By 1979, John McLaughlin had either made or been an integral part of some of the greatest recordings of the previous ten years; In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Emergency!, Live/Evil, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, My Goals Beyond, The Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire, Apocalypse and his previous years amazing Electric Guitarist. Running through the titles on that list, it’s hard to comprehend the scope and meaning of it. Most musicians would be glad to leave one of those discs to posterity, an posterity will remember McLaughlin as one of the truly great musicians of the 20th century.
But the record I hear so often in my head, and that I’m compelled to play out loud, is the one he made with his One Truth Band, Electric Deams . As far as I can discover, this is a one-shot album/group. It really does cap his career up to that point in time, which in retrospect has also been the most innovative, fruitful period for McLaughlin. Electric Guitarist is a record that gives stunning examples of all the things he had done up to that point in time, touching on standards, electric post-bop, improvised rock with Santana, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Lifetime. Electric Dreams synthesizes all that had come before into an integrated whole, a record with an accessible, at moments even commercial surface, underneath of which the music is tough-minded, searching, excellent.
The opening fragment “Guardian Angels” recalls both Shakti and the acoustic side of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the following track, “Miles Davis,” is a tribute/response to Miles’ “John McLaughlin” from Bitches Brew and develops on from the innovations of Miles and Weather Report. It’s the kind of loose playing inside an expansive yet tightly organized structure that leads to the most exciting, satisfying playing; an opening riff leads to a heavy groove, Tony Smith laying it down on the drums, McLaughlin slashing in and out with short phrases, the great Fernando Saunders (one of the unsung heroes of the electric bass for the past thirty years) responding fluidly on the bass and holding down a melodic line, Stu Goldberg’s punchy comping. It seems free, but there are specific moments of modulation, the container in which this great band is jamming, then, with most of the track done, the melody comes in, a pithy hip riff, doubled in the bass, and then the jamming continues through the fade. The backward structure, the playing leading up to the statement, is great, and the playing itself even better.
There are moments that are dated, that are very much late-seventies post-fusion – Goldberg’s blooping Moog sound, L. Shankar’s electric violin on the title track, the simple soulful lyrics and vocals on “Love and Understanding,” the cold-war politics of “The Last Dissident” which features that era’s studio stalwart, David Sanborn – but it’s just a matter of the flavors that musicians favored at the time. Those tracks themselves are completely funky and hip, the playing supple, responsive and muscular – Sanborn in particular plays beautifully on his feature. There’s the obligatory feature, “The Dark Prince” (another Miles tribute?), that electric musicians of the time used to remind the listener that they could still play jazz, and it is great, burning, straight-ahead, post-bop jazz, and not even the best thing on the album. Dig it.