Roy Haynes: Satan's Mysterious Feeling

After nearly 25 years of unrelenting playing and touring as a sideman to the stars, Roy Haynes changed course a bit come 1970, opting to run the first longstanding band of his career, The Hip Ensemble. It was an adventurous amalgamation of straight-ahead acoustic swing, avant-garde leaning improvisations, and intense, chugging funk. The group exposed the talents of tenor player George Adams, who would soon join forces with Charles Mingus, and trumpeter Marvin Hannibal Peterson, who would go on to play in Gil Evans's illustrious big band.

"Satan's Mysterious Feeling" is a fun, funky fusion track, complete with acoustic-horn front line, electric piano, and layers of percussion beneath Haynes's syncopated, 16th-note based groove. Haynes's choice to either leave space or add accents to the groove lends a funk/rock legitimacy to both the tune and the group, bringing to mind similarly conceived grooves by rock/fusion masters Tony Williams, Steve Gadd and Jack DeJohnette. With Haynes, Peterson, and Adams present, this track works as an honorable representative of 1970s funk/fusion, rather than the possible precursor to jam-band dullness it might otherwise have been.

March 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Manitas D'Oro (For Paco De Lucia)

"Manitas D'Oro" (hands of gold), dedicated to Paco De Lucia, is not to be confused with the famous flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata (hands of silver). Nor should it be associated in any way with Walter Kolosky, aka Manitas de Tin.

Years ago the Guitar Trio, featuring John McLaughlin, Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meola, was on a world tour. At the last moment, Di Meola cancelled out on a gig in South America. This news was announced to the audience just before show time, and those wishing refunds could leave the venue. No one left. Who would even think of it? On top of that, reviews claimed it was a better concert without Di Meola. Those comments were not meant to disparage Al. Rather, they pointed out that sometimes three guitarists create a situation in which there "were too many cooks." Everyone also recognized that McLaughlin and De Lucia had a special rapport above and beyond the trio's interrelationship. Personally, I prefer jazz quartets over quintets because I can listen more closely to the components of the music. The same theory applies here.

"Manitas D'Oro" is a typical McLaughlin/De Lucia excursion. The two meld jazz and flamenco seamlessly. Because the tune was written for Paco, the flamenco elements dominate. McLaughlin's composition is a touching ballad. At times it even comes across as a Spanish lullaby. The two players race up and down their respective fretboards like nobody's business. But it is the somehow gentle beauty of these speed runs that catches your attention. They are not assaults or excuses to show off. In one lyrical passage after another, the players demonstrate that musical cultures can come together through understanding and virtuosity. This was recorded early in the history of McLaughlin's and De Lucia's collaborations. Brilliant as this performance is, it still only hints at the future.

February 26, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Zamfir

This band, casually known as The Translators, is perhaps the most unsung of John McLaughlin's groups. After he switched record labels from Columbia to Warner Bros. in 1980, Belo Horizonte was his first release. The attendant advertising campaign implied that, despite McLaughlin playing acoustic guitar, the band was more electric than it really was. Of course that did not affect the musical quality, but I wonder how effective the campaign was, since this beautiful album failed to register on any scale or chart I was aware of. It seemed to appear and disappear overnight. Time has passed, and its brilliance is now acknowledged by many McLaughlin fans and guitar aficionados.

A sophisticated European jazz elegance permeates this album. The understated lush ballad "Zamfir" exemplifies that elegance. A short lyrical introduction is presented. McLaughlin and keyboardist Francois Couturier provide the gentle backdrop for the lovely bass of Jean Paul Celea. It is masterful playing of a touching theme. A slow, almost samba-like jazz swing takes over, mostly courtesy of drummer Tommy Campbell. McLaughlin now solos in the center channel. The melody is based on a few simple notes that he exploits to their limits. What a beautiful harmonious sound. At the time, McLaughlin gave several interviews about his new direction. He said he wanted to show the beauty of the acoustic guitar. In his long career, McLaughlin has put out many great acoustic-guitar albums. Musically, some are better than and some not as good as Belo Horizonte. But for the pure beauty of what an acoustic guitar can sound like, nothing matches this album. "Zamfir" is further proof that the best sounds on this earth are the most natural.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Waltz for Katia

