John McLaughlin and the Fourth Dimension @ Belgrade Live (2009)
Studio: Mediastarz Monaco ABLX 016 [Distr. by Abstractlogix]
Video: 4:3 Pan and Scan, color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Length: 104 minutes
I wasn’t particularly captivated by John McLaughlin’s most recent album/video prior to this one, Floating Point, which found him once again in the company of eastern musicians. And although he’s shown his love for music of the eastern tradition repeatedly throughout his career, that particular album just didn’t quite gel musically for me, even though he selflessly (and admirably) pushed himself into the background and gave the other players the spotlight. This new DVD was recorded during the summer of 2008 in Belgrade, Serbia, and captures a performance from his European tour with his touring group the 4th Dimension. The group is comprised of John McLaughlin on guitar, Gary Husband on keyboards and drums, Mark Mondesir on drums and Dominique di Piazza on bass. And thankfully, this disc returns John McLaughlin to the much more familiar jazz fusion territory that has been his bread and butter for the last several decades. And while I do salute his efforts to promote the eastern music and musicians he so admires, the music I hear on this concert performance has so much more of a sense of melody and purpose.
The musicians here are excellent, and are given substantial room to stretch out with generous solos on just about every number. Particularly noteworthy is keyboardist Gary Husband, who does an amazing job at the keyboard, with a sound that very convincingly conjures up an image for me of classic fusion players from throughout John McLaughlin’s career. Not at all unlike Chick Corea, but definitely with his own sound that’s deeply rooted in the fusion tradition. And when he’s not pounding the keys, he’s pounding the skins – he doubles as a second drummer on many of the tunes! And the rhythm section of drummer Mark Mondesir and and bassist Dominique di Piazza underpin the proceedings superbly – Mondesir is an excellent and dynamic drummer, and di Piazza plays with such purpose that they help this set achieve a really rare groove. And di Piazza’s playing style is very reminiscent of the great Jaco Pastorius, and although he plays a fretted electric bass, he still manages to achieve a tonal quality similar to Jaco’s. Tunes like “Raju” and “Maharina” that seemed so unfocused on Floating Point are delivered here with the precision and cohesion that was severely lacking on that album. And these musicians play with such passion on every number – rarely has John McLaughlin soloed with such conviction and precision. And frequently throughout this excellent set, the music just simply swings – very unusual for a John McLaughlin concert!
Now for the bad news – the concert was filmed for Serbian television, by a Serbian crew, and while both the audio and video quality are serviceable, neither offers the final word in clarity. The concert was filmed in 4:3 aspect ratio, especially disappointing in an era when just about everything is at least 16:9. And the image quality is a little less than stellar; the concert setting was pretty dark, and while the color palette is really vivid and natural, the image contrast is a little lacking and detail suffers commensurately. And the only audio option is 2.0 stereo – which is pretty good, especially considering the source – but it would have been really nice to have a more immersive surround option available.
Despite being a somewhat technically deficient offering, this is an excellent concert disc that shows the 67-year-old John McLaughlin obviously not yet past his prime, playing with musicians who obviously share his passion for jazz. Recommended.
TrackList: Senor C.S.; Little Miss Valley; Nostalgia; Raju; Sully; Maharina; Hijacked; The Unknown Dissident; 5 Peace Band/Mother Tongues.
— Tom Gibbs