By Mike Finkelstein
On Wednesday night UCLA Live presented John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension to a hugely enthusiastic if not quite capacity crowd at Royce Hall. This was an opportunity to get a glimpse of a cornerstone figure in the jazz/rock/fusion field and, moreover, of a man who puts his music on a vigorous and composed high level at age 68. He is clearly still pushing himself musically as the rest of the band appeared no closer than about 30 years from his age. The show demonstrated just how easily four players, each with enough chops to fill the room by themselves, could streamline their approach for a wonderfully balanced ensemble sound.
Having come to prominence as the featured guitarist with Tony Williams’ Lifetime and on Miles Davis’ forays into blending jazz and rock — In A Silent Way, On the Corner, Bitches Brew and Big Fun – McLaughlin has been a legendary guitar icon and one of the true leading edges in fusion. His technique is one of tempered dexterity — legendary for its precision and the clarity in his lines. In his personal life, he has always sought out ultimate truths, inspiration, and a high level of spirituality. All of this was there for us to experience on Wednesday.
Clad in black dressed-up-casual clothes the four players strode confidently across the large Royce stage to a setup that appeared rather unusual. Guitar, bass, drums, and keys adds up to four, but they clearly also had an entire extra set of drums. As it turned out, the 4th Dimension’s Gary Husband is both an amazing keyboardist and drummer — so good, in fact, that several times he seamlessly switched in mid-song from keys to drums or vice versa. Drummer Mark Mondesir played an athletically elegant style of drums, and when he and Husband shared drum duties their lines contrasted beautifully
Bassist Etienne M’Bappe of Cameroon, played through a traditional stack of bass amp and cabinets, and his bottom end actually sounded a bit murky for much of the evening, though it did not bleed into any of the other registers. He appeared to be using some sort of muted red flat wound strings on his bass as well as wearing black silk gloves on both hands, ostensibly to keep his sweat off the strings, but they quite likely muted the sound further. His technique was impressive, largely avoiding the temptation to pop and growl the bass as so many other players will do. Instead, he played long, smooth, flowing lines on his five stringed instrument and several times went impressively in unison with McLaughlin.
Throughout the evening one had to marvel at the clarity of the 4th Dimension’s sound. Every instrument had a lot of room in the mix to be heard, particularly in the middle to upper registers where the guitar and keyboards reside. You really could hear the subtlety and nuances that McLaughlin and Husband, in particular, were laying out for each other.
Conspicuously absent for a guitar legend’s live show was … a guitar amplifier! Apparently, McLaughlin was sending the guitar signal through his pedal board directly into the PA system using only monitors onstage to hear the band’s mix.
McLaughlin himself was the real focus of the evening. Light on his feet and with an extraordinary look in his eyes, he seemed delighted about having all the room to move about the stage and shifted from one roost to another. At times he stood to either side of the stage and at other times next to the keys or bass, but not for long at center stage.
With all of his repositioning, everyone got a pretty good look at his hands and there were, of course, more than a few guitar nerds gloriously soaking it all in. Mc-Laughlin is perhaps ground zero when it comes to jazz/rock fusion guitar playing. On tunes like “Dissident” he would play quick, short lines beginning or ending with a lunge downward on the vibrato arm. It’s no secret that Jeff Beck, among many guitar luminaries, reveres McLaughlin’s style. One could clearly hear the trademark licks and phrasing that inspired Beck to use them as a departure point for his own style.
McLaughlin has always been known for mixing beautiful chord progressions with dazzling speed and his work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra is legendary for this approach. While he did play very fast at times Wednesday he never came close to having the speed factor interfere with his expressiveness. His runs came in flurries, ascending scales, vaulting crevasses in the sound, and then cascading elaborately and ergonomically down to resume vamping chords with the band.
Each piece he played with the 4th Dimension was instrumental and, although the titles of such pieces don’t often reveal much, there was one that did on Wednesday. It was called “New Blues” and it had a driving, almost ZZ Top-like bass line to it, a very bluesy thump. But the chords that fleshed the song out did not move like a blues at all — far from it. The bottom end rhythm of the tune was familiar and bluesy, but above the beat there was no blues form, just an ethereal set of chords and the sound of the rarefied air. Still, the juxtaposition of that beat with those chords was delightfully clever.
On Wednesday night John McLaughlin maintained the high level of spirit and musicianship that people have always associated with him. The 4th Dimension, a powerhouse set of elite players, pushed their leader and themselves to some very inspired and synergistic musical positions. Walking out of Royce Hall, the audience had to know they had seen music on a level not often reached.
Photo of John McLaughlin and 4th Dimension by John Bouchet