It’s exciting when a musician make creative inroads in the midst of a 45-year career. John McLaughlin began life as a professional guitarist with Graham Bond in 1963, then helped invent jazz-rock fusion in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Since then, he has barely looked back and, today at age 64 is still playing cutting-edge fusion, as heard on Industrial Zen – one of his best albums in years.
The CD opens with the cooker “For Jaco,” which features McLaughlin tearing through uptempo, 16-note runs like a spritely jazzer half his age – his legendary chops remain as ferocious as ever. Many rock fans will be interested in the second track “New Blues Old Bruise” with guest Eric Johnson, who hasn’t played straight-ahead fusion since his Electromagnets days in the ’70s. This track is another winner and the Texas guitar hero acquits himself admirably with his famed arpeggio-laced solos. It’s not a breakthrough performance for Johnson, but it’s certainly good to hear him break out of his standard FM radio box and collaborate with other guitar players. The latter also holds true for McLaughlin.
What’s particularly refreshing about this record is that while it incorporates modern digital technology – samples, guitar synth, software synthesizers – it retains a fresh, live vibe. Unlike some other new records, Industrial Zen doesn’t sound canned. Part of that is McLaughlin’s still-vital chops and musical sensibility, but also his ability to draw top players, such as drummers Dennis Chambers and Vinnie Colaiuta, saxman Bill Evans, and longtime percussion partner, the great Zakir Hussein. There are also young musicians – like bassists Hadrien Feraud and Tony Grey – who McLaughlin is bringing up through the jazz ranks. The musicianship is stellar throughout.
You can feel all this energy on “To Bop or Not to Bop,” with its intense melody and solo exchanges. Again, you have to be inspired by John McLaughlin’s vitality. Rivaled only by the still-butt-kickin’ Jeff Beck (who turns a lofty 63 this year), McLaughlin is playing great, writing interesting material, and finding excellent players – both younger and older – to perform it. Here, at least, is one aging jazzer who hasn’t succumbed to recording sleepy standards for the babyboomer set. Industrial Zen rocks.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Apr. ’07 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.