Spanning innumerable ensembles, hundreds of compositions, and thousands of performances, John McLaughlin’s wide-ranging musical journey is guided by an unflagging quest for transcendence — a tireless grasp for spiritual ecstasy that renders traditional, earthly boundaries irrelevant. For more than five decades, McLaughlin has deployed his peerless guitar technique, compositional gifts, and imagination in service of a deeply personal higher calling, forging a vast legacy unmatched in improvised music.
Thankfully, his journey is nowhere near complete — especially now when we need him most.
As the world reels from the social, emotional, and spiritual toll of the ongoing viral-induced global lockdown, McLaughlin reflects on both the perils and potential of this challenging moment with “Liberation Time” — his newest album, available July 16th on Abstract Logix/Mediastarz. In the fall of 2020, as the reality of pandemic limitations set in, McLaughlin commenced work on “Liberation Time” as a “direct response” (his words) to the mandated restrictions imposed by the spread of Covid-19. Characterized by both joy and reflection, “Liberation Time” finds McLaughlin harnessing his frustrations and redirecting that energy. “The result,” he explains in a candid liner note, “was an explosion of music in my mind.”
Unusual for McLaughlin’s recent projects, “Liberation Time” is not the work of one fixed ensemble. With physical proximity no longer a prerequisite, McLaughlin drew upon decades of experience as a bandleader to select musicians best suited to each composition. “That is a choice that can only be made correctly if you know how the musicians play,” he explains. “Not just how well they play technically, but how they play intuitively. Only then can you make the right decisions.”
Creating compelling, dynamic performances from contributors isolated around the globe required McLaughlin to draw from his years of experience as a producer, recording artist, and bandleader to set up parameters that would spark inspiration. “I have a certain experience playing drums, piano, and bass,” he says, “so it’s not difficult for me to create a session that not only gives the structure melodically, rhythmically and harmonically — along with the atmosphere of the piece. I set this up and send it to the musicians, giving very broad outlines of the piece, and ask them to be themselves in their improvisations and in the way they accompany the themes. Several pieces came back to me transformed, and I would then re-record my part in response.”
“As the Spirit Sings” introduces the album by contrasting churning rhythmic tension (stoked by drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Sam Burgess) with McLaughlin’s soaring guitar figures — all underpinned by Gary Husband’s subtle, expansive piano. While each musician recorded his part in their respective locales, the responsiveness of the performers is undimmed by distance.
Knotty post-bop figures form the basis of “Right Here, Right Now, Right On,” one of the most jazz-inflected performances McLaughlin has laid down in some time, featuring Nicolas Viccaro (drums), Jerome Regard (bass), Julian Siegel (tenor saxophone), and Oz Ezzeldin (piano). While his muse has led him down many stylistic avenues over the course of his career, McLaughlin is quick to cite his roots in jazz as a foundational element of his approach to this day. “We are all jazz musicians,” he says of himself and his cohorts on “Liberation Time”, “and there is much love between jazz musicians. All the musicians I invited to perform with me know that there will not only be collective playing, but they will have the possibility to express their individuality spontaneously. This is the great characteristic of jazz.”
When speaking of camaraderie, it is impossible to ignore the profound brotherhood that exists between the members of 4th Dimension — McLaughlin’s current ensemble, which includes Husband along with Etienne Mbappe (bass) and Ranjit Barot (drums). They are featured on the soul “Lockdown Blues,” a playful refraction examination of blues tropes first released last summer to benefit the Jazz Foundation of America.
While much of Liberation Blues revels in the sort of spontaneous interplay that has been denied by Covid restrictions, some of the album’s most touching moments feature McLaughlin alone at the piano — an instrument he has not recorded on since his 1973 collaboration with Carlos Santana, “Love Devotion Surrender”. Although brief, McLaughlin’s two piano features, “Mila Repa” and “Shade of Blue,” are by no means incomplete. “In my mind, the two pieces I play the piano on are like two short musical poems,” he says. “I’m very fond of the Haiku form of poetry — which is ‘distilled’ poetry — and this is how I see these two pieces. There are few notes and much space, as in the kind of poetry I enjoy. I include them to bring a particular feeling into the listener’s mind.”
With vaccination campaigns now in full effect and a more promising tomorrow coming into view, Liberation Time’s title track can be felt as visceral anticipation — a rousing glimpse into an unbound future rich with possibilities. With Sam Burgess’s bass holding the center, the cut culminates in a thrilling conversation between McLaughlin and longtime bandmate Gary Husband, who is heard on both piano and drums. Eventually bass and piano drop out, unleashing a riveting guitar/drum dialogue made even more astonishing by the fact that neither of the performers were able to make eye contact with one another.
“Liberation Time” is a product of its times, and yet it looks both forwards and backwards — at once drawing upon memories of better days gone and yet reaching for a new dawn. If the rhythmic innovations and intricacies of such past McLaughlin projects as Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti have demonstrated anything, it is that John McLaughlin seems time itself as pliable and open to interpretation. And if time is no barrier to his creative impulses, why should distance be? Looking back at the transcontinental sessions that resulted in “Liberation Time”, McLaughlin concludes, “The wonderful thing about music is that you put the headphones on, and you are all in the same room.”
Format: CD / Vinyl Cat No.: ABLX-065 Barcode: 700261486185
John McLaughlin (Guitar / Piano), Gary Husband (Drums and Piano) Ranjit Barot (Drums / Konokol), Vinnie Colaiuta (Drums), Etienne MBappe (Bass), Roger Rossignol (Piano), Jean Michel ‘Kiki’ Aublette (Drums / Bass), Nicholas Viccaro (Drums), Julian Siegel (Tenor Sax), Sam Burgess (Bass), Jerome Regard (Bass) and Oz Ezzeldin (Piano) .
1. As the Spirit Sings 5:22 2. Singing Our Secrets 5:13 3. Lockdown Blues 7:19 4. Mila Repa 2:29 5. Right Here, Right Now, Right On 7:26 6. Shade of Blue 1:33 7. Liberation Time 7:57
Recorded in Monaco, Paris, London, Cairo and Los Angeles.
“We are all jazz musicians, and there is much love between jazz musicians. All the musicians I invited to perform with me know that there will not only be collective playing, but they will have the possibility to express their individuality spontaneously. This is the great characteristic of jazz.”