Ever since 1985, John McLaughlin had not put out a record featuring electric guitar. Tokyo Live, released almost ten years later, showed the music world once again how the guitarist could reinvent himself. This time the new McLaughlin appears in the form of The Free Spirits, a B-3 based jazz-blues trio featuring McLaughlin on a Johnnie Smith electric guitar, organist Joey DeFrancesco, and powerhouse drummer Dennis Chambers. The ailing McLaughlin was recorded on two different nights at the Tokyo Blue Note. He had recently suffered a back injury while playing with his dog on the beach, and apparently it hampered his playing quite a bit on stage. But you'd never know it.
This record will disappoint those hoping for a 1990's version of the Tony Williams Lifetime. Listeners hoping to hear a wailing, plaintiff, distorted guitar will be upset as well. McLaughlin's bluesy tone is somewhat warm and processed, and it's sometimes easily lost in the cascades of a busy B-3 barrage. But, the guitar chops remain vintage McLaughlin. He plays through and around and underneath the changes, intertwining his unison lines with DeFrancesco so cleverly that you have to work a bit to distinguish the two. (Although his unison playing is always impressive, McLaughlin's tone on this recording makes this a drawback.) His empathy with the supercharged Chambers is evident from the very first beat.
Tokyo Live offers several top-notch McLaughlin compositions, most notably "Vukovar," which make for an exciting and pleasing outing. Although the slow-moving duet "When Love is Far Away "featuring McLaughlin on guitar and DeFrancesco on trumpetdrags this album down a bit, the overall nightclub feel and musical energy still carry the day.
Although this remains the only true Free Spirits album released to date, the band did not reach its creative peak until its brilliant performance on the cut "Thelodius Melodius" from the 1996 recording The Promise.