John McLaughlin Trio: Live At The Royal Festival Hall 30 Years On

Recorded 30 years ago, Live At The Royal Festival was the beginning of John’s live career in concert halls rather than ‘rock’ venues, at least as far as the UK goes.

I’m not sure why I wasn’t at this gig, but, in those days, even major shows could easily go under the radar. If it wasn’t listed in Time Out or The Wire, you could easily miss it. Or maybe I was just turned off by the lack of ‘stars’ appearing with John.

Which was a big mistake, because this album introduced two monster players, both hitherto unknown to UK audiences. Bassist Kai Eckhardt was yet another miraculous bass find for McLaughlin, apparently fresh out of the Berklee School of Music. Trilok Gurtu brought the best aspects of American jazz and fusion playing but also rhythmic concepts and sounds from his native Mumbai (including a water bucket and tablas). In short, he was a perfect fit for McLaughlin.

It had been a weird few years for the guitarist, closing down Mahavishnu for good, duetting with bassist Jonas Hellborg and guitarist Paco De Lucia but also recording the fabulous Mediterranean Concerto which was finally released in 1990. So his return to the acoustic guitar had thus far been a partial success, but Live At The Royal Festival Hall was the beginning of an acclaimed trio that lasted nearly three years (though weirdly it doesn’t appear to have made it to streaming platforms yet).

The album starts slowly but gets better and better; a gentle take on Miles/Bill Evans’ ‘Blue In Green’ is nothing special but demonstrates John’s rich, Gil Evans-inspired chord concept. Adventures In Radioland tracks ‘Florianapolis’ and ‘Jozy’ are quite superb, beautifully rearranged for the trio. When Gurtu lays into the half-time shuffle on the latter, it’s one of the great bits of modern fusion drumming.

His ‘Pasha’s Love’ is an intricately-arranged version of a track on an impossible-to-find Nana Vasconcelos live album. But the album’s centrepiece is ‘Mother Tongues’, the debut of a tune which is a mainstay of John’s live sets to this day. The only disappointment is the over-extended ‘Blues For LW’, almost derailed by some dodgy group vocals, Gurtu beatboxing and throwaway references to ‘Are You The One?’ and ‘Miles Beyond’.

Eckhardt didn’t stick around for long after this gig, for undisclosed reasons – Dominique Di Piazza came in, yet another Jaco-influenced chops monster. But Trilok stayed on for the decent 1992 studio album Que Alegria. Then it was time for another change – John’s forte.

Gig Review: John McLaughlin @ Barbican, 23rd April 2019

If this was John’s final London gig, what a way to go out. Though the audience’s response was at times reverential and/or strangely undemonstrative, the outpouring of emotion at the conclusion was heartfelt and seemed to come as quite a shock to the performers too.

It’s hard to think of another ‘jazz’ band which has endured for so long with the same personnel as The 4th Dimension. This unit (McLaughlin – guitars, Gary Husband – keyboards/drums, Etienne M’Bappe – bass, Ranjit Barot – drums) has toured the world and elsewhere since 2010, playing a fiery mix of jazz, rock, blues, Indian, old-school R’n’B and industrial.

Tonight was no exception, though there was a much larger dose of spiritual jazz than usual, courtesy of not one but two Pharoah Sanders covers: ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ and ‘Light At The Edge Of The World’. You could take or leave the slightly dodgy band singing, but the message of love and understanding was powerful and still relevant.

One can also take or leave John’s guitar tone these days (sometimes one wishes for a far less ‘refined’ sound), but his playing sounded back to its brilliant, fluid, lyrical best tonight, a little like his return to the electric in 1978 after the long acoustic sojourn in Shakti. And if the mood of the evening’s music was generally uplifting, with new takes on the frenetic modern classic ‘Hijacked’, Mahavishnu favourite ‘Trilogy’ and raunchy ‘Echoes From Then’, ‘Gaza City’ was heartfelt and touching, a lament for a lost place.

Just a few gripes: one occasionally hankered after another soloing foil for John, an L Shankar or Gary Thomas; this music asks a hell of a lot from Husband and Barot. Also, listening to the latter’s ‘hit everything all the time’ ethos (though his konakkol vocal/rhythmic interludes are always fascinating), one realised what a tasteful, selective drummer Dennis Chambers had been during the ’90s organ trio/’Heart Of Things’ era.

John started the evening heralding a slight return not to Great Britain but to ‘Great Brexit’, and ended it with a gentle: ‘You’re all one. Thank you’. A powerful, important concert, especially if we don’t see him on a British stage again.

John McLaughlin: Music Spoken Here 35 Years On

WEA Records, released August 1982

Bought: Shepherd’s Bush Record & Tape Exchange, 1990?

8/10

All great artists with any kind of career longevity have very distinct periods, and John McLaughlin is no exception. Apart from his mid-’60s output, the early 1980s (let’s face it – the whole of the 1980s… Ed.) is probably his least understood/appreciated era.

McLaughlin had moved to France and formed a new band occasionally known as The Translators featuring a top-class American drummer (Tommy Campbell) and otherwise French unit including his new paramour, the outrageously talented keyboardist Katia Labèque.

His music too had turned away from electric jazz/rock and moved towards a gentler – but still intense – fusion of jazz, classical, blues, flamenco, Indian and Latin music, centred around the acoustic nylon-string guitar.

I was a major John completist in the late ’80s/early ’90s but didn’t have a clue Music Spoken Here even existed until chancing upon a vinyl copy. You’d be hard pushed to find it in any jazz reference book these days; it’s virtually been written out of his discography. Some would say with good reason, but to these ears it’s one of the nuttiest, most piquant albums of John’s career.

At times you can feel him edging again towards the Mahavishnu reunion which happened a few years later in ’84, reaching for the Les Paul on a few cuts and pushing the drums and synths higher in the mix. But in its own way, and considering what else was going on in the jazz world at the time (Wynton, Branford and the Young Lions traditionalists) Music Spoken Here is as shocking an album as The Inner Mounting Flame.

‘Blues For LW’ is the album’s centrepiece, a thrilling, richly-chorded tribute to the Polish activist Lech Welesa with a neat quote from Miles Ahead and completely insane Chick Corea-meets-Rachmaninoff synth solo. ‘Honky Tonk Haven’ is brilliant too, a cacophony of early hip-hop beats, modal keyboards and a killer guitar/synth melody line borrowed from the Shakti track ‘Get Down And Shruti‘. You’ve gotta think that Miles would have dug it.

The cover of Egberto Gismonti’s ‘Loro’ may be taken a tad too fast but the arrangement kicks ass. Elsewhere, the album is full of sunny, fresh, cosmopolitan grooves, with frequently outrageous guitar and keyboard playing – the latter way too high in the mix though.

Music Spoken Here was another two fingers up to the purists of the music world, and another artistic success. It reached #24 on the US jazz album chart, a reasonable return but not exactly a big hit for an artist of his magnitude. It’s crying out for a remaster though, one of the muddiest-sounding records of McLaughlin’s career. The Translators played live on and off during summer 1982 too (see below).

Next stop for John was a so-so trio album with Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia, and then the aforementioned return to Mahavishnu, reuniting with Billy Cobham and also adding Bill Evans, Jonas Hellborg and Mitch Forman. Needless to say, it would be another hard sell for the critics…

My Mahavishnu Moment

South-West London, 1986: after a short apprenticeship playing pots and pans, I had been given a very cheap kit by my parents and was taking my first steps towards the world of ‘serious’ drumming (yeah, right… Ed).

I was also fast becoming a major jazz/rock fan, buying the new Weather Report, Mike Stern, Billy Cobham, Lyle Mays, John Scofield and Steps Ahead cassettes from HMV on Oxford Street or my local Our Price in Richmond.

mahavishnu

One evening, my dad had my uncle round for one of their regular music-listening sessions. I gatecrashed. They cranked up the Plastic Ono Band, Santana, Monk and Miles while I sat in on a knackered Spanish guitar.

And then this other tune came on. A massively-distorted, strangely exotic riff crawled out of the speakers. All the conversation abruptly stopped. My adolescent, ‘muso’ brain kicked in – was it Hendrix? Miles? Zappa?

The riff moved through various modes, ascending into a wailing, chromatic guitar and violin crescendo, and then dropped dramatically to the main theme again. And then that drum groove…

Already being a huge major Billy Cobham fan, I had heard bits of Mahavishnu, mainly the mid-80s incarnation featuring ex-Miles sax player Bill Evans and bassist Jonas Hellborg. I was also aware of John McLaughlin’s playing due to his guest spot on Stanley Clarke’s incredible Journey To Love album (though didn’t know it was him on ‘Song To John’ until years later).

