When you look back at John McLaughlin’s career, you can see how far he’s come since 1963. From Miles Davis, The Tony Williams Lifetime, Jack Bruce, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Larry Coryell, and the Guitar trio with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia, he has made a name for himself by opening up the door and proving jazz listeners that it’s more than just the Bebop genre you would hear on those classic albums.
He brought the essence of world music, fusion, electrical rock, blues, progressive music, and flamenco to a wider range of beauty. He doesn’t just shred the frets, but going up the ante by pushing the envelope even further. Those Mahavishnu albums; The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire (engineered by Bowie alumni Ken Scott), are still genuine many years later.
You can see why people like Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and The Fierce and the Dead’s Matt Stevens have championed a band like the Mahavishnu Orchestra. These weren’t just jazz fusion albums, but taking a direct hit, one composition after another. However, there is one unsung gem that deserves a lot of recognition. That of course is the collaboration between saxophonist John Surman, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Stu Martin, and pianist/vibraphonist Karl Berger, who sadly passed away on April 9th this year at the age of 88.
The album is called Where Fortune Smiles. Originally released on the Pye imprint label Dawn Records in March of 1971 and reissued by Esoteric Recordings in 2017, Where Fortune Smiles is the exact opposite of where you see the quintet, going in a free-rein altitude by bringing all the compositions into this insane exercise that is mesmerizing and right down to the bone.
Recorded in May 1970 in Apostolic Recording Studio in New York City on 53 East 10th Street in the Greenwich Village area where bands and artists like The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Silver Apples, and Larry Coryell recorded their albums at the studio, Where Fortune Smiles is one of the true hidden treasures that deserves a lot of listening, and understanding why it’s so far ahead of its time, and getting the recognition it deserves for an Echoes of the Past feature this year.
The genesis of the album started back when John McLaughlin released his solo debut in 1969 on the Polydor label entitled Extrapolation which featured John Surman. Across the pond in the States, Miles Davis released his first jazz-rock album that divided critics that same year in March with In A Silent Way with Dave Holland, August came around with Tony Williams’ Emergency and Turn it Over released in ’69 and ’70, then Davis would release Bitches Brew, Big Fun, and A Tribute to Jack Johnson.
McLaughlin was a busy man during that time frame. Once he joined Holland, Surman, Martin, and Berger, it was a combination like no other of bringing free-jazz to the centre and breaking the rule book, and throwing it into the fire. They pointed out that there aren’t any rules. Yes we can abide by them, but we don’t have to obey them.
Berger had worked in the Avant-Jazz scene by working with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry in Europe and would later appear on Cherry’s 1966 album, Symphony for Improvisers. Karl’s choice between classical, folk, jazz, and free improve. And as Sid Smith mentioned in his notes from the Esoteric reissue, it gave Karl incredible versatile and expansive reach.
Surman’s composition ‘Glancing Backwards (for Junior)’ which has a lot of incredible solo work between Holland and Martin, the tempo is in ramming speed that gives Berger a chance to go freely give his vibraphones a lot of fiery heat before Surman’s wildly sax attack comes in to roar like a madman in the realms of Crimson’s Mel Collins during ‘Bolero – The Peacock’s Tale’ from the Lizard album. Now according to the liner notes Sid Smith had done for the album, Surman himself had demoed this track before during the last recording date in the UK. But here, this is where the quintet really start getting their act going.
As they brighten the day, the mood suddenly changes with McLaughlin’s ‘Earthbound Hearts’ and the title-track. This is where John finally takes a breather and gets his fingers relaxed to go across the beautiful rivers that flow across the lake with his gentle chord-like structure between Surman’s smoky and smoothed-out sax work, and Berger’s lullaby texture to give listener’s a chance to make a leap into the pre-‘Schooldays’ essence of Gary Green and Kerry Minnear.
Just as they taken a breather on those two tracks, they get into the swing by adding a cat-and-mouse chase to the punch with ‘New Place, Old Place’. This is where the quintet make an alternate score to the Tom and Jerry shorts by adding that extra flavour, not knowing when that cat will finally get that mouse, once and for all, and have him for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
But there’s the latter period during Coltrane’s latter period in the mid-60s during the Impulse years that comes to mind after A Love Supreme where Surman takes up the torch and goes into a wildly pitch that gives him carte blanche. McLaughlin meanwhile goes into a fretting shriek with a climatic twist in the last two minutes of the composition.
He just adds one fret to another before Holland and Martin go up and down the stairs with some stop-and-go movements to make it a little chaotic. It then gets a little quiet with a call-and-response between the two Johns’s as it ends in a prayer to the heavens above.
The closing track ‘Hope’ begins with a climatic introduction. You can hear traces of the ‘Dance of the Maya’ that is featured and where McLaughlin was going to be in the next direction he was about to take in that brief moment. John is on fire with his guitar by bending the strings and soloing like a madman, adding that metallic crunch between the lead and rhythm styles on his instrument.
You can tell the spirit of Robert Fripp is in his playing by adding that Crimson flavour from the first three albums from ’69 to ’70. Yes John is one hell of a guitarist, but he adds his own beat to give the other four, the ammunition they need to go on a rat race.
And it’s back to the chaotic textures once more with Berger, Holland, and Martin as they keep up with each other to see who will win in the rat race. It’s a great way to end the album on a high note with its climbing arrangements, and given the ammunition they need to bring it to an epic ending.
Where Fortune Smiles is one of the most powerful and mind-blowing albums that took me on an amazing joy ride that Esoteric unleashed in 2017. While the album was released in 1971, it remains one of the true unsung gems in the history of free-jazz. And as Sid closes it out in his liner notes for the album, it “reminds listeners old and new why the remarkable music of the virtuosi and visionary musicians made that day in New York City in 1970 remains outstanding.”