"Waltz for Katia," written for John McLaughlin's love at the time and keyboard player in this band, has a fun Gypsy spirit running through it. McLaughlin does his usual stuff on acoustic guitar. You know … he bends time, alters dimensions, and things like that. I would have liked to hear him play this piece with Stéphane Grappelli. That is not meant as a slight to Augustin Dumay. He plays fantastically on this cut. The honoree herself plays an impressive section of piano runs. Although Katia Labeque was a world-renowned classical pianist, jazz wasn't her bailiwick. She did not improvise in McLaughlin's band. John wrote all of her music out as if it were improvised. It is quite remarkable to listen to. I must also mention that this performance contains a John McLaughlin career guitar-playing highlight. At the 2:46 mark, he defies all the laws of space, time and gravity, the axioms of propulsion and momentum and the Pythagorean Theorem.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Fallen Angels (live)

"Fallen Angels" had appeared on this band's previous studio recording The Heart of Things. I have a small complaint with the tone, and thus the mix, of John McLaughlin's guitar. I think it should have been sharper and louder. It gets lost in the unison lines with saxophonist Gary Thomas. You can still hear a hint of McLaughlin, and the lines played together are hauntingly beautiful. Maybe that is what he had in mind. You know the ensemble thing? I guess it is a little issue, but I felt I had to mention it.

This is an outstanding fusion album, and "Fallen Angels" is one of the reasons. The long intro is really a wonderful soundscape. McLaughlin and Thomas take turns playing fluttering notes amidst the electric textures of bassist Matt Garrison and keyboardist Otmaro Ruiz. Dennis Chambers remains patiently subdued, working only brushes and cymbals. (That could be Victor Williams as well.) The true head of the arrangement appears. "Fallen Angels" becomes a melodic dirge. Chambers loses patience and begins hitting loud accents. The band sounds almost like a revving engine. Yet even as the power builds, the tempo slows. That's unusual. McLaughlin takes a pensive solo. You can hear him fine here. The band leaves lots of open space, providing plenty of room to fit everything into our ears. The music is now almost a whisper. But a few heavy strikes from Chambers bring back the volume and the tension. This live cut is a good representation of the song, but doesn't do justice to the intense dynamics in the venues I attended.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Shin Jin Rui

John McLaughlin and saxophonist David Sanborn have known each other for many years. Three decades ago, Sanborn appeared as special guest on two of McLaughlin's albums, Electric Guitarist and Electric Dreams, and has jammed with him on stage. In 1995 McLaughlin invited Sanborn back into the studio for this performance. As best I can determine, "Shin Jin Rui" is the Japanese equivalent of "Generation X." Why McLaughlin would refer to it is beyond me. Perhaps there is a deeper meaning in Japanese or Zen culture.

The tune begins with the sounds of a babbling brook and singing birds. McLaughlin and Sanborn play the somewhat dark and mournful intro in unison. They know how to mesh. The other musicians provide a cautious subterranean mood for reinforcement. The tune begins in earnest. It is a more hopeful blues shuffle with a touch of funk. Sanborn solos first. He can play the pop stuff, straight-ahead jazz, and hang in there with the best of them on fusion pieces. After a percussive section featuring the superb duo of Chambers and Alias, McLaughlin enters. It is a good solo that would have been better without the ring- modulator. But he gets the point across as even Sanborn begins to play with distortion in the calls and responses that bring us to the end. You can't go wrong listening to music made by McLaughlin, Sanborn and band. It may not be easy to discover what "Shin Jin Rui" means. But it is easy to define this music as good.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: No Return

I have been dreading writing this review. But the time has finally come. I must listen to "No Return" again. In the last 20 years, it has been my least favorite John McLaughlin composition and performance. I'm sure it was fun imitating Miles Davis's voice at the beginning, and endlessly repeating the catchy funky riff on the keyboards. I know it was cool to hear organist Joey DeFrancesco play trumpet just like Miles Davis too. The overly talented DeFrancesco can really do that. No doubt the special-effect voices and noises also added to the joy of creation. McLaughlin's solo is undeniably hot. The interplay between the two players is understandably tight because of their familiarity in The Free Spirits. All the elements for a joyous result are in place.

