John McLaughlin ‘Liberation Time’ LP/CD (Abstract Logix) 5/5

It’s an interesting title that John McLaughlin chooses for his latest album, “Liberation Time”. Written as a direct response to a world reeling from the effects of Covid-19, the legendary, pioneering guitarist uses his music to reflect on the social, spiritual and emotional toll of the virus, harnessing his own frustrations and redirecting his energy in a reflective, positive, and ultimately joyous way. I have always found McLaughlin’s music liberating. There’s an indefinable quality and uniqueness to the guitarist’s music, and whether I’m listening to The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti, collaborations with Carlos Santana and Jeff Beck, Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola, or any number of his solo and group projects, that feeling of spiritual awareness and musical freedom is ever-present.

In the autumn of 2020, as the reality of pandemic limitations set in, McLaughlin began work on “Liberation Time”. He explains it in a candid liner note as “an explosion of music in my mind.” Unusually for the guitarist, the album features different ensembles for different tunes. With physical proximity no longer a prerequisite, McLaughlin drew upon decades of experience as a bandleader to select specific musicians best suited for each composition. “This 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.” There are, of course, some mighty fine collaborations throughout this album. It has to be said though, that it is still McLaughlin’s own inimitable style that courses its way through the heart of this recording.

Mclaughlin explains the process: “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 with many other artists during the last 18 months, invention has become the mother of necessity, with the world turned upside down, musicians have also had to embrace change in order to continue working, at the very least.

The exciting, unflinchingly exuberant “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 virtuosity, all underpinned by Gary Husband’s subtle, expansive piano. Five minutes into the album and I already feel like I need to take breath. The beautiful, expansive “Singing of Secrets” allows me to do just that. The lyrical piano opening leads into a stylish, sumptuous tune, with the guitarist’s solo as this piece unravels its secrets, absolutely stunning. The intuitive camaraderie between the band leader and the members of his current ensemble 4th Dimension is inescapable. Bassist Etienne Mbappe and drummer Ranjit Barot join Husband and McLaughlin on the prog-rock, bluesy, fast-burning “Lockdown Blues”. While much of this album revels in the kind of spontaneous interplay that has been denied by Covid restrictions, some of the session’s most intimate and touching moments feature McLaughlin alone at the piano. “Mila Repa” and “Shade of Blue” offer thoughtful contemplation, like ‘haikus’, short distilled and poignant poems, here in a musical sense. 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 on drums, Jerome Regard on bass, Julian Siegel on tenor sax, and Oz Ezzeldin on piano. A highly expressive piece. “Liberation Time” the title track can be felt as visceral anticipation – a rousing glimpse into an unbound future rich with possibilities. With Sam Burgess’s bass holding things down, the track 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. Thrilling to the last.

“Liberation Time” is a product of its times, and while it clearly draws upon friendships and musical understanding from the past and present, it also open-mindedly looks positively to the future. As a listener, if you didn’t know this album was a transcontinental ‘lockdown’ recording, you would never guess. The performances are tremendous and it has to be one McLaughlin’s finest releases for a good number of years. 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? As McLaughlin concludes, “The wonderful thing about music is that you put the headphones on, and you are all in the same room.” Here here to that.

Mike Gates