Review: John McLaughlin/Hedvig Mollestad

Fred Grand reviews a blistering performance from John McLaughlin's 4th Dimension, preceded by a rude blast from guitarist Hedvig Mollestad's power trio

Like the proverbial moth to a flame, John McLaughlin has returned to his roots in jazz-rock at numerous points during a long and varied career. Yet few of his recent groups have approached "fusion" with quite the same devotion as the 4th Dimension. This EFG London Jazz Festival performance was the quartet’s only UK date in a month-long European tour, and the cavernous Royal Festival Hall was very nearly packed to capacity. But before McLaughlin took to the stage there was the not inconsequential matter of the opening act, Norwegian guitarist Hedvig Mollestad and her much-vaunted power trio.

Taking to the stage in a red sequinned party dress and sparkly stilettos, Mollestad's knowingly tongue-in-cheek stagecraft subverted conventional understandings of the term "glam rock". McLaughlin is clearly an important touchstone (she has a piece called Laughing John in the repertoire), but so too is the heavy riffing of Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi. Collectively the trio were not unlike Terje Rypdal’s much-maligned Chasers group, and Mollestad’s use of controlled feedback also brought to mind the blistering attack of Raoul Björkenheim’s Scorch Trio. She was probably at her most interesting when exploring quieter spaces, but the trio’s punchy 35-minute set was nevertheless a rude blast of fresh air.

McLaughlin drew a rousing ovation before he’d even found his way to the stage. Now in his early 70s, he is a seasoned world traveller and guitar guru who enjoys near mythical status. Appearing lithe and ageless, McLaughlin breezed in clutching a beautiful Paul Reed Smith solid-bodied guitar. This was the same group that had taken the Barbican by storm at the 2012 LJF, with Gary Husband (keyboards and drums), the glove-wearing electric bassist Etienne Mbappé and Indian drummer Ranjit Barot. With the flexibility to move in many musical directions, the group bridge the guitarist's twin lodestars of Coltrane and Hendrix.

Appropriately enough the set opened with Guitar Love, and as McLaughlin’s mastery of the fretboard ran his full stylistic gamut within a single thoughtfully constructed solo, it quickly became apparent that this was going to be a mesmerising performance. The now ubiquitous Little Miss Valley, drawn from the repertoire of McLaughlin’s more traditional-leaning mid-90s Free Spirits group, was next. Mbappé played funky double thumb-slapping counterpoint to McLaughlin’s bluesy head, and throughout the gig his range of techniques was simply jaw-dropping. Abbaji, dedicated to tabla master Alla Rakha, climaxed with a chanted chorus of "love and understanding", and a couple of Pharaoh Sanders pieces (Light At the Edge Of The World and The Creator Has A Masterplan) kept the spiritual dimension very much in the foreground.

The bluesy shuffle Hijacked (from Que Allegria, 1992) was what guitar nerds might call a "shredfest", clusters of notes sprayed in all directions with incredible speed and precision, but Señor CS by contrast was a rather more mellow dedication to kindred spirit and erstwhile collaborator Carlos Santana. Performed as a duet with Johnny Mac's fellow Yorkshireman Gary Husband, it was one of the most lyrical segments of the show. Husband spent most of the evening behind his bank of keyboards, but an extra drum kit was set up alongside Barot, and he stepped up to the plinth to take a couple of dazzling cameos. Interacting with Barot’s south-Indian Konnakol scatting in Echoes, Husband split rhythms into almost unfathomable fractions. He later joined Barot for a duelling drum-kits shootout on the Mahavishnu classic You Know You Know, the evening’s encore piece, which drew a second rapturous standing ovation.

Depending on your level of devotion, 4th Dimension could easily come across as being a little one-dimensional. They undoubtedly play a very technophilic form of contemporary fusion and their supercharged dynamics and astonishing instrumental facility sometimes made it difficult to discern a very narrow-field range of nuances. Yet the challenge of doing the impossible is a defining feature of fusion, and several times throughout the show the group’s collective virtuosity drew rapt wonderment. There’s an emerging consensus that this is McLaughlin’s most consistent electric ensemble since those trailblazing Mahavishnu days of the early 70s, and on the evidence of this show and the group’s recent album Boston Record, I wouldn’t disagree.

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Your Comments:

Posted by Paul Aitkenhead, 23 November 2014, 0:06 (1 of 1)

Hedvig Mollastad Trio opened the evening with hi-energy and set up the evening nicely for John McLaughlin and 4th Dimension; both performances were electric. I will remember this concert for a very long time.

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