The weeklong Jazzwise 20th anniversary celebrations kicked off in spectacular style last night. The word genius is bandied about far too often these days, but in the case of John McLaughlin, the epithet is undisputedly warranted for one of the world's most influential and inspirational guitarists/composers.
The two-night stint at Ronnie's comes at the end of an intense 10-date European tour. McLaughlin wanted the Ronnie's gigs to be the climax of the tour since the club is so very dear to his heart. As he explained in his interview in Jazzwise: "Ronnie and Ronnie Scott's-where would I be without them?... it's thanks to Ronnie personally that when I got the invite from Tony Williams in 1968, it was thanks to Ronnie that I was able to get the visa". The rest, as they say, is history. From being a member of Ronnie Scott's house band in the late 1960s McLaughlin's rise to world stardom was truly meteoric. He's travelled along many different paths during his amazing 50-year career but whatever course he has chosen to take, his music always seethes with passion, humanity and spirituality. His music is yin and yang, fire and grace.
McLaughlin and his regular band, the 4th Dimension, of Gary Husband (keyboards and drums), Étienne Mbappé (electric bass) and Ranjit Barot (drums), were on fire as they took the sell-out audience on a breath-taking musical journey that lasted over two hours without a break. McLaughlin's guitar technique at 75 is just as terrifyingly mesmerising as it was all those years ago when he took the world by storm with those Mahavishnu masterpieces of the early 1970s.
It was fantastic to hear the band revisiting the incendiary Mahavishnu material, the band erupting with two classics: "Meeting of the Spirits" from The Inner Mounting Flame of 71 and 'Miles Beyond' from Birds of Fire from 1973. From then on the set was a gloriously potent mix of old and new material. It wasn't all fast and furious fusion. 'Gaza City' from his Backlight album of 2015 had me in tears. A quiet prayer for those who suffered intolerably in the Gaza bombardment in 2014, it reminds us that this was just one example of man's obscene inhumanity to man. Indeed, the horrors go on unabated.
We need "love and understanding" to repair our screwed-up world as Rangit pleads in Abbaji, the melody simple, anthemic and immensely powerful. The band were in joyous flamenco mood in 'El Hombre que Sabia'. This tune was to be recorded with Paco de Lucia but sadly the virtuoso flamenco guitar legend left us three years ago. Here, the duet between McLaughlin and Husband on keys was awesome. In fact, Husband was incredible throughout the entire evening, whether he was behind the drums or at the keyboard. I don't think it's an over-statement to call Gary a genius as well as John. Mbappé and Barot were stunning too. What a band! I felt honoured to have been there.
We mustn't forget clarinettist Arun Ghosh and his band for their wonderful contribution at the beginning of the evening. They put the audience in a joyous mood before the main event, and Alex Garnett and the guys who bopped away until the early hours to send everyone home in a swinging mood.
– Geoff Eales
– Photos by Tim Dickeson