Critic's picks: John McLaughlin, Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie

Contributing Music WriterMay 27, 2014 

As elder statesmen in a world-class league of guitar innovators, John McLaughlin, Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie have seen the instrumental music crafted under their care over the past four decades marketed under the deceptive banner of jazz. But on their newest releases, the ingenuity of their playing relishes in the blurring of stylistic borders.

The Boston Record finds McLaughlin, 72, in concert on sacred academic soil, Boston's Berklee College of Music, with his favored fusion band of the past seven years, the Fourth Dimension.

The tone of the playing is established at the onset with the fat, menacing power chords McLaughlin supplies to Raju and the heavy rhythmic ammo the rest of the band sets off. The music approximates metal until everyone shifts gears into a more nimble glide. Then the guitarist luxuriates in the kinds of winding, warp-speed lines that have defined his musicianship since his ground-breaking early '70s recordings with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Speaking of which, The Boston Record confronts the latter by updating the 1972 Mahavishnu gem You Know You Know. McLaughlin has seldom addressed the band's music since its demise. But here, the tune is not so much a look back as a ragged and playful jam that stands on its own terms with the muscular rock/funk support of the Fourth Dimension as a capable foil.

Five Years Later, a collection of guitar duets by ECM guitar vets Towner, 74, and Abercrombie, 69, could be appropriately retitled Three Decades Later. Recorded in 1981, on the heels of an extraordinary performance at the University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall, the album has long been out of print. Remarkably, it is only now receiving its first domestic release on CD.

The lines of demarcation are set on Five Years Later. Abercrombie plays primarily electric guitar, creating washes of atmospheric color, and Towner sticks exclusively to acoustic. Within his playing, classical influences mingle with percussive, folk-flavored incantations.

The resulting music is sublime but unsettled. Abercrombie's electric chords chip off like falling icicles around Towner's contemplative soloing on Late Night Passenger while the two spar with light, exacting agility during Isla. But the central theme of Caminata has more Eastern European inspirations (especially Mussorgsky) and The Juggler's Etude is a pensive ballet with both guitarists conversing acoustically.

Separated by about 32 years but still representing the same artistic generation, these records are wildly different in every way except for the sense of adventure that is so inherent and visible in the playing. When listened to side by side, the decades separating them evaporate.

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at

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