By Michael Ullman
To my ears, veteran guitarist John McLaughlin is both a jazz and a rock player, and more besides.
John McLaughlin, Liberation Time (Abstract Logix Records)
Although in 1963 he started recording frequently in London with the likes of Gordon Beck and Kenny Wheeler, John McLaughlin first recorded in this country in 1968 on Carla Bley’s wonderful project — she called it a Chronotransduction — the opera Escalator Over the Hill. He accompanied vocalist Jack Bruce on “Businessmen” and Linda Ronstadt on “Why.” The drummer Tony Williams, who was always alert to the latest thing, seems to have brought McLaughlin to the attention of band leader Miles Davis. It’s McLaughlin’s gentle strumming (Miles only told him to play something in E) that introduces the tune “In a Silent Way.” It’s also McLaughlin who plays particularly dramatically on Bitches Brew. One of the pieces on that blockbuster two-record set — a cutout from a longer taped work — is entitled “John McLaughlin.” Davis took some flack (and returned it) for putting out what many heard as weird rock and roll, as well as for hiring McLaughlin. He responded, perhaps a little disingenuously, to journalist/drummer Don DeMicheal, “I didn’t use John as a rock player … but for special effects. John’s no more a rock player than I’m a rock trumpet player.”
To my ears, McLaughlin is both a jazz and a rock player, and more besides. There’s the McLaughlin who plays ravishing solo versions of Charles Mingus’s elegant “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” and the ballad “My Foolish Heart,” but who also rips through the insistent and somewhat rock-oriented “The Dance of Maya” before it turns somehow into a Chicago blues. I hear both sides of McLaughlin on his new album, Liberation Time. The disc is his defiant, even occasionally joyous, response to the Covid lockdown. In his notes, the guitarist is determined to be positive. He found himself irritated by the pandemic’s necessary restrictions on music-making. His response turned out to surprise the guitarist: “The result of this frustration was an explosion of music in my mind, which led to this recording. It would not have been possible without the enthusiasm of the musicians, their immense talents and strong connection to The Spirit.”
The latter moved him to call 11 different musicians and to link various combinations of those players with compositions he had already sketched out, often by playing various parts himself. Wherever they were, the musicians recorded their parts and solos in reaction to the initial framework. Sometimes McLaughlin would change his pieces in response to what he heard. “The wonderful thing about music,” he concludes, “is that you put the headphones on, and you are all in the same room.” What’s also wonderful is that the listener soon forgets how the music — recorded in Monaco, Paris, London, Cairo, and Los Angeles — was performed. Liberation Time sounds coherent.
The recording begins with the upbeat “As the Spirit Sings,” with pianist Gary Husband (who sometimes, it would seem, also plays drums), bassist Sam Burgess, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Its simple, pleasing theme is stated boldly by McLaughlin, who takes the first solo. If there’s a flaw in the track, it is that the guitarist’s soaring solo ends abruptly in order to allow Husband to take over. The pianist’s generally boppish solo goes off in some interesting harmonic directions. For once, I wished a solo had been longer. The title cut, “Liberation Time,” is another quick-moving melody: a simple, downward moving phrase is repeated and then tugged lower. The trio includes Husband and Burgess. McLaughlin’s sound is somehow tighter when he’s in his relentless mode — long strings of notes end in a shriek. (He does stop his frenzied activity on occasion to take a breath.)
On “Lockdown Blues,” McLaughlin uses the melody, made up of long tones, as a flexible springboard for swift runs. We get a more intimate McLaughlin on his two solo piano pieces, “Shade of Blue” and “Mila Repa,” the latter named (I believe) after a Tibetan master, yogi, and poet. These zen-ish pieces strike me as melancholic fragments. McLaughlin is no virtuoso pianist, but the simplicity of these solos — even his amateurism — is touching after the exuberant technical display of some of the other tracks. Miles might have called these monologues special effects. There must have been times over the past year when even as relentlessly optimistic a person as McLaughlin was sad, perhaps even depressed. These brusque pieces may have been inspired by those moments.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.