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Listening Report: John McLaughlin’s The Montreux Years

Mark Smotroff appreciates a well-curated live career overview…

Writing a review for a new record by John McLaughlin is a joy. It goes without saying that his playing is sublime and spectacular, pretty much throughout every recording I’ve ever heard by him. And this new album just out this week — the latest in BMG’s Montreux Jazz Festival series — is no exception. Pressed on rich dark black 180 gram vinyl, John McLaughlin: The Montreux Years sounds great, start to finish. Once at again as I’ve noticed in prior albums I’ve in this series, the MQA mastering on this album is lovely resulting in a remarkable consistency of sound across recordings made between 1978 and 2016.  

End of review, right? Not so fast, kids. 

No, I need to raise a sort of curious point (and it is not at all a complaint). Really, it is simply a desire for more of this goodness we hear on this new album. You see, John McLaughlin: The Montreux Years curates performances from six different concerts!  Taken on its own, I am enjoying it immensely, but I would have loved for it to be a bit more expansive. In a perfect world, I suspect the producers could make three or more collections just for this one artist!

I also realize it would be almost impossible to make any two-disc set feel “complete.”  So, instead, one must marvel at the breadth and depth of the recordings and how well everything works together as an end-to-end listen. That is part of what makes this Montreux Years series of releases special — it is like having a “Greatest Hits” album from one venue! The hype sticker on the front of the album says it all: “the finest performances from six legendary concerts.

Mr. McLaughlin acknowledges his long association with The Montreux Jazz festival in the press release for the album:

“To speak about The Montreux Jazz Festival brings back so many wonderful memories. But since my association goes back to 1971, we are looking at 50 years of history! Whether it’s the different incarnations of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti, The One Truth Band, The Free Spirits, The Heart of Things, Carlos Santana or with the late great Paco de Lucia, the list goes on and on. Not only all my musical performances at Montreux, but all my other visits to see my dear friend Claude Nobs the founder, my friends of the festival, join jam sessions, go hiking in the fabulous countryside around that lovely town. Montreux is a big part of my life’s musical and personal history and to share this selection of my performances on this recording makes me truly happy.” 

That joy definitely comes across on John McLaughlin: The Montreux Years

On Carla Bley’s “Sing Me Softly Of The Blues” we find McLaughlin backed by The Free Spirits in 1995 which includes the great organist Joey DeFranceso. At risk of sounding a bit too (ahem) dude-like, I must say that this track smokes! The album closes with “El Hombre Que Sabia,” written in tribute to the late great Paco De Lucia

Speaking of Mr. De Lucia, all of Side C is dedicated to his collaborations with McLaughlin taken from a spectacular 1987 acoustic duo performance. “David” is an especially stunning performance!  

I don’t know about you but I’m going to seek out a more complete presentation of their set together which was released on Paco And John Live At Montreux in 2020. 

Some of the 1984 performances were probably released on a DVD years back (now available on Amazon Prime, click here). Poking around on YouTube, I see there are many other of his performances posted (yay!). But that ultimately diffuses the point of a collection like this… 

Getting back to the music at hand, the earliest track here is perhaps the rarest in that it presents an incarnation of McLaughlin’s One Truth Band from 1978 which never recorded together formally in the studio. Here they play a tune from my all time favorite John McLaughlin album, Electric Guitarist, called “Friendship” and it is beautiful. It features the great L. Shankar on violin (who was in McLaughlin’s first Shakti group in 1976). 

The version of “Radio-Activity” which opens the album is so great it prompted me to pull out the 1984 album they were supporting at that time — called Mahavishnu — featuring saxophonist Bill Evans, which I hadn’t listened to in years. 

One of the best things a great collection like this can do is reinvigorate your enthusiasm for an artist. John McLaughlin: The Montreux Years has definitely done that trick for me!

I hope this album is just the tip of the iceberg for future Montreux / McLaughlin releases? With some 50 years of performances there — and no doubt a wealth of recordings to choose from in the archives — wouldn’t that be a dream?

Until then John McLaughlin: The Montreux Years will no doubt hold me over. The album comes out this Friday so you should try to pick up a copy of this before they disappear from your local record store shelves. 

John McLaughlin: The Montreux Years can be found streaming in 88.2 kHz, 24-bit MQA quality on Tidal (click here) and 44.1 kHz, 24-bit Hi Res Qobuz (click here). But, there are great liner notes and photos in the vinyl package you’ll want to read and see so you’ll want to buy the physical release (which benefits the artist more as well).  

Below are some clips from the album and related video performances to give you an idea of what to expect.  

(insert sound of cheering crowd)

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