Since the late '60s, John McLaughlin's name has been synonymous with electric fusion guitar. But McLaughlin is equally accomplished on the acoustic guitar; he has a long history of excelling on that instrument, which he plays exclusively on Thieves and Poets. This 2003 release, in fact, isn't fusion in the amplified jazz-rock sense but rather acoustic-oriented post-bop with Euro-classical leanings. Thieves and Poets finds McLaughlin joining forces with two of Europe's classical outfits: the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie (with Renato Rivolta serving as conductor) and the much smaller, guitar-oriented Aighetta Quartet. The former appears on the title track, a lavish, three-movement, 26-minute orchestral work that has hints of Spanish flamenco at times. Meanwhile, Aighetta joins McLaughlin on four standards, all of which are dedicated to pianists he admires; the British guitarist acknowledges Bill Evans on "My Romance," Herbie Hancock on "Stella by Starlight," Chick Corea on "My Foolish Heart," and Gonzalo Rubalcaba on Luiz Eca's "The Dolphin." But he certainly does so in a personal, introspective way. Yes, "My Romance," "Stella by Starlight," and "My Foolish Heart" are warhorses that have been beaten to death over the years -- great songs that have been recorded so many times that some jazz enthusiasts feel there should be a moratorium on them in the 21st century. But McLaughlin is such an accomplished, distinctive musician that he's allowed a warhorse or two (or three). Besides, he plays beautifully on these standards, and his lyricism is extremely individualistic. Hearing McLaughlin (who turned 60 in 2002) embracing Tin Pan Alley songs with a classical guitar group is hardly the same as hearing some 19-year-old, knee-jerk Sarah Vaughan wannabe attempting to squeeze the last drops out of blood from them. It's the difference between mindlessly going through the motions and saying something personal -- and on this memorable CD, McLaughlin's playing is undeniably personal.
AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson