When the history of the jazz guitar is written, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin is sure to have a chapter of his own, and a deservedly large one. It was McLaughlin who changed the direction of the instrument from the smooth sound of Charlie Christian, Les Paul and Wes Montgomery, imbuing it with a technical precision and harmonic sophistication paired with aggressive speed, exotic scales and unconventional time signatures. As a godfather of the fusion genre, he galloped off into uncharted musical territory, catching the attention of jazz legends including Miles Davis, with whom he recorded five albums, among them the seminal Bitches Brew.
Forty years on, the man Jeff Beck calls “the best guitarist alive” not only has not lost his virtuosic intensity, but has returned with a passion to amplified music after an acoustic sabbatical. This was very much on display during an electrifying performance on June 17 at the Musikfest Café at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pa.
Backed by the 4th Dimension, a band he assembled in 2010 for To The One and his new Now Hear This album, McLaughlin is celebrating his 71th birthday year with a tour of jazz festivals and intimate clubs like the Musikfest Café. This formidable ensemble includes powerhouse Indian drummer Ranjit Barot, Cameroon-born bassist Etienne M’Bappe and fellow Yorkshire Brit keyboardist (and occasional drummer) Gary Husband. You know they’re great musicians because they would have to be to keep up with the master, and the interplay — no set lists and no whispering instructions between songs, merely eye contact — melded them into a sublime oneness.
I count the first time I saw McLaughlin in 1973 as one of my most unforgettable musical experiences.
My friends and I (how to say it?) were ambushed. The main event that evening at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music was Weather Report, and the warm-up act a group called Mahavishnu Orchestra, about whom we knew nothing. The deeply powerful opening notes from McLaughlin’s trailblazing ensemble levitated me out of my seat, and I never really came back down. Weather Report was in its heyday and great in its own right, but Mahavishnu (with McLaughlin on double-neck guitar, Billy Cobham on drums, Rick Laird on bass guitar, Jan Hammer on keyboards and synthesizer, and Jerry Goodman on violin) was transcendental.
Fast forward four decades.
In the course of a two-hour set, McLaughlin ranged from Mahavishnu Orchestra-tinged compositions to pieces reminiscent of his tabla-infused Shakti ensembles to lovingly played covers of jazz classics, including Pharoah Sanders’‘ Light at the Edge of the World and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. McLaughlin now plays a single-neck custom Paul Reed Smith guitar, but his early fascination with Indian classical music merged with jazz, rock and Eastern influences is never far from the surface in everything he plays.
Mahavishnu John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu translates roughly as Godhead) seems to be able to talk endlessly about the musical universe and his place in it.
The title Now Hear This “is related to the state of awareness, very important in jazz and all improvised music,” he has said. “It all has to do with the environment. Being in the moment is important to jazz musicians. We spend time living in yesterday and tomorrow, but collective improvisation can only take place in the moment.
“I don’t see myself as a composer. I can’t sit down and expect it to happen. Inspiration might come under the shower, in a restaurant, or even in a plane. When it comes at inopportune moments, I have to write it down. I remember one time when it came on a plane and the only thing I had to write on was the barf bag.”
The Musikfest Café is about as unusual a musical venue you’re likely to encounter. The stage is framed by floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the immense blast furnaces of the former Bethlehem Steel Works, the surreal looking structures morphing through an mesmerizing series of colors as the sun set behind them.
In the end, McLaughlin’s music is deeply satisfying. But just as you couldn’t ride a roller coaster every say, or as a friend suggested watch a fireworks display, an evening of music with this godfather of fusion goes a long way.
Bethlehem is located in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh valley, 80 miles west of New York City and 70 miles northeast of Philadelphia. The gritty industrial city suffered a grave blow when its largest employer, Bethlehem Steel, once the U.S.’s second-largest steel producer, closed is doors in the face of withering foreign competition and cheap labor, and a short-sighted penchant for short-term profits.
But the community has fought back, revitalizing its historic downtown and building SteelStacks. More than $70 million has been invested in SteelStacks through state and federal grants and contributions from corporate and private donors.
Today, the former plant is once again thriving, this time as one of the premier destinations in the Northeast for music, art and entertainment. Since its opening in spring 2011, more than one million people have visited SteelStacks to enjoy over 1,700 musical performances, films, community celebrations and festivals, including Musikfest, the largest free music festival in the nation.
The purpose-built Musikfest Café, located on the 3rd and 4th floors of the ArtsQuest center, is among the most intimate venues I’ve visited in nearly 50 years of concert going. No seat is more than 60 feet from the stage and the acoustics, despite all the open architectural steel work, are excellent. There also are a full-service restaurant and bistro offering pub fare. Table service was excellent and parking is free.