Jazz Album Review: John McLaughlin’s “Time for Liberation” – Driven by the Spirit
By Michael Ullman
To my ears, veteran guitarist John McLaughlin is both a jazz and rock player, and more.
John McLaughlin, Release time (Logix Records Summary)
Although in 1963 he began recording frequently in London with Gordon Beck and Kenny Wheeler, John McLaughlin first recorded in that country in 1968 on Carla Bley’s wonderful project – she called it a Chronotransduction – the opera Escalator on the hill. He accompanied singer Jack Bruce on “Businessmen” and Linda Ronstadt on “Why”. Drummer Tony Williams, always on the lookout for the latest, seems to have drawn McLaughlin’s attention to band frontman Miles Davis. It’s McLaughlin’s soft scratching (Miles only told him to play something in E) that introduces the tune “In a Silent Way.. ” It is also McLaughlin who plays in a particularly dramatic way on Bitches Brew. One piece from this successful two-disc set – a cutout from a longer recorded work – is titled “John McLaughlin.Davis took some criticism (and fired it) for airing what many have heard as weird rock and roll, as well as for hiring McLaughlin. He replied, perhaps a little misleadingly, to journalist / drummer Don DeMicheal: âI didn’t use John as a rock playerâ¦ but for special effects. John is no more a rock player than I am a rock trumpeter.
To my ears, McLaughlin is both a jazz and rock player, and more. There’s the McLaughlin who plays lovely solo versions of Charles Mingus’ elegant “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” and “My Foolish Heart” ballad, but also rocks the insistent and somewhat rock “The Dance of Maya.” before it somehow turns into a Chicago blues. I hear both sides of McLaughlin on his new album, Release time. The record is his provocative, even at times joyful, 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 musical creation. His response turned out to surprise the guitarist: âThe result of this frustration was an explosion of music in my mind, which led to this recording. This would not have been possible without the enthusiasm of the musicians, their immense talents and their close connection to The Spirit. “
The latter prompted him to call up 11 different musicians and link various combinations of these players with compositions he had already sketched out, often by playing various parts himself. Wherever they are, musicians record their parts and solos in reaction to the initial plot. Sometimes McLaughlin would change his songs in response to what he heard. “The wonderful thing about music,” he concludes, “is that you put on the headphones and you’re all in the same room.” What is also wonderful is that the listener quickly forgets how the music – recorded in Monaco, Paris, London, Cairo and Los Angeles – was performed. Release time seems consistent.
The recording begins with the cheerful “As the Spirit Sings”, with pianist Gary Husband (who sometimes, it seems, also plays drums), bassist Sam Burgess and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Its simple and pleasant theme is boldly enunciated by McLaughlin, who takes the first solo. If there is a flaw in the song, it is that the guitarist’s solo flight ends abruptly to allow Mari to take over. The pianist’s generally boppish solo goes in interesting harmonic directions. For once, I would have liked a solo to be longer. The title, “The Hour of Liberation”, is another quick tune: a simple descending phrase is repeated and then pulled down. The trio includes Mari and Burgess. McLaughlin’s sound is somehow tighter when in his relentless mode – long strings of notes end with a screeching cry. (He sometimes stops his frantic activity to catch his breath.)
On “Lockdown Blues” McLaughlin uses the melody, made up of long tones, as a flexible springboard for fast runs. We get a more intimate McLaughlin on his two solo piano pieces, âShade of Blueâ and âMila Repaâ., ” the latter named (I believe) after a Tibetan master, yogi and poet. These Zen pieces strike me like melancholy fragments. McLaughlin is no virtuoso pianist, but the simplicity of these solos – even his amateurism – is touching after the exuberant technical demonstration of some of the other pieces. Miles could have called these monologues special effects. There must have been times over the past year when even someone as relentlessly optimistic as McLaughlin was sad, maybe even depressed. These abrupt pieces may have been inspired by these moments.
Michael ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan, from which he earned a doctorate in English. 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 places. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling and others have appeared in academic journals. For more than 20 years, he has written a bimonthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also criticizes classical music. At Tufts University, he mainly teaches modernist writers in the English department and the history of jazz and blues in the music department. He does not play the piano well.