John McLaughlin’s ‘Thieves and Poets’
What is it?
‘Thieves and Poets’ is the continuation of guitarist John McLaughlin’s forays into orchestral writing and performance…this is McLaughlin’s second major commissioned work. Orchestrated by one of McLaughlin’s former students, Yan Maresz, ‘Thieves…’ is presented in three movements, each section representing a period in McLaughlin’s “musical journey through life��?, according to the liner notes…
Another thread in McLaughlin’s rich musical tapestry is continued on the disc also. Four arrangements of standards, piano pieces in tribute to Bill Evans (‘My Romance’), Herbie Hancock (‘Stella By Starlight’), Chick Corea (‘My Foolish Heart’), and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (‘The Dolphin’), are presented by McLaughlin, the Aighetta Guitar Quartet, and bassist Helmut Schartlmueller.
What it is:
McLaughlin shows no signs of slowing down…his playing is as playfully garrulous and as effusive as ever, and his chops, while not gaudily displayed, are omnipresent throughout this superb disc.
As the liner notes mentioned describe, the music presented here is the culmination of McLaughlin’s lifetime of study and practice, and represents, if not the compositional pinnacle, at least the artistic and emotional zenith…thus far….of his work…McLaughlin has shown a tendency throughout his career to always supplant his own handiwork with successively finer efforts…the hallmark of a truly evolving musician….’Thieves…’ does so admirably.
‘Thieves and Poets’ features the compositional gifts of McLaughlin more so than his technical abilities…those expecting guitar histrionics need to look to elsewhere. Familiar themes crop up throughout the first 2 movements, rendered into broad harmonic sweeps by the delicate romantic touch of erstwhile student Maresz, accomplishing exactly what the duo set out to do…reintroduce the significant, characteristic motifs, encapsulate and synopsize McLaughlin’s harmonic development, and remind the listener that first and foremost John McLaughlin is a composer of breadth and depth.
The First Movement perfectly captures the essence of McLaughlin’s earlier period, presenting challenging modulations, rhythmic subterfuge (marvelous pizzicato strings add an exciting dimension) and a Mahavishnu-esque feeling of harmonic irresolution and discord, masterfully.
I was reminded of the ‘Live at the Royal Albert Hall’ recording throughout; the First Movement captures the same sense of Romanticism intermingled with abandon prevalent on that disc.
Maresz’s use of orchestral timbres (particularly the horns and woodwinds) to extend harmonies, punctuates the root movement, adding color and an exuberant, often poignant element to the dense voicings given to the string section. The ‘solo’ sections, featuring McLaughlin’s comping under the violinist, provide a glimpse into what the Mahavishnu Orchestra must have sounded like live during the ‘Apocalypse’ tour…it also made me wonder what the John McLaughlin Trio could have sounded like with the same treatment…imagine McLaughlin on the Albert Hall recording sans guitar synth but with a real orchestra…!
Maresz orchestrations are sparse enough to allow a feeling of spontaneity to pervade the piece, and he deftly incorporates percussion elements (particularly cymbals) in a sympathetic, decidedly non-Western fashion, acknowledging Mclaughlin’s jazz roots without resorting to overtly ‘jazz’ rhythmic devices…
The Second Movement begins reflectively …I was again reminded of the Royal Albert Hall recording (the intro to ‘Blues for LW’ specifically) as McLaughlin’s guitar somberly introduces the melody, followed by the entrance of menacingly languid strings and melancholy winds…the use of modulations in both minor and major thirds emphasizes the air of ‘New World’ mystery…this is compositionally the most unified and resolute of the three sections in my opinion, articulating profoundly the ache of a burgeoning sense of thematic development combined with restraint…absolutely gorgeous…
The Third Movement’s call and response introduction portends the rhythmically aggressive direction that McLaughlin’s music has taken recently, particularly with his ‘Free Spirits’ ensemble…the orchestral answers to his fiercely articulated fretwork are a perfect foil…I have to marvel at how dignified McLaughlin’s music sounds when it is arranged in this manner…the energy of his playing is intensified by Maresz’s stentorian elocutions, and yet the overall beauty inherent even in McLaughlin’s most prickly chromatic or altered excursions is lent a mesmerizing sheen of harmonic profundity that emphasizes the notion that not all that is foreign to Western ears is unlovely…
I must mention McLaughlin’s guitar playing at this point, no doubt conspicuously absent from my soliloquy…it has been analyzed loquaciously elsewhere from a technical standpoint, so I will mention only that it is no less astonishing than ever before, and his burnished tone juxtaposes grandly with the sound of the orchestra…’Thieves…’ is less about the guitar than it is about the compositions…
Finally, the standards presented here are beautifully arranged and played, but they do not belong on the same disc as ‘Thieves and Poets’…the protocols and priorities of the record industry notwithstanding, ‘Thieves…’ should have been focused on the piece itself; the piece-meal addition of the guitar renditions detracts from the impact of the disc…I would love to have seen a packaging of the ‘Mediterranean Concerto’ (again minus the extraneous piano selections on the original recording…as beautiful as they were, they too were incongruos) with ‘Thieves and Poets’. That would have been an interesting opportunity for study…especially if the George Martin produced orchestral pieces from ‘Apocalypse’ and Michael Tilson’s ‘Visions…’ selections were added as bonus tracks!!!
Rating: 10-/10 (the minus is for the ungainly pairing mentioned in the preceding paragraph)
‘Thieves and Poets’ succeeds in ensconcing the finest elements of John McLaughlin’s compositional skills within the confines of instrumentation and arrangements that provide the harmonic reinforcement and extension that his previous efforts have hinted at…
How glorious the overtones must have been when this was performed!