Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The F – Word

The Secret Museum
By Jim Webb

It has a deep impact on most people when heard, no matter what the circumstances might be. It’s also an adjective that can be used to describe a whole range of feelings and emotions when calmer vocabulary seemingly just won’t do. A lot of people refuse to even utter the letters that comprise its meaning, because by even saying it you have accepted a certain responsibility for choosing such a descriptive word. There are some who freely accept it as an expressive term, while others have run away from it for as long as they’ve heard its sound. Yes, I am talking about the musical category known as Fusion.

A recent concert appearance in Santa Fe by Fusion pioneer John McLaughlin has reopened this long running debate on the merits of this style of music. He is the pre-eminent Fusion musician on the planet, still releasing new cds and touring all over the world at sixty-eight years of age. He has played the guitar for the last sixty years and has been at the forefront of this highly technical brand of music since its creation in the late 1960’s. No one that has ever seen or heard John McLaughlin play would doubt that he has a tremendous command of the guitar. Not only does he play at times with a blazing pace on the fret board, but he is also a master improviser in the great Jazz tradition. What has made McLaughlin such an imposing figure is that he does have more than just technical virtuosity plugged into his amp. There is a lyricism to the guitar lines that he endlessly weaves, and he has also proven himself to be one of the original innovators in creating a true World Music style. He has played with both Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, and that high octane mixture of jazz and rock is what Fusion is all about. His 70’s electric band Mahavishnu Orchestra had some of the best musicians around (Cobham, Goodman, and Hammer), while he later created Shakti as a vehicle to explore his interest in Indian music. Guitarists Jeff Beck and Pat Metheny have both called John the best guitarist in the world, lofty praise from two highly respected musicians. His performance with The Fourth Dimension band was a microcosm of all things good and bad that have been debated about Fusion since its creation. Excessive soloing might be a downer for some, but how do you argue with such mind blowing technical virtuosity? Others might cry about a lack of “songs” (a la Burt Bacharach), but these four musicians exhibited a cohesion rarely seen that trumped any mundane need for familiar tunes. If someone said it sounded like a guitar / drum clinic at times I wouldn’t argue, but what a sound they threw at us! Etienne M’bappe was a revelation with his unique bass lines, while Mark Mondesir kept the drum seat red hot all night long. Keyboardist Gary Husband added a lot of tasteful licks with McLaughlin the whole evening smiling as if he had finally found that lost chord he’d been searching for all these years. John called himself just an aging hippie at one point during the concert, and that humility rang as true as any note from his guitar. Like a Zen master patiently waiting for his future students to find him, McLaughlin has explored the fret board in a variety of styles throughout his life, and has stayed open to its possibilities. Many people aspire to be the best at what they do, but hard work and skill will only get you so far. After many years he came to the realization that a true master doesn’t just play the guitar, you also have to let the guitar play you.

Immediately after the final notes ended a concert goer one row away from me leaned over to his friend and said - “what do you think”? After forty years people still don’t know what to make of it. If you have any doubts buy John’s latest cd entitled “To The One”, after listening to it then you’ll know exactly what side of the fence you’re on. When it comes to the F-Word, I don’t give a f**k what anyone else says. McLaughlin’s Fusion. I love it.

Jim Webb

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