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Monday, September 20, 2010

JOHN McLAUGHLIN: TO THE ONE — Fusion the Way We Used to Like It

At its peak, jazz-rock fusion was better than just fast-and-loud, but fast and loud was part of it.  Hey, I was a teenager during those days, and if I was going to spend a good chunk of my listening time on jazz rather than Led Zeppelin, then I was going to need some crunch and danger.

Guitarist John McLaughlin—he of the Mahavishnu Orchestra—usually satisfied.  The Inner-Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire still sound good to me today.  But, other than his duet album with Carlos Santana and his work with Shakti (his acoustic band, playing a different kind of Indian/fusion), the rest of McLaughlin's work has been hard to love.

2010, however, brings a return to the driving fusion of the early Mahavishnu days.  To the One, featuring a new-ish band called The Fourth Dimension, is the old searing McLaughlin, back with speed and excitement but still some intelligence.  My review is up on PopMatters today.

Other McLaughlin's wonderful guitar, the recording features outstanding keyboard work by Gary Husband.  Using acoustic piano, Rhodes, and synth sounds, he gets everything right.  That Husband is also one of two over-the-top drummers on the date just dazzles all the more.  Not every jazz fan is going to be with me one this—this is a real '70s fusion date, with some of the indulgence associated therewith—but it is the real thing, not some watered-down smooth jazz syrup.  McLaughlin sees the album as a contemporary offshoot of Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and you can hear it in the way the players surge and sing in their playing.  It's exciting, but the playing comes from a well of desire.

I'm not a fan of McLaughlin's use, on To The One, of guitar synthesizer.  This gizmo makes his sound generic and cold.  That he uses the devise on a couple of ballads just makes it worse, as these are tunes where the flesh-on-string sound could have been that much better.

But mostly I like To The One.  I like it better than anything Johnny M has done in decades.  It comes darn close to making me feel 16 again—130 pounds, full head of hair, living in New Jersey and still with a small crush on Barbara Feldon from Get Smart.  The power of music, huh?


  1. Kezz, A Cream PersonMarch 31, 2011 at 6:52 AM

    Loved what you said here. I have no idea why JM has persisted with his use of guitar synth for so many decades now. I have never heard a single person say they liked it's effect - and published comments have always been negative. I rate JM as the best guitarist that ever walked the planet - but genuinely despise the insipid squelches that eject from that synth module - it turns the bite of his playing to the weakly spewed pulp of a a half chewed, long forgotten, rotten watermelon that you suddenly trod on in back street Bogota whilst wearing a brand new pair of havaiana flip flops. There, I think that captures it.

  2. Kezz, tell us how you REALLY feel about JM's guitar synth playing! ;-)

  3. The question I always have is: what makes so man of these great guitar players fall hard for the guitar synth? Metheny loves it too. It robs these guys of their musical personalities, but there must be something intoxicating about it. Any theories about why JM and other brilliant guitarist seem to desire the plastic-sounding "expansion" of this?

  4. I think dismissing most of JM's catalogue outside of MO and Shakti is a bit harsh; The One Truth Band were utterly awesome (especially live) and the MO quartet were monstrous too. Mahavishnu has it's moments, but then you probably wouldn't like it because of the synth guitar. I still think Radioactivity is a definite MO track. The HoT live in Paris has got some crunch to it and if you don't rate Jazz Jungle off the Promise as great fusion, there's something wrong with you IMHO :-)

    When you've shredded until there's no shredding left to do (check out the fabulous Noonward Race from the Mar-y-sol Festival album), then you want to go for richness and texture. Synth players have it, so why shouldn't guitarists be able to access all those sounds ? I could watch JM rip it up all day on Les Paul but you can see that the man gets bored very quickly with all that, and either goes acoustic, (which he has done on many occasions) or synth to get a different texture and tonal palette.

    The only guy for me who has come anywhere near getting that intensity out of his music and sound is Scott Henderson. Allan Holdsworth also sounds great with synth sounds although his style is altogether different from JM and hasn't really done any serious distorted shredding since Soft Machine days.

    Nice review though Will and anyone who still supports and promotes JMs music is a friend of mine.