John McLaughlin: The Heart of Things

John McLaughlin: The Heart of Things Live in Paris Verve

Miles Davis didn’t fire people. He came to an understanding with his band members: When it was time to move on, you did, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t come back. And consider the fruits of the diaspora from Davis’ group circa 1969 alone: Joseph Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report, Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi (and eventually the Headhunters), Tony Williams’ Lifetime and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, among others.

For fans of Yorkshire-born John McLaughlin, who played with all of the above players on the sessions that would eventually result in the landmark Davis albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the guitarist’s work in the Mahavishnu Orchestra represents the ne plus ultra of the electric guitar in jazz fusion. Mahavishnu’s first album, The Inner Mounting Flame, was fusion’s first big breakthrough success: all the crunch and power of rock, plus the sophisticated composition and improvisational play of jazz. The Mahavishnu Orchestra razed the convention of the jazz guitarist as a mild-mannered comp player once and for all, brought a classical violin into the fracas and treated fans of all camps overlapping in this musical Venn diagram to some of the most spectacular musicianship any of them had to offer. The Inner Mounting Flame has got it all: the fireworks, the pastoral calm, the lightning-fast runs and sensuous, expressive passages. In many ways, it’s the Bible of fusion—or, more appropriately, the Bhagavad Gita.

But, wouldn’t you know it, electric guitar just wasn’t what McLaughlin saw himself doing for the rest of his life, and following the dissolution of Mahavishnu he devoted himself to playing acoustic almost exclusively. No problem there; many of McLaughlin’s former associates in Miles Davis’ sphere of influence lived to live down some of the embarrassing cul-de-sacs fusion led them into. Revolutions liberate, but they can also build stylistic prisons for their architects. Anyone who has ever asked the question, “What could ______ have been thinking when he did that?” can see where a certain parsimonious streak might not be a bad thing at all, especially if the compulsive incorporation of new sounds eventually starts to sound routine, or, even worse, repulsive. Listened to Amandla lately?

But McLaughlin, ever the innovator, has also managed to avoid falling into the more conservatory attitude that grew out of the fusion backlash. Specific criticisms aside, there isn’t much in his catalogue of the past 25 years to suggest that the guitarist has found his creative plateau and stayed there or given in to nostalgia for his formative influences. And, happily, he isn’t just going through the motions with a bunch of sidemen who just kind of play the game and whom he can easily eclipse in the improvisational straightaways.

This much is obvious by the second song of Live In Paris, a French concert offering from his latest ensemble, the Heart of Things. He’s got players that stand up to him and make him work instead of cowering or just waiting it out to get back on their own solos; listen for the dizzying call-and-response that turns into a duel of fractal-like complexity between McLaughlin and keyboardist Otmaro Ruiz on the 13-minute “Mother Tongues,” a live staple from his older Trio ensemble. As for McLaughlin’s mostly-acoustic M.O.: there’s a really egregious ring modulator freakout halfway through “Acid Jazz,” the album closer, which is sure to infuriate many acoustic purists. Looks like McLaughlin—now almost 60—hasn’t started playing by the rules just yet.

James Wallace,Ghosts Dance at the FiestaJames WallaceGhosts Dance at the FiestaJawallapop (self-released)James WallaceGhosts Dance at the FiestaJawallapop (self-released)

James Wallace Ghosts Dance at the Fiesta Jawallapop (self-released)

James Wallace, like so many others, first got turned on to the exponential infinities of the six basic strings after hearing McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early ’70s, when he was “floored by McLaughlin’s virtuosity, by the ingenuity, energy and passion of McLaughlin’s compositions and improvisations.” Wallace set about collecting everything the de facto father of fusion recorded and also discovered other guitarists with similarly unique and personal musical visions, among them Pat Metheny, Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie. Parts of Ghosts Dance at the Fiesta do indeed recall McLaughlin in his more deliberately menacing moments, but the most cursory run through the album lets you know there’s a lot more going than fusion worship.

It starts on a strange enough note: a spoken-word capsule summary of Casablanca, of all things, which provides the appropriate context for “Waiting for Casablanca,” a Doorsy bassline bumping under a Methenian preview of guitar reveries to come, which—movie classics aside—might have sounded a little more at home on the soundtrack to The Falcon and the Snowman. “Todos Santos” follows with a lush arrangement for Latin guitar and percussion (one of many excursions into Latin contained herein), and the tense and foreboding “In the Shadow of the Volcano” lets loose with creepy-crawly minor key picking aplenty that gradually swells but stops just short of the expected pounding crescendo (that’s meant as a compliment, too—I should maybe mention here that I’m a big fan of denial in guitar music; that is to say, massive buildup without the obvious release).

Ably abetted by three of Missoula’s finest sessioneers—bassist Eric Hutchins, drummer Ben Koostra and percussionist Dick Ostheimer—Wallace has created a nice slab of local fusion with more subtlety than showboating flourish. The only thing is, you probably won’t catch this ensemble out anytime soon. Wallace devotes more time and energy to guitar instruction than live performance and keeps his profile on the local scene low to non-existent. No matter—listening to “Chimes in a Missoula Backyard,” at least you know right where he’s at.

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