Enlightened Electric

Spirituality has long haunted the music of guitarist John McLaughlin.  But its a different kind of spirituality than commonly accepted.  Serenity is replaced by driven purpose sometime almost furious in its speed and direction. The organic is overcome by the electric. The enlightened sense of  “taking it as it comes”  is replaced by a lock-step unison through structured themes and powerful rhythms. This is an enlightenment with weight, purpose and intensity.

It may have been difficult to make the spiritual connection when McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra arrived on the scene in 1972. The imagery was all there — the band’s name, the album’s title The Inner Mounting Flame, its candle-lit album cover — but the music, more fire than flame,  was something else again, mostly speed, spark and machine-gun rhythm. But not exclusively. “Lotus On Irish Streams” a meditative, acoustic number better fit the cliche of spirituality. These loud-quiet contrasts have been present through out McLaughlin’s career, begining with the devotional acoustic and avant garde sensibilities of his first recording, Extrapolation, through the dichotomy of Shakti and Electric Dreams.

The mistake we make is to type-cast spiritual music as acoustic, pastoral, reverent or reserved. Think of spiritual music that is not easily defined by these terms — Santana, Alice Coltrane, Charles Lloyd, the more fiery ragas played by Ravi Shankar — and its a simple matter to see that spiritual music, like spirit itself, can be all things, including intense, acutely rhythmical music.

John Coltrane’s solos on  A Love Supreme, possibly the most spiritual of jazz recordings, carry an intensity that expresses the yearning and the search of the seeker. Something like it is heard on McLaughlin’s latest, To the One, an electric jazz-rock outing that relies on tough drumming, tight vibrant bass lines, shimmering keyboards and its leader’s high-voltage electric transmission. Without McLaughlin’s explanatory notes on the inside cover — “The inspiration behind this recording stems from two sources: Firstly from hearing the recording ‘A Love Supreme’ by John Coltrane in the 1960’s (sic), and secondly from my own endeavors towards ‘The One’ throughout the past 40 years” —  listeners might think that the guitarist was making another turn towards jazz-fusion.

There’s less insistence and more acceptance on To the One than heard in the Mahavishnu recordings, electric or acoustic. From the recording’s opening bass slide and cymbal splash, the music is positive, serene and upbeat. There’s nothing here to suggest the path to The One is long, arduous or otherwise marked with temptation. It’s as if McLaughlin has already attained what he seeks and now is enjoying it.

The 4th Dimension  (not to be confused with the 5th) is McLaughlin’s most polished band. Much of its drive and cleanliness comes from bassist Etienne M’Bappe whose rich tone and detailed play are the fine line underscoring the proceedings. M’Bappe is something of a juggler, supporting every note from his bandmates and propelling it back into the air. His solos are busy, buzzing affairs filled with lyricism despite their speed. Drummer Mark Mondesir is crisp and tasteful, having the drive of Billy Cobham and the inventiveness of Jack DeJohnette. Keyboardist (and sometimes drummer) Gary Husband finds the right moods and tonal combinations to complement any direction the music might take. His accompaniment is smart and reflective, his chords often coming a step behind the lead as if to give them a split moment to sink in. His solos, especially the one on “Discovery,” are warm and sophisticated. Just when he seems ready to overstate his case, he finds a place of conviction, a sense of contentment.

McLaughlin brings a sense of joy to his play that reflects the recording’s attainment. Listen to him on”Special Being” as he spins and pirouettes like an accomplished gymnast. He gives a characteristic roughness to his tone on “The Fine Line” before sliding into a singing theme. “Lost and Found” is the disc’s most relaxed piece and its most beautiful. It’s resonating synthesizer backdrop and McLaughlin’s smooth synth-guitar tones give it a meditative feel heightened by M’Bappe’s repeated bass motif presented at different octaves.

The most spiritual of the six pieces on this short, 40 minute-plus recording, is the title tune. Husband’s clipped cymbal work (he doubles on drums for this number) accents McLaughlin’s synth strolls in a way that suggests idle contentment. In a nod to A Love Supreme, there’s some unison chanting over a drone at the end that suggests the journey isn’t yet over. Note how in his comments McLaughlin writes after “periods of indolence, doubt and even plain laziness” he hears the call of his soul and returns to his “inner ear,” not his inner being. We find this brilliant; the portal to enlightenment being the ear rather than the mind or the soul. It’s certainly the place where so much joy, so much beauty, so much knowledge has entered.–Cabbage Rabbit

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