Among the knocks against fusion is that it too often sacrifices subtlety for loudness and chops. There are counterexamples, but Live @ Ronnie Scott’s by John McLaughlin & the 4th Dimension isn’t one. Never averse to introducing subtler elements just so he can pound the hell out of them, the septuagenarian guitar legend—chops as sharp as ever—seems to intend here to wreck what finer details of his compositions he’d left behind.
On the Mahavishnu Orchestra classic “Miles Beyond,” for example, keyboardist Gary Husband delicately sets up a funk-soul groove on Fender Rhodes, only to have McLaughlin’s heavily distorted ax, along with bassist Etienne Mbappe and drummer Ranjit Barot, steamroll it immediately. (McLaughlin likes the effect so much he mimics it, taking over the delicacy and letting Mbappe snowplow it.) He takes a different approach on “Sanctuary,” playing a faithful rendition but underlining every note, beat and timbre. Meanwhile, on already intense pieces like “Meeting of the Spirits,” any facet that even remotely softened the blow, such as the violin ostinato, has to go.
It’s not just the old tunes. A third of the program comes from the 4th Dimension’s 2015 album, Black Light: same era, same personnel, same instrumentation. Why, then, must the dulcet Spanish guitar timbre of “El Hombre Que Sabia” yield to McLaughlin’s overdriven tone in concert? Ditto “Gaza City,” which only Husband’s acoustic piano saves from overcooking?
Of course a guitar god is going to act like one onstage, and live albums always demand the big guns. But there is one tune that McLaughlin and the band handle with both care and enthusiasm. “New Blues Old Bruise” loses none of its propulsion or its flavor or even its chops, despite the fact that the players show some restraint. It’s not that the band on Live can’t hold back; it simply doesn’t, to its detriment.