. The first belongs to the ‘Old World’ and features a formal, classical structure that recalls Europe in her glorious majestic prime. Rich color dances off plucked guitar strings along crowded paths that foreshadow the arrival of modern cities. The second movement with its transition to the ‘New World’ tracks the brave journey into the heart of a new landscape and is full of wonderful woodwinds and swelling breaths of new life. The final movement intends to unify both worlds, while firmly set in the new, but the ‘joyful unification’ that McLaughlin planned comes to fruition in the later pieces that find him offering praise to the piano masters who inspired him.
His last disc Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans was dedicated to Bill Evans and his performance here of “My Romance” bears the impression of Evans. Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who McLaughlin credits with being “the essential ‘new wave’ in modern piano playing” also have standards dedicated to them, respectively “My Foolish Heart”, “Stella By Starlight”, and “The Dolphin”. In each performance, McLaughlin’s delicate playing approximates the style of each pianist. My personal favorite is “My Foolish Heart” which is full of the thoughtful romanticism I associate with Corea’s solo piano projects like the 1994 set Expressions.
The mood on much of Thieves and Poets is sustained by the Aighetta Quartet, an acoustic guitar group who also performed on Time Remembered. Here, they are featured on parts two and three of the suite as well as the standards. The combined sound creates a choral effect that should make the melodies more accessible to even casual listeners. It is probably best to conceive of McLaughlin serving as a contemporary Robin Hood stealing the music from its classical roots and sharing the treasures without devaluing its poetic value.