|John McLaughlin’s latest album, “To the One,’’ was inspired by John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.’’ (Ina Mclaughlin)|
An homage from one master to another
John McLaughlin has been called a lot of things since his searing guitar work on Miles Davis’s seminal 1970 album “Bitches Brew’’ helped kick-start the jazz/rock fusion movement. With his blazing technique and lean, sinewy sound, he’s been dubbed a speed demon, a spiritual seeker, the ultimate shredder, and simply “the best guitarist alive’’ in the words of Jeff Beck, no six-string slouch himself.
Slowpoke isn’t usually on the list, but the compositions on McLaughlin’s latest album, “To the One’’ (Abstract Logix) sprouted from seeds planted in the mid-’60s by John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.’’ McLaughlin didn’t set out to write music inspired by the saxophonist’s magisterial spiritual masterwork, but after the tunes came to him in the middle of the night, he heard an underlying consonance with the four-part suite.
“I had no intention or idea or desire to make an homage, but the music came like that and reminded me of the marvelous event when I heard ‘Love Supreme’ for the first time,’’ says McLaughlin, 68, who performs at the House of Blues on Tuesday with his band the 4th Dimension. “It changed my life.’’
The British-born guitarist first expressed his passion for “A Love Supreme’’ on his collaboration with Carlos Santana, “Love Devotion Surrender,’’ opening their hit 1973 album with the suite’s first movement, “Acknowledgement.’’ While he had fallen under the saxophonist’s sway as a teenager, studying his breakthrough session as a leader, “Giant Steps,’’ and Davis’s epochal album “Milestones,’’ what struck McLaughlin most profoundly about “A Love Supreme’’ was Coltrane’s liner notes, a brief 270-word statement of abiding and sustaining faith.
“I couldn’t get the music at all at first,’’ McLaughlin says by phone from his home in Monaco. “But the poem got me very deeply. I was asking myself the big questions we all get to, about life and what it means and what am I and what is this thing we call God? This poem was so encouraging to me. I started to get the music about a year later. I don’t know why it took 45 years for it to surface this way. Maybe I’m a bit slow in the head. Coltrane is my guru, like Miles, and I still listen to them all the time.’’
Like Davis and Coltrane, McLaughlin has redefined himself so many times that his peers are still fruitfully working out the implications of projects he left behind decades ago. After moving to America in 1969 to join Tony Williams’s Lifetime, he quickly joined forces with the drummer’s former employer, Davis, who put the guitarist at the center of a series of increasingly dense and controversial albums, from the ethereal “In a Silent Way’’ to the churning funk of “A Tribute to Jack Johnson’’ and the layered, relentless grooves of “On the Corner.’’
He attained rock-star status with his first band, Mahavishnu Orchestra. When personality conflicts broke it apart, McLaughlin turned East, launching the pioneering Indo-jazz ensemble Shakti with tabla great Zakir Hussain, violinist L. Shankar, and percussionist T.H. Vinayakram. He’s composed a ballet score and a concerto (which was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas), arranged the music of pianist Bill Evans for guitar quartet, and continued his study of North and South Indian classical music, among numerous other undertakings.
Since signing with Abstract Logix in 2007, McLaughlin has concentrated on the 4th Dimension, a quartet built on the unusual tandem of British drummer Mark Mondesir and keyboardist Gary Husband, who’s also a gifted drummer. Cameroonian electric bassist Etienne M’Bappe, a longtime resident of Paris, replaced the band’s founding bassist, the French prodigy Hadrien Feraud.
“I first heard Etienne when he was playing with Joe Zawinul Syndicate and we became really good friends right away,’’ McLaughlin says. “He’s a great bass player who’s got his own thing happening. Gary I knew as a drummer with Allan Holdsworth. Then he sent me a copy of his solo piano album, which blew me away. So we have Gary playing keyboards, and I also love to have him and Mark playing drums at the same time. It’s a lot of energy and power, but they’re very sensitive with dynamics and they listen very carefully.’’
On Tuesday, McLaughlin performs as part of a double bill with labelmate Jimmy Herring, who’s touring with his own band while on break from his regular gig as Widespread Panic’s lead guitarist. Like other technically ambitious rock guitarists, he spent years coming to terms with McLaughlin’s mercurial legacy.
“I went through a period when I tried to play like him, which is an exercise in futility,’’ Herring says. “He’s re-created himself with nearly every album he’s made. Miles did that too. The depth of his music and catalog is astounding. He keeps going, trying different styles, different ideas, new instrumentation. He just doesn’t stop, and it’s so inspiring.’’
Andrew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.