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Thieves and Poets by John McLaughlin

All too often when musicians traditionally associated with other forms of music hook up with an orchestra, the results can be, at best, OK, and at worst, an exercise in bombast. Guitarist John McLaughlin should know; his orchestra-meets-Mahavishnu Orchestra recording, Apocalypse featured some interesting ideas, but never quite seemed to gel; and his Mediterranean Concerto was just plain self-indulgent. But this time, with the orchestral piece that takes up half the time on his latest release, Thieves and Poets, he seems to have gotten it right.

The three-movement, twenty-six minute piece that opens this recording is meant to signify McLaughlin’s view that, throughout his life, he has borrowed from others for inspiration, musical and otherwise. The three movements are meant to reflect his movement through life, starting with the Old World; the transition from Old World to New World; and finally, the New World and a finale which draws the two together. Compositionally, the result is a first movement that is rooted in romanticism; with swelling strings and pleasant melodies over which McLaughlin layers his classical guitar, this is certainly the easiest of the three movements. The second and third movements gradually move into larger layers of abstraction and impressionism; still, McLaughlin maintains a melodic core, with sometimes lyrical, other-times lightening fast flurries. The final movement, after reaching a first crescendo, then begins to layer in some of the romantic themes from the first movement.

The second half of the album reconvenes the Aighetta Quartet, a four-guitar ensemble, with McLaughlin and bass guitarist Helmut Schartlmueller for a programme of four standards, each one dedicated to a pianist that McLaughlin has found influential over his life, continuing the theme of the "Thieves and Poets" suite. Also, like the suite, his choice of pianists is thematic; from the old school of Bill Evans to the old school-meets-new school of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea; to the new school of Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who McLaughlin asserts, "is essential in the ‘new wave’ of modern piano playing." Fans of McLaughlin’s earlier tribute to Bill Evans, Time Remembered, will be happy to see him revisiting this context; the playing is equally subtle, equally sublime; this is gorgeous stuff.

While fans of McLaughlin’s more overtly improvisational work may find Thieves and Poets a little unadventurous, there is still plenty of exploration, albeit this time within the confines of a more structured environment; the successful integration of improvisation in an orchestral context finally marks the completion of a concept that McLaughlin has been pursuing for many years; and, in fact, the evolution of the piece that ultimately is found on this recording was many years in the making. Thieves and Poets is an album that has clear significance for McLaughlin as he continues to fuse styles and, as he enters his seventh decade, looks back at the sources that have been instrumental in his development into one of the most influential guitarists of the past forty years.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: John McLaughlin
  • CD Title: Thieves and Poets
  • Genre: Contemporary Jazz / Modern
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Verve
  • Tracks: Thieves and Poets Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, My Foolish Heart, The Dolphin, Stella By Starlight, My Romance
  • Musicians: John McLaughlin (acoustic guitar), I Pommeriggi Musicali di Milano, The Aighetta Quartet
  • Rating: Four Stars
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