John McLaughlin: Stardust On Your Sleeve

I am on record someplace saying "Stardust On Your Sleeve" is the most beautiful melody John McLaughlin ever wrote. The band that recorded Belo Horizonte, informally known as The Translators, was a mix of European jazz and classical players. And indeed, many of the tunes they recorded were beautiful. Though the compositions were very melodic, a lot of this beauty had to do with the instrumentation used. A ridiculous advertising campaign at the time claimed that McLaughlin was blazing a new trail by playing acoustic guitar with an all-electric band, which would have been more convincing if it had been true. The fact is that 90% of the music on the album was acoustic or acoustic sounding. There are heavy electronics on one cut at most. This was a fusion of a different sort. A lush European vibe filled the air.

I think it was John Scofield, the great jazz guitarist, who was once asked why he didn't play acoustic guitar more often. He replied that the answer was simple. He didn't play it because everyone sounded the same on acoustic guitar, except John McLaughlin. (If Scofield didn't say it, someone else did. And if someone else didn't, I am saying it!) No one plays acoustic guitar like John McLaughlin. He is capable of great speed or elegance, or both. He can play it gut-rough or with romantic clarity, as he does here. His tone and intent can be a calming influence one moment and a call to action the next. His ability to change directions and time-signatures in mid-flight threatens to put a wrinkle in the time-space continuum. He bends notes so far that he puts tensile-strength limits to the test. You get the point. He is a master.

McLaughlin opens "Stardust" with lilting runs that disappear into the ether. The drums enter and the tune suddenly becomes a slow blues swing with classical overtones. The band creates a fully textured wall of sound for McLaughlin and saxophonist Jeanneau to solo wonderfully against. Occasionally, McLaughlin and Jeanneau double on the theme. The character of "Stardust" veers slightly Brazilian or French as McLaughlin continues to lovingly deconstruct every scale known to man. The opening theme returns in all of its splendor only to fade away. If this recording were the only thing anyone ever heard of McLaughlin's work, they would think he was a great 20th-century romantic composer and classical guitarist. They would not even have a clue that he was improvising.

March 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, Paco De Lucia: Guardian Angel

The 1981 release of Friday Night in San Francisco marked a turning point, becoming arguably the most influential acoustic guitar record ever produced. Sure, the acoustic guitar had enjoyed some commercial popularity in the modern jazz era. There were Charlie Byrd, Laurindo Almeida and Antonio Carlos Jobim, though the last-named was better known for his composing. Those artists were more admired for the popular tunes they played than for their guitar artistry. One exception was the Brazilian guitar duo Los Indios Tabajaras. Those brothers could really play!

The Guitar Trio (McLaughlin, Di Meola & De Lucia) changed the thinking about acoustic guitar. Since this album's release, thousands of guitarists have tried to match its virtuosity. Even today, it is the standard by which all other jazz or world music guitar recordings are measured. Moreover, these musicians proved they could play unplugged and still appeal to young fusion fans. The album went gold.

"Guardian Angel" is a John McLaughlin composition that, unlike other tracks on this live album, was recorded in the studio. In many ways, it is superior to the live cuts. We hear it in a more pristine environment. The notes are cleaner. There are no distractions. Forlorn arpeggios are intertwined to create the introduction. The melody, parts of which are eventually played in triplicate and blinding speed and precision, is an intricate statement. Despite this, it is just not a blur of 128th notes. It is a fully realized emotional piece of music that returns often to a central theme. Of course these guys could play fast. There is no denying that we are in a wild race of some sort as they duel and cajole each other at 200 miles an hour. But the caution flag comes out often to get them back on the safe part of the track. Some have criticized the speed of the notes. While I agree that speed without melody or purpose is just a technical exercise, I suggest the real reason for this criticism is that the world is full of a million jealous guitar players. But it won't stop them from trying to play this stuff. Will it?

March 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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