Alas, the decision to play the same fun but simpleton riff over and over throughout the entire song was not good. I would be happy to rate this 7-minute track a 90 if they had cut out most of that repeating riff and left the good stuff. (The new tune would have only been about 3 minutes long, however.) I cannot deny the superior musicianship here. For that reason alone, it is a noteworthy performance that deserves attention from skeptics. And in fact I have had arguments with those who think this is a fantastic piece. To them I say only that the irritating riff at the core of this cut is my Telltale Heart. For me, the title of this tune is an order I shall henceforth obey.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Thelonius Melodius

John McLaughlin's Free Spirits featured Dennis Chambers on drums and Joey DeFrancesco on organ. It was the standard B-3 organ jazz trio format that McLaughlin had always loved. Of course, this trio was different. The playing was more aggressive (read that as fusion) and music from a wider swath was played. I like the B-3 sound okay, and DeFrancesco is a killer player. But I have my limits on the instrument. Yet more than that, McLaughlin's guitar tone was so similar to DeFrancesco's organ that when they played together you couldn't hear McLaughlin. In concert this was less problematic because you could see, but it was still there. This performance of "Thelonius Melodius," recorded during the band's Blue Note gig that yielded their Tokyo Live, was not included on that earlier album. I suspect this track was mixed differently, since you can hear McLaughlin much better!

"Thelonius Melodius" is a whirling blues romp that in many ways harkens back to McLaughlin's Tony Williams Lifetime days. There are stops and starts, sudden minor chord progressions that take the piece off center, plenty of unison playing, and energetic calls and responses. The only thing missing from the Lifetime sound is the distortion. McLaughlin can be clearly heard on this cut. It was always such a shame to know that he was playing something fantastic yet we couldn't quite hear it on the Live album. The interplay between Chambers, DeFrancesco and McLaughlin is at telepathic levels. The Free Spirits was far from my favorite McLaughlin band. Still, they were killing. Ironically, if this performance had been on Tokyo Live it would have been the album's best cut.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: The Divide

Live in Paris is a candidate for best fusion album of the 1990s. John McLaughlin made sure he had the drummer he needed to lead such a powerful band: Dennis Chambers. McLaughlin also chose rising bass star Matt Garrison, son of legend Jimmy Garrison, to hold the floor boards down. The original keyboard player Jim Beard was unavailable for this tour, so McLaughlin invited wizard Otmaro Ruiz to take his place. Then there was saxophonist Gary Thomas. McLaughlin called him "revolutionary." I listened and wasn't so sure. I am still not. Is he a brilliant player or just average? It is possible that seeing Thomas in performance may have tainted my opinion. He is a hulk of a man, but barely moves during performance. I never get the feeling he is enjoying himself. But I am 100% sure of a couple of things. You can't be a slouch and be invited to play with John McLaughlin! And Gary Thomas wrote the most dramatic composition on Live in Paris.

"The Divide" is downright nasty. The opening unison salvos from Thomas and McLaughlin are bad intentioned. Nothing but doom could come from these gnarled patterns. Thomas solos first, in a halting fashion sometimes plumbing the depths of despair. Okay. He is pretty good here, I must admit. He continues, caught in a whirlpool and being pulled down fast by the textures and rhythms surrounding him. At solo's end, the band revisits the opening theme, which now firmly has you in its grasp. Chambers and Garrison keep this drama on the road. I do not like it when John McLaughlin runs his guitar through a ring-modulator, but the ugliness of "The Divide" calls for it. It sounds terrible. He is grinding meat bones with grizzle still attached. Let's get farther down! Then we are thrown for a loop. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Playing great synthesizer, Otmaro Ruiz enters the bloodbath determined to raise everyone's spirits. It is fun – for a minute or two. But Ruiz knows what tune he is playing on. Fun now becomes fear. Ruiz builds tension that can only be released by the reemergence of the master melody. And here it comes, just in time. Another moment or two, and we might be considering suicide. Even so, we would die exhilarated and happy.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Seven Sisters

"Seven Sisters" opens the very fine Heart of Things album Live in Paris, the first time many people heard the band performing live. Their previous studio album, The Heart of Things, had disappointed some fans, who were bothered by two main issues. First, there seemed to be a concerted effort towards an ensemble sound. Second was the ongoing issue of John McLaughlin's guitar tone. Lots of fusion folks didn't like it. That would include yours truly. It seemed too warm and muted. There wasn't enough bite. And McLaughlin was all about bite! Add the first to the second and you had an album on which McLaughlin took few solos, and the ones he did take were hard to hear! So, as you can imagine, longtime fans approached Live in Paris with trepidation.

Luckily, most of the concerns proved unfounded. McLaughlin's tone still wasn't the best, but it had been vastly improved. The live setting also improved things because musicians had more space to fill. There were more solos all around.

The opener comes complete with gentle McLaughlin and Otmaro Ruiz's keyboard arpeggios. Saxophonist Gary Thomas plays a nice melody above them. A Chambers smashing drum cues the band into a fusion groove. The tune has all the things you expect from a McLaughlin-led band. There is tight unison playing, twists and turns and meter changes, trading at breakneck speeds, explorations at a snail's pace. Both McLaughlin's and Thomas's solos are surprisingly restrained. Nonetheless, they are cleverly part of a slowly building tension that is almost imperceptible. This is how great musicians can control time. The band goes from control to frenzy and then to peaceful resolution. "Seven Sisters" hit just the right notes to whet the appetite for what was to follow. Old fans sighed in relief.

February 25, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Django

Guitarists John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck are great friends and admirers of each other's fretwork. Beck, who is only a few weeks away from being inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame as I write these words, has a rich history going back to the '60s and the Yardbirds. He was a pioneer of the English rock guitar sound along with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. McLaughlin, who would be in a Hall of Fame if they had one that covered all of the subgenres he has helped create, was in England the same time as Beck, but was part of the British R&B and jazz movement that was quite distinctive from the British Invasion and London pop scene. Beck was getting bored with music in the early 1970s. Then, while in the band Beck, Bogart & Appice, he heard McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. The next thing you know, Beck is playing jazz-rock with Jan Hammer and Narada Michael Walden and selling millions of records! Beck's and McLaughlin's bands began to tour with each other. The two guitarists would close out most shows with a guitar jam.

John Lewis, the sophisticated pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet, wrote the beautiful jazz standard "Django." The composition is a fragile piece with a slightly swinging midsection. It became part of the MJQ's repertoire and has been covered many times. But I can assure you it was never covered by two electric guitar fusion gods until its appearance on McLaughlin's The Promise!

Keyboardist Tony Hymas provides a textural background as Beck plays the main melody. McLaughlin adds some accents behind him. What a sound Beck gets! It is gorgeous. He is more than just a guitar player. He is an amazing interpreter who knows how to shape his sounds. That slightly swinging midsection has been transformed into a blues vamp. It rocks and it rocks hard. This isn't a swing, it's a seesaw. Drummer Mark Mondesir and bassist Pino Palladino make sure of that.

It is McLaughlin's turn to play. The first impression is one of disappointment. You are not quite sure you like his guitar tone or the direction of his playing. This is an understandable reaction because you just heard the beauty of Beck's efforts. But soon you realize McLaughlin is building. You will be fully on board by solo's end. Beck is the yin and McLaughlin is the yang. They must sound different to create tension. Fantastic tradeoffs ensue. In the hands of these distinct, historic and powerful guitarists what was once a demure but impressive Modern Jazz Quartet staple has been turned into a fusion blues rave-up. No one wore a tux when they recorded this piece.

February 24, 2009 · 1 comment

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John McLaughlin: Where Fortune Smiles

Saxophonist John Surman wrote the title cut for Where Fortune Smiles. He and John McLaughlin had shared lead playing on McLaughlin's previous recording Extrapolation. That album has now become part of British jazz folklore. Many people believe it is the greatest jazz record ever recorded in England. People don't feel the same about Where Fortune Smiles. Perhaps they will in a 100 years. Who knows?

