Nearly 40 years after he helped ignite the jazz/fusion movement with albums such as The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire, guitarist John McLaughlin showed that he can still burn brightly in a performance with his band 4th Dimension on Friday night at the Sheldon Concert Hall.
Looking quite fit for a 68-year-old, McLaughlin strode briskly onstage with his three bandmates at the appointed time, picked up his guitar and, with a brief smile and a wave to the near-capacity crowd, went directly to work. Over the next hour and 45 minutes, he delivered the pyrotechnics that many longtime fans in the audience clearly were expecting, plus a lot more.
With drummer Mark Mondesir and bassist Etienne M'bappe laying down the groove, the opening vamp of "Raju" gave McLaughlin a chance to limber up. His subsequent solo was capped by a crowd-pleasing, high-speed unison lick by the entire band, leading directly to a keyboard solo by Gary Husband, whose fast-moving electric piano lines revealed a bit of Herbie Hancock's influence.
Husband first came to public attention in the '80s as a drummer with another British jazz/rock guitarist, Alan Holdsworth. He since has proved himself to be a very capable keyboard player as well, even leading his own jazz piano trio for a time. With 4th Dimension, Husband does a bit of everything - doubling melody lines with McLaughlin, supplying synthesized colors and textures behind the guitarist, soloing at length, and even playing on a second drum kit a couple of times during the evening.
A moody version of "The Unknown Dissident" followed. It simmered and then came to a boil with churning solos from McLaughlin and Husband. M'bappe was featured on "Recovery," from the band's recent CD, To The One, and he displayed fleet fingerwork and a fat sound on his five-string bass. Mondesir got a chance to rock out a couple of songs later, delivering bruising tom-tom fills to propel the heavy riffing of "Sully." Other highlights included the Muddy Waters-on-Mars feel of "New Blues, Old Bruise," and McLaughlin's soloing on "Senor C.S.," a song dedicated to Carlos Santana that included some very Santana-like use of space by the guitarist.
Interestingly, for someone who's inspired so much worship from usually gear-obsessed fanboy types, McLaughlin used a very simple setup: one guitar (a Telecaster-style solid-body), one small pedal board, and, remarkably, no onstage amplifier at all. (A member of the crew confirmed that McLaughlin was running directly into the PA, and didn't have an amp stashed elsewhere in the building.) Beyond that, all the necessary timbral variations were right there in his fingers.
A spirited version of "Mother Tongues," featuring more sizzling soloing from McLaughlin and an extended drum exchange between Mondesir and Husband, provided a fitting climax to the set, with a brief encore of "Light at the End of the World" serving as a mellow coda. Overall, McLaughlin's work with 4th Dimension seems as strong as anything he's done - and for someone with his track record, that's a high compliment indeed.