A Review of John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension’s “To The One”

John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension: To The OneWow! This is the record I was hoping for: John McLaughlin letting rip within a band context.

To The One is a passionate sonic blast. McLaughlin, bassist Etienne Mbappe, and drummers Mark Mondesir and Gary Husband set up in one room on the studio for a live recording with keyboard added by Husband. McLaughlin is now playing with musicians who grew up as fans of his music but the sidemen don’t show over-respectful restraint here. Thankfully McLaughlin also eschews restraint for once too, to burn over some grooving bass and a polyrhythmic barrage of drums.

At 68, McLaughlin has released the third of a series of recordings that have captured increasing intensity. Industrial Zen had some wild moments, the acclaimed Floating Point combined his Indian musical influences with a jazz-rock approach and the gifted Hadrien Feraud on bass. This project serves as a response to John Coltrane’s seminal, spiritual A Love Supreme. It is musically and spiritually influenced by that record, and it is destined to be regarded as one of McLaughlin’s best.

Etienne Mbappe is the third bassist to have taken the low-end spot in this line-up after virtuosi Dominique DiPiazza and Feraud. Mbappe’s earthy, grooving approach suits the band well, grounding the polyrhythmic bombast of the drummers and Husband and McLaughlin’s intense soloing. Not that Mbappe is not technically superb but that he focuses his lines and solos around the momentum and propulsion of the band, offering a beautifully tones and limber anchor role. The Cameroonian Mbappe plays a good deal of fretless on this record and plays it beautifully.

Mbappe, influenced by the many fine bassists of his native Cameroon, is one of a number of phenomenal bassists currently based in Paris: Linley Marthe, Hadrien Feraud, Dominique DiPiazza, Michel Alibo – it’s a list to rival any city. Arriving in the rich Parisian musical scene Mbappe made quite a stir and later found gigs with African superstars Youssou Ndour and Salif Keita – while playing with Keita, Mbappe met Joe Zawinul who hired him on the spot. He played on Faces and Places in 2002 with the brilliant Paco Sery on drums.

British musicians Mondesir and Husband have long been fans of McLaughlin’s music. Mark Mondesir played Billy Cobham influenced odd meter fusion with his brother, bassist Mike and guitarist Mo Nazam and has played with a who’s who of British jazz: notably with Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, Cleveland Watkiss and The Jazz Warriors and with Kevin Eubanks among others. Gary Husband, who Dennis Chambers has cited as an influence has played and recorded with a large and diverse number of musicians: Jeff Beck, Level 42, Gil Evans, Geoffrey Keezer, Christian McBride, Allan Holdsworth, Colin Towns and his own trio. Husband even recorded a fine piano solo record of McLaughlin compositions

John McLaughlin was there at the birth of fusion and his playing on Extrapolation, Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire and with Miles Davis and Lifetime really moved me. I loved Shakti too. There have been some fine McLaughlin musical moments since (After the Rain for example) but so often found I have found his recordings too tasteful for my preferences and have heard so many records I was willing him to let go and just play – wild and free. This is that record! I was also struck by the beauty of McLaughlin’s guitar tone here. It lacks the raw edge of his 70s electric tone but it’s a beautiful, intense sound with a lot of depth to it.

As soon as I heard the first few notes of the opener “Discovery” I knew this one was a keeper, I was relieved to hear the passionate music on display and the quality of the Coltrane-influenced theme. The drummers keep up a responsive but relentless intensity, Mbappe adds greasy slides and slinky, nimble bass and Husband adds stabs of electric piano as McLaughlin plays a wonderfully intense, Coltrane influenced solo. There is no holding back and there was a tear in my eye at the emotional impact of the track. McLaughlin and Husband (in a sparkling piano solo) use motifs extremely well in another nod to A Love Supreme. Another written section emerges, this time bass and guitar in unison as the drums swirl. Mbappe takes centre stage for a splendid groove based solo before the theme returns. Then, the cherry on the cake – a lovely nod to all the Trane-Elvin duets as there is a brief impassioned drum/guitar duel.

Special Beings” nods to Coltrane’s extensive exploration of improvisations in meters based on 3/4. The bassist and drummers produce a relaxed swing and McLaughlin produces another fine melody before Husband plays a beautifully phrased solo on electric piano – his keyboard playing is a major positive part of this record’s success. McLaughlin’s notes are gorgeous as he squeezes every drop of melody out of a choice few before embarking on a series of Carnatic Indian influenced guitar runs. Every one of his notes seems expertly crafted though – even in his sheets of sound with individual notes seeming to have their own precise architecture.

The Fine Line” has a fabulous theme with a real edge to it with distorted guitar in unison with bass over rolling drums and expansive keyboard chords. After the riff, Mbappe and the drummers settle into a hugely swinging 7/4 pulse where Husband gets to play the first solo before the riff returns to turn up the heat (as the drummers pile layer upon layer on top of the riff in a thrilling section) before McLaughlin plays his Trane influenced sheets of sound and builds a fine expressive solo.

McLaughlin has been experimenting with flute-like guitar synthesiser since Mahavishnu in 1984. “Lost and Found” features the guitarist’s melodic flights with such a sound accompanied by some sumptuous fretless bass from Mbappe. The track functions as a respite amongst a succession of full on, high volume improvisations. Mondesir plays a lovely, subtle swing over a long 11/4 meter and Husband adds atmospheric synthscapes and a piano solo rich in motif development and heavy with McLaughlin’s influence. McLaughlin’s guitar synth has become receptive enough for him to finely craft his notes and he plays melodically. The melodic writing and improvisation ensure it will be regarded as one of McLaughlin’s best. Perhaps the choice of a flute-like tone is influenced by the virtuoso Indian master Hariprasad Chaurasia whom McLaughlin has played with, it is certainly an expressive voice.

Recovery” returns to the maelstrom. It has a blues influenced structure and a headlong intensity reminiscent of “Resolution” from A Love Supreme. McLaughlin and Mbappe play a tricksy unison theme over the drum-whirlwind and swirling electric piano chords before the gloved bassist (Mbappe wears silk gloves to protect his strings from acidic sweat) lays down another groove-based solo, short and sweet – especially sweet when he solos over a figure that McLaughlin adds on guitar. Husband plays an exciting synth solo over a rhythm which is like the mutant offspring of fast swing and hard funk. McLaughlin’s solo adds to the intensity sounding, as so often on this record, like he’s having fun!

The record ends with the superbly melodic “To The One” – sapphire bullets of pure melody! McLaughlin returns to the guitar synthesiser to play the simple melodic cells that recur throughout the piece in an echo of “Acknowledgement”. Husband plays a bouncing, shifting polyrhythmic swing drum pattern as the guitarist explores the potential of the melody. Then, a guaranteed smile-raiser for McLaughlin fans, the band quote the chordal pattern of “Lila’s Dance” under Husband’s relaxed solo. There is another nod to “Acknowledgement” as the band play, and later voices sing a chanted melody to take the album out.

As a record intended to be a tribute to Coltrane and a spiritual outpouring, it works. Listening to the music the overwhelming sense the listener gets is of the unrestrained joy in the performances. This sense of four musicians having fun balances (and adds to) the seriousness of the intent to make a spiritual record and ensures that it’s a life-affirming, joyous spirituality that is captured here.

Highly recommended!

To The One is available at Amazon.

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