Originally issued in 1996 when he was 54, The Promise offers a summation of all the places John McLaughlin has been in his career, and points directly toward his future. Featuring a wide range of musicians including appearances by the Free Spirits, the Guitar Trio, and an electric version of Shakti, the Promise is easily the most wide-ranging and diverse offering of McLaughlin's long career. Its contents encompass everything from straight post-bop and swinging soul-jazz to fusion to modern takes on East Indian music as it meets the West. As if this weren't enough, there are even moments with spoken word laced throughout, such as a verse of Dante read by Stefania Bombi toward the end of his scorching, funky, soul-jazz number "Thelonius Melodius" with B-3 organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Dennis Chambers. The set kicks off with one of its finest moments, a guitar-to-guitar reading of John Lewis' "Django" with Jeff Beck (bassist Pino Palladino, drummer Mark Mondesir, and drummer Tony Hymas round it out). Beck's solo is first; it is expansive as it moves from a gorgeous restating of the melody through slinky harmonic extrapolations. McLaughlin's answer is ambitious and intuitive. They then move toward one another and the melody, complementing each other perfectly. "El Ciego" is a complex, flamenco-tinged jazz number with McLaughlin trading knotty lines and soulful solos with Al di Meola and Paco de Lucia. "Jazz Jungle" is late 20th century fusion at its blazing best with Michael Brecker, Chambers, Don Alias, James Genus, and Jim Beard beginning almost nebulously before ratcheting the tempo and idea palettes to dizzying heights (Brecker is particularly brilliant). "The Wish," with Zakir Hussein, Nishat Khan, and Trilok Gurtu, looks deeply into Indian classical music balanced by a European gaze. McLaughlin's engagement with Khan's sitar creates nearly rapturous expression, all the while contained inside a texture that is as atmospheric as it is exotic. "Shin Jin Rui" employs the same band as "Jazz Jungle," with the exception of the saxophone, played by David Sanborn. His playing is riskier than on his own records, his alto juxtaposed with McLaughlin's guitar, a study in funky, electric jazz modernism. The set closes with a lovely all-acoustic reading of Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks" with guitarist Phillipe Loi and bassist Yan Maresz, and a verse by Lorca read by Susana Beatrix as an end cap. Ultimately, The Promise stands as one of McLaughlin's towering achievements as a guitarist and leader.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek