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 fusion of jazz, classical, blues, flamenco 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 in the Shepherds Bush Music & Video Exchange. 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.
Next stop for John was a tour with The Translators, an excellent studio album with Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia, and then the aforementioned return to Mahavishnu, reuniting with Billy Cobham. Needless to say, that would be another hard sell for the critics…