John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension
Live at Ronnie Scott’s
JOHN McLAUGHLIN’S Gaza City, from his March 2017 album Live at Ronnie Scott’s is one of those very few and precious recorded jazz performances that resonate with the living reality of epochal moments of people’s struggles.
It is comparable to John Coltrane’s Alabama, the tribute to the four girls murdered by racists’ dynamite in the basement of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 in the midst of the civil rights campaign, or Hugh Masekela’s Sharpeville, exposing the deathly violence of South African apartheid, or Freddie Hubbard’s 1971 threnody Sing Me A Song of Songmy, an album dedicated to the families slaughtered by rampaging US troops in a Vietnamese village.
These are key musical works of art that hold within them the agony and courage of millions and McLaughlin’s tune played during a Soho night by his band The 4th Dimension, comprised of another Yorkshireman, the Leeds-born (in 1960) keyboardist Gary Husband, the Cameroon-born bassist brought up in Paris, Etienne M’Bappe and the Indian drummer Ranjit Barot, becomes a moving homage to Palestinian courage and tenacity.
In April 2014, just weeks before the Israeli blitz of Gaza, McLaughlin played a solidarity concert in Ramalllah on the West Bank, in support of the al-Mada musical therapy programmes for traumatised children and adults.
“Palestinians don’t have freedom,” he said. “They don’t even have passports. It’s lamentable that an entire people are in such a situation. So I feel it incumbent upon myself to make other people aware of it.”
Born in Doncaster in 1942, McLaughlin has been a musical rover all through his life.
He came south to London in his early twenties to play blues with Graham Bond, Ginger Baker and Georgie Fame, made the brilliant album Extrapolation with saxophonist John Surman and drummer Tony Oxley before moving to New York and joining Tony Williams’s Lifetime band and then playing with Miles Davis on some of the trumpeter’s greatest albums, In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Tribute to Jack Johnson.
Between 1971 and 1973 he led the jazz-rock fusion Mahavishnu Orchestra and, much influenced by the Indian classical artistry of sitarist Ravi Shankar, he created the band Shakti in 1975.
Those days seem, and are, an age ago now, but McLaughlin has never stopped creating new sounds and breaking established musical boundaries.
Gaza City shows how beauty can emerge from the darkest of hours when it is embodied with creative love and solidarity.
It begins with M’Bappe’s earthen electric bass and Barot’s snares before McLaughlin enters with his blues-soaked melody reaching out to all those entrapped within Gaza’s imprisoned frontiers.
Husband’s piano chimes out his piercing notes before the guitarist returns, his phrases almost bursting with sonic indignation and empathy.
The same powerful virtuosity resounds all through the album as the 4th Dimension play modern versions of four Mahavishnu Orchestra tunes and McLaughlin’s tribute to his old guitar compadre Paco de Lucia (hear them together with a third guitarist Al Di Meola on their 1996 trio album).
Miles Beyond was first recorded as part of the 1973 Mahavishnu album Birds of Fire.
McLaughlin revisits it with a scorching passion while M’Bappe’s bass dances on throbbing pulses.
El Hombre que Sabia is the homage to Paco, full of zestful notes and pacy rhythms from Husband remembered life and virtuosity.
New Blues, Old Bruise chimes with McLaughlin’s South Yorkshire guitar. It made me think of ex-coalfields turned to shopping centres and privatised prisons near his birth town in its soulful sound.
Sanctuary is a classic Mahavishnu theme played with a starkly beautiful serenity and Vital Transformation from the 1971 album Inner Mounting Flame exposes more of M’Bappe’s artistry, while much of Here the the Jiis is Barot’s percussion manifesto as well as an expressive drums/bass palaver.
After a Ramallah performance, McLachlin wrote: “I’m personally aware of how marvellous the power of music is. It has fantastic healing qualities. We’re not making some gigantic contribution like building a dam or a reservoir. We’re just playing music.”
But how his sound creates comfort, confidence and the urge to struggle on. Hear this record and you will know too.
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