But this was different; striking, unhinged, dangerous, downright perverse. ‘The Dance Of Maya’ blew my mind and its otherness hits me just as hard today as it did 30 years ago. Cobham’s 6/8-flavoured groove sounds just as hip and surprising as ever.

Anyway, I was in: I came across a Mahavishnu Best-Of on cassette at my local Our Price, and a whole new world of music opened up. It was time to go back and explore the roots.

Message To The Jazz Police: John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu’s Adventures In Radioland

john mclaughlin

Polygram Records, released October 1986

7/10

I first heard brilliant guitarist John McLaughlin as a very impressionable 15-year-old when I stumbled across the unsettling, brilliant ‘Dance Of Maya’. I was instantly fascinated, excited and intrigued by the Yorkshireman’s soundworld.

Since then I’ve explored every aspect of John’s prodigious career, from his early days on the ’60s UK session scene, through his time with Miles, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti, right up to his current jazz/rock quartet.

But Adventures In Radioland, the second album from the ’80s reincarnation of Mahavishnu, was released in probably the least-heralded era of John’s music, a time when jazz and fusion seemed to be going in diametrically opposite directions and decent record deals were hard to come by (although he was still a big live draw).

john mclaughlin

With hindsight, it seems the mid-’80s popularity of Pat Metheny was having a huge influence on many instrumentalists and John was no exception; the decade was full of guitarists utilising synthesizer technology and looking to Brazilian songforms for inspiration (an obvious example is Al Di Meola’s Soaring Through A Dream).

But McLaughlin’s take on Metheny was far more raunchy, rooted in bebop and the blues (though the bridge of ‘Floriannapolis’ sounds suspiciously like Metheny’s ‘James’).

And what a shocking record Adventures In Radioland was coming from a mainstream jazz artist, a two-finger-salute to the Young Lions neo-bop boom represented by the Marsalis brothers et al.

John seemed to be going out of his way to annoy the jazz purists but in doing so produced some material of worth. Like some of the best fusion music of the ’80s, its deceptively slick production obscures some pretty radical improvisations.

Is the album title wishful thinking? Is this John’s idea of ‘smooth jazz’, designed for radio play? If so, he must be living in a parallel universe because this is one of the weirdest albums of his career. But, as he said himself in a 1996 interview with Guitar Player magazine, ‘Without madness or fantasy, music’s boring’. This album sure ain’t boring, especially if you’re a guitar fan, but devotees of The Inner Mountain Flame may struggle a bit…

John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg

John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg

Opener ‘The Wait’ luxuriates in pleasant synth washes and a gorgeous chord sequence for a while before McLaughlin grabs the Les Paul and unleashes one of his most intense solos over quite a funky little R’n’B bass vamp.

‘The Wall Will Fall’ fuses a gargantuan blues riff with nutty Simmonds drums fills, and McLaughlin’s furious solo over high-speed bebop changes is both funny and exhilarating.

‘Florianapolis’ initially steers dangerously towards Metheny territory with its breezy, major-chord cod-Latin groove and nasty DX7 synth sounds. But before you know it, McLaughlin has ripped into an absolutely outstanding acoustic solo, full of rhythmic/melodic risk-taking.

‘Jozy’ is a dramatic, swinging tribute to Joe Zawinul, beautifully marshalled by drummer Danny Gottlieb with some outstanding fretless bass work from Jonas Hellborg.

‘Gotta Dance’ comes on like a fusion Mr Bungle, rattling through mellow acoustic guitar, big-band jazz, Mark King-style slap bass and industrial drums all in the space of four minutes. And ‘Half Man Half Cookie’ is even weirder, a kind of post-Scritti Politti pop/funk groove interrupted by yet another incongruous big-band interlude from a multi-tracked (or sampled?) Evans.

But the mid-’80s Big Drum Sound is generally overbearing and sometimes detrimental to some fine music. McLaughlin regrouped after this album and played the nylon-string acoustic exclusively for a few years, and it’s not hard to see why – with a few notable exceptions. Adventures In Radioland is hard to find these days but worth seeking out.