Strangely, Surman does not appear on the cut. The song is the most melodious music on the recording. Vibraphonist Karl Berger is the tune's gentle provocateur. He plays the understated theme and does the soloing. His sound is quite beautiful. His dynamics are nothing short of lovely. McLaughlin strums jazz chords and provides the occasional accompanying flourish. McLaughlin's jazz chords and occasional accompanying flourishes are like nobody else's. The combination is a winning one. This is a charming duet and provides a brief respite from the mostly unrelenting free jazz on the rest of the album.

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Wayne's Way

"Wayne's Way" is John McLaughlin's tribute to Wayne Shorter. Dennis Chambers's backbeat and Zakir Hussain's insistent rolling tabla rhythm serve as the song's intro and constant backdrop. Keyboardist Gary Husband adds color while bassist Tony Grey lowers a deep anchor. McLaughlin and Italian saxophonist Ada Rovatti play a unison riff consistent with the spirit of Shorter's being (i.e., somewhat strange but engaging). The music's sound and feel, though not its melody, are similar to McLaughlin's composition "Fallen Angels," which he performed with saxophonist Gary Thomas on The Heart of Things about a decade earlier. Rovatti, a fine player, and McLaughlin take edifying solo turns.

John McLaughlin has put tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and fusion power drummer Dennis Chambers together on several occasions. At midsection here, the two percussionists go into orbit. Their hands, feet and fingers fly so fast, they require no rocket fuel for takeoff. (I once asked Dennis Chambers about this performance with Hussain. He said that they have still not come close to what they are capable of doing together rhythmically. That is a truly scary thought!) As the two masters pound away at terminal velocity, McLaughlin and Rovatti share some dastardly riffs. The guitarist then takes a solo that is part melodic exploration and part rhythmic demonstration. He matches every lightning-quick beat with a note. It is a phenomenal display of musicianship. The opening riffs return in double time and double time again. "Wayne's Way" has reentered the atmosphere. Splashdown!

February 24, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: New Place, Old Place

Vibraphonist Karl Berger's curious riffs call for an answer. Guitarist John McLaughlin quickly responds. Saxophonist John Surman adds an exclamation mark. Drummer Stu Martin and bassist Dave Holland add their own punctuation. This is going to be a cool piece. Then, to the horror of any grammarian, all semblance of form and structure is quickly abandoned. There are no rules left. There is interesting noise for a few minutes. After that? Get me out of here!

But wait, we are being saved by a hint of the opening riff. It means safety to us at this point. Here we go! Alas, it is not enough. We are left hanging by our sliding-down-a-chalkboard-fingernails to get through this thing. What's worse, we are not even midway into the tune! The call-&- response patterns of the cool riff return again. It is again an interesting sound. Still it is not enough to rescue this music.

These are all great players, yet the music just doesn't work. As a standalone piece, uninfluenced by outside issues, "New Place, Old Place" would have no place in my CD player. But of course there are outside issues. This song rates a 75 only because there is value in hearing how these influential musicians were trying to find their way. Clearly, this is one journey of discovery from which they never returned. But great failures can be as important as great successes. There are seeds scattered in this performance. You just have to get down on your hands and knees with a sifter to find them.

February 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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John McLaughlin: Earth Bound Hearts

This slow, melancholy ballad is one of only two straightforward jazz cuts on Where Fortune Smiles. It is performed in duet by guitarist John McLaughlin and saxophonist John Surman. The two had quite a history with each other, which among other things included their critically acclaimed collaboration on McLaughlin's Extrapolation. McLaughlin would eventually rise to superstardom. (That fame resulted in the re-release of this record under his name. In reality it had been a group project.) Surman's fame would become notable as well, but was limited to the European side of the pond. Their empathy and mutual understanding comes through every note and measure of this performance. Even though "Earth Bound Hearts" was written by McLaughlin, he never takes a solo turn. Instead he offers dark and sad shadings to help Surman deliver his lament. Where Fortune Smiles is not easy to get comfortable with. "Earth Bound Hearts" would be more at home on many other McLaughlin or Surman albums. Here it is a strange but welcome visitor.

February 22, 2009 · 0 comments

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