Scintillating Live 1978-2016 Live Performances From John McLaughlin Represented in ‘John McLaughlin: The Montreux Years’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Unlike some of the Montreux Years series, of which this is the fifth installment, John McLaughlin: The Montreux Years presents six different bands and/or configurations as opposed to one continuous concert, as it marks the iconic guitarist’s performances from 1978 through 2016.  Fans will immediately recognize that these are all date later than the early days of the fusion pioneering Mahavishnu Orchestra although another incarnation of that group does appear in his 1984 performance. Rest assured that there is plenty of jazz fusion and electronic pyrotechnics in this 2-LP/single CD collection but the primary draw for this writer, and likely many, are his two scintillating duet performances with the late flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia. Unfortunately, his band Shakti and his collaboration with Carlos Santana are not here, however. Nonetheless, there’s plenty of stimulating music from his One Truth Band, The Free Spirits, The Heart of Things, and the 4th Dimension in addition to the ‘80s era incarnation of The Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The album unfolds almost chronologically except that The Mavahishnu Orchestra begins followed by 1978’s One Truth Band. The first track, “Radio Activity”, has saxophonist Bill Evans, keyboardist Mitchel Forman, bassist Jonas Hellborg, and drummer Danny Gottlieb, all going at full throttle behind Gottlieb’s thunderous beats to create glorious jazz fusion that hearkens back to the band’s original ‘70s sound with Evans and Forman filling the original spots occupied by violinist Jerry Goodman and keyboardist Jan Hammer.  The One Truth Band features L. Shankar (violin), Stu Goldberg (keyboards), T.M. Stevens (bass) and Woody “Sonship” Thomas (drums) in a more improvised piece that combines fusion, funk, and traditional jazz forms in “Friendship,” complete with pulsating basslines, more frenetic drumming and exhilarating solos from McLaughlin, Shankar and Goldberg.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra returns for the more contemplative, ethereal “Nostalgia,” which begins with Forman’s keyboard intro, making way for Evans on soprano before engaging in a call-and-response dialogue with the keyboardist. McLaughlin eventually enters, carrying the melody while Evans and Forman, now on Rhodes, comps.  The sound that each draws from his respective instrument is uncanny, with the synth, soprano, and guitar tones almost interchangeable. The piece builds in intensity before receding again into spacey tones – in all, a gorgeous piece. The Heart of Things band from 1998 bring the ebbing, flowing, and at times warped fusion workout, in 13 electrified minutes of “Acid Jazz.” Sections of the piece create rather intriguing soundscapes but around the nine-minute mark, McLaughlin delivers a blurring series of notes, echoed by the other players who are keyboardist Omaro Ruiz, drummer Dennis Chambers, percussionist Victor Williams, saxophonist/flutist Gary Thomas, and bassist Matthew Garrison. So, these first four pieces essentially present the now legendary fusion side of McLaughlin’s artistry. 

“David” is the first duet between McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia who takes the primary lead role to McLaughlin’s acoustic strums and fills, before making his own glowing statement in the latter half – a fascinating display of guitar mastery that becomes even more riveting in the second piece, “Florianapolis,” which goes through several tempo changes, some at mind-numbing speed. These are 23 to-die-for minutes.

Another nice surprise awaits (we are taking you through the LP order while the CD order is slightly different) with The Free Spirits (a trio with Joey DeFrancesco on organ and trumpet, and Dennis Chambers on drums) from 1995 in “Sing Me Softly of the Blues.” It begins with McLaughlin’s intro and some soft organ accompaniment, both of which reach the boiling intensity (despite the title) pushed by Chamber’s thundering drumming and crashing cymbals. DeFrancesco also begins his solo slowly before building to the combustion point.

McLaughlin ends by playing a piece written by Paco de Lucia but never recorded – “El Hombre Que Sabia.”  This is the most recent of the selections, tracing to 2016 with The 4th Dimension (keyboardist Gary Husband, bassist Etienne M-Bappe, and drummer Ranjii Berot. You’ll hear Mclaughlin make lightning runs of his electric akin to de Lucia’s acoustic lines with Husband switching back and forth from synths to acoustic piano reflecting the guitarist’s runs. The sustained note at the end is the perfect close to these wonderful selections from McLaughlin. As with all the Montreux series albums, the sound is immaculate – true ear candy in every respect. 

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