John McLaughlin & The 4th Dimension at The Royal Festival Hall

Ian Patterson By

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John McLaughlin & The 4th Dimension
Royal Festival Hall
EFG London Jazz Festival
November 20, 2014

For any artist to be invited to play three years in a row is unusual by the standards of most festivals. Guitarist John McLaughlin, however, is not 'any artist,' having blazed a unique and highly influential trail from his collaborations with Miles Davis and The Tony Williams' Lifetime in the 1960s and with his own groundbreaking bands the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti in the 1970s. Nor does the London Jazz Festival fall into the category of 'most festivals,' with over 350 concerts taking place across the capital city in ten days.

Having played the EFG London Jazz Festival with his 4th Dimension Band in 2012 and with Remember Shakti last year, McLaughlin returned with the 4th Dimension—promoting The Boston Record (Abstract Logix, 2014)—and received a rapturous reception at the Royal Festival Hall.

There was an extra dose of guitar-led fusion from opening act Hedvig Mollestad, a Norwegian power-trio consisting of guitarist Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen, bassist Ellen Brekken and drummer Ivar Loe Bjørnstad. Albums such as Shoot! (Rune Grammafon, 2011), All Of Them Witches (Rune Grammafon, 2013 ) and Enfant Terrible (Rune Grammafon, 2014) have established Hedvig Mollestad as one of today's punchiest instrumental rock bands.

The trio's recipe was equal parts blues-metal and prog rock. Industrial riffs on songs like "Laughing John" and "The New Judas" that would make Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi blush morphed into intricate, high-velocity interplay reminiscent at times of Rush. Thomassen's fluid, soaring improvisations were underpinned by the hard-working Brekken, who impressed on acoustic and electric bass alike, while in Bjørnstad's industry there was a mixture of power and space.

More used to playing rock clubs and open-air festivals, Thomassen joked about the venue's formality, asking the audience if they had their safety belts fastened. Certainly, there was nothing safe about Hedvig Mollestad's blistering rock and the trio—clearly thrilled to be playing the EFG London Jazz Festival and opening for McLaughlin—gave a pulsating performance that won over the majority of the crowd.

It's been a long time since McLaughlin had to win over an audience though there are still plenty who argue that the 4th Dimension can't compare with The Mahavishnu Orchestra. The comparison is hardly fair for the 4th Dimension is a different beast altogther, more lyrical and bluesy, more tune-based than the MO. As McLaughlin and keyboardist Gary Husband demonstrated on the opener "Guitar Love" however, the electrifying virtuosity that was an essential component of the MO still colors much of the guitarist's current music.

During a set just shy of two hours McLaughlin embraced most of the musical threads that he's woven at different times during his career, from the R&B grooves of "Little Miss Valley" to drummer Ranjit Barot's konnakol on "Echoes of Then," which saw Husband on the second drum kit engage Barot in exhilarating duologue. McLaughlin has always been a truly fine balladeer and tunes like the delightfully bluesy "Special Beings" and Pharoah Sanders's achingly beautiful "The Light at The Edge Of the World" provided set highlights.

Just as there's more to Sanders than John Coltrane-inspired ecstatic improvisation, McLaughlin's finesse is an under-appreciated facet of his musical aesthetic. His slow-burning duet with Husband on "Maharina" was as tender as it was emotionally charged. Likewise, the melodically infectious "Abbaji"—dedicated to tabla maestro Alla Rakha—with its vocal mantra of "love and understanding'' impacted more on an emotional than visceral level, despite one of the guitarist's most incendiary solos of the evening.

The churning rock of "Raju" and the fleet, unison guitar and bass lines of "Hijacked" showcased the mercurial Etienne Mbappe, whose lightning runs thrilled the Festival Hall crowd. Sanders' "The Creator Has a Master Plan"—complete with vocal harmonies—restored an oasis of calm before McLaughlin ratcheted up the revs on "Call and Answer," featuring Barot's konnakol and drum dialogue. Husband once again took to the second drum kit, locking horns with Barot in a well-choreographed piece before returning to the keys.

After an hour and forty minutes McLaughlin, Husband, Barot and Mbappe took their bows to a standing ovation. The encore, the Mahavishnu Orchestra's "You Know You Know" brought enormous cheers from the crowd; forty three years on from The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971) this vibrant slow blues burned with the intensity of old.

The 4th Dimension is not The Mahavishnu Orchestra but then almost nothing is the same in 2014 as it was in 1971. McLaughlin has always looked forward, which may upset some who would have him play the same music he played decades ago. He's still a thrilling performer and still commands the respect and adulation of his peers and audiences alike. If the EFG London Jazz Festival were to bring McLaughlin back again in 2015 few would complain.

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