Fusion? Jazz-rock? After years spent in purgatory, the countless music-forms divided roughly into those two sub-categories have recently attracted new attention, as if resuscitated after the interest shown in these incredible hybrids – which surged up at the turn of the Seventies – by a new wave of world-music-tinged electro that seems to have singled them out as the matrix for its desire to see crossbred music become generalized.
Could this be why the universal, syncretic music of John McLaughlin featured on his new album Industrial Zen, has never seemed so contemporary?
Partly, yes. Because ever since his dazzling arrival at the forefront of the experimental jazz-rock scene – in the shape of the Hendrix-influenced guitar-hero of Miles Davis' mutant bands (Bitches Brew, On the Corner…), or Tony Williams' Lifetime -, John McLaughlin, as the initiator, designer and leader of the legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra, (a precursor if ever there was, with an art-form that was authentically in fusion), has fundamentally never ceased tracing a singular path that is highly coherent from an aesthetic standpoint, whatever metamorphosis his own universe experienced in the course of time: McLaughlin has constantly placed his music under the signs of virtuosity, beauty and spirituality. In the cyclic movement of trends and fashions, these timeless values, at times scorned, are undeniably apposite today.
But it also remains true that he has kept busy these recent years in an introspective, rather than experimental, movement, either reviving his own passion for Indian music - with his group Remember Shakti (The Believer) - or else exploring more classical formulae with a perfectly-assimilated post-bop aesthetic (Thieves & Poets). Here McLaughlin has clearly renewed the energy, feistiness and sophisticated form of his best recordings with the Mahavishnu Orchestra — that matrix-orchestra which has never ceased to haunt the British guitarist ever since its inception in 1973, and which periodically resurfaces in his music, regenerating each time both spirit and form.
As the splendid, new reincarnation of this invigorating "eternal return", Industrial Zen is not only the synthesis and resume of some thirty years' experimentation with fusion (from rock to jazz and Indian music), carrying this syncretic aesthetic to a degree of intensity and formal perfection only rarely attained, but also, and especially, it is an opening onto the future, something that undeniably projects the values of openings, crossbreeds and universal spirituality that are the subsoil of the guitarist's art in the informal magma of new music.
He's surrounded by some exceptional musicians; some of them are familiar with his universe, like bassist Matthew Garrison and drummer Dennis Chambers (both present on McLaughlin's most recent resolutely jazz-rock album to date, The Heart of Things, released in 1997) or again saxophonist Bill Evans and percussionist Zakir Hussain; others are newcomers, like drummer & keyboards-player Gary Husband, guitarist Allan Holdsworth's partner, whose grooves and sound textures noticeably orientate the ensemble sound of the album. With them, McLaughlin invents music that is at once highly sophisticated and obvious, and contains not only astounding rhythmical riches but also great emotional power.
So the answer is, yes (to the question "Jazz rock?" "Fusion?"), there's no doubt about it at all: with Industrial Zen John McLaughlin is back, right at the vibrating heart of all that's modern. But, between you and me, was he ever away?