With his newest album, Liberation Time, McLaughlin draws from one of humanity's most fraught, uncertain epochs to produce music that gracefully reflects the uncertainty, vulnerability, and slowly awakening joy of our times. A direct response to the mandated restrictions imposed by the spread of Covid-19, the album is -- unusually for McLaughlin's recent projects -- not the work of one fixed ensemble. With physical proximity no longer a prerequisite, McLaughlin drew upon decades of experience as a bandleader to select musicians best suited to each composition.
"As the Spirit Sings" introduces the album by contrasting churning rhythmic tension (stoked by drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Sam Burgess) with McLaughlin's soaring guitar figures -- all underpinned by Gary Husband's subtle, supportive piano. The knotty post-bop figures of "Right Here, Right Now, Right On" mark one of the most jazz-inflected performances McLaughlin has laid down in some time, featuring Nicolas Viccaro (drums), Jerome Regard (bass), Julian Siegel (tenor saxophone), and Oz Ezzeldin (piano). The sense of brotherhood that bonds McLaughlin's current 4th Dimension ensemble (McLaughlin, Husband, bassist Etienne Mbappe, and drummer Ranjit Barot) is on full display during "Lockdown Blues," a playful refraction examination of blues tropes first released last summer to benefit the Jazz Foundation of America. With vaccination campaigns now in full effect and a more promising tomorrow coming into view, Liberation Time's title track can be felt as visceral anticipation -- a rousing glimpse into an unbound future rich with possibilities. And while much of Liberation Blues revels in the sort of spontaneous interplay that has been denied by Covid restrictions, some of the album's most touching moments feature McLaughlin alone at the piano -- an instrument he has not recorded on since his 1973 collaboration with Carlos Santana, Love Devotion Surrender. Liberation Time is a product of its times, and yet it looks both forwards and backwards -- at once drawing upon memories of better days yet reaching for a new dawn. Looking back at the album's transcontinental sessions, McLaughlin concludes, "The wonderful thing about music is that you put the headphones on and you are all in the same room."