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John McLaughlin

+ {The Mahavishnu Orchestra} + {Shakti with John McLaughlin} + {John McLaughlin Trio} + {Remember Shakti} + {John McLaughlin And The 4th Dimension}

The lifeforce between jazz-rock fusion and classical/World music, explorative English guitarist JOHN McLAUGHLIN has waded through many streams of musical consciousness on his way to becoming one of the greats. Functioning as a solo artist, seasoned session man, within a plethora of collaborations, or as leader of his own combos (including seminal 70s prog-jazz group The MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA and Eastern-addled SHAKTI), spiritual JMc is the guitarist’s guitarist, and a man who could stretch his vision beyond his inner mounting goals.
Born 4 January 1942, Doncaster, West Riding of Yorkshire, he learned piano and violin at an early age, but it was the guitar which vied for his attention as a teenager. His first professional music business experience came in the mid-60s, when he spent time in both the GRAHAM BOND ORGANIZATION and the BRIAN AUGER TRINITY; John also worked with GEORGIE FAME and others while he was still in his mid-teens.
Roping in John Surman (saxophones), Brian Odgers (bass) and Tony Oxley (drums), composer JOHN McLAUGHLIN’s debut solo outing, EXTRAPOLATION (1969) {*7}, was evidence of the guitarist’s increasing immersion in post-bop free-form; highly innovative pieces such as the title track, `It’s Funny’ and the 7-minute `Binky’s Dream’, were essential to the apparent handover of avant-jazz to self-indulgent prog-rock.
During his stint in New York with the celebrated trumpeter, MILES DAVIS, guitar ace John played on three of the man’s most ground-breaking albums: `In A Silent Way’ (1969), `Bitches Brew’ (1970) and `A Tribute To Jack Johnson’ (1971). A prolific time for McLAUGHLIN at the turn of the decade, he also featured for The TONY WILLIAMS LIFETIME project, who released two highly influential albums: `Emergency!’ (1969) and `Turn It Over’ (1970). This group featured JACK BRUCE, with whom he’d previously collaborated (alongside JON HISEMAN and DICK HECKSTALL-SMITH) on the `Things We Like’ LP, in ‘69. By this point, McLAUGHLIN, who was now a practising vegetarian and convert to Sri Chimnoy, was taking his music in a more meditative, Eastern-influenced direction. Another prolific period ensued during which he released a couple of transitional albums in quick succession: DEVOTION (1970) {*7} and the (Alan) Douglas Records follow-up MY GOAL’S BEYOND (1971) {*8}; the latter initially issued under the banner of “Mahavishnu John McLaughlin”, the adopted name given him by his newfound guru. While the first of these sets featured bassist Billy Rich, drummer/percussionist Buddy Miles (a refugee from the ill-fated JIMI HENDRIX) and keyboardist Larry Young (check out the 11-minute title track), the second set showcased soon-to-be “Mahavishnu” affiliates, Billy Cobham (drums) and Jerry Goodman (violin) on two opening salvo work-outs, `Peace 1’ and `Peace 2’; the guitarist completed the remainder, which comprised his own compositions, next to CHARLES MINGUS’ `Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, Dave Herman’s `Something Spiritual’, CHICK COREA’s `Song Of The Wind’ and MILES DAVIS’ `Blue In Green’.
Regarded as his third album, arriving as it did in March ’71 between his classic Douglas LPs, the held-back WHERE FORTUNE SMILES {*5} was recorded for Dawn Records the previous year with Messrs Surman, Karl Berger, Stu Martin and Dave Holland. A jam session that proved a little ambitious in its structures, it bridged a gap – if needed – between his `New Place, Old Place’ – the title of one of the tracks.
Enlisting the aforesaid Cobham and Goodman, plus Dublin-born bassist Rick Laird and Prague-born keyboard wizard Jan Hammer, John’s enterprising fusion of jazz and prog, The MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA were borne from the despatch of 1971’s THE INNER MOUNTING FLAME {*8} which, as a US Top 100 entry, quickly established the group as one of the globe’s leading purveyors of the encapsulating hybrid genre. In two and a half years since John’s inaugural “Extrapolation”, he’d now branched into double figures on LPs that he’d either spearheaded or augmented. Post-HENDRIX, with CLAPTON now a bona fide “slow-hand”, the genius guitarist was proving to be his instrument’s saviour, even if the phrase “hard-rock” was left to the PAGE’s, BLACKMORE’s and IOMMI’s of the day. Cobham, Hammer, Goodman and Laird, trading intensely for space with kingpin McLaughlin, the precision-time improv flights of fancy were served best on `Meeting Of The Spirits’, `Dawn’, and the volatile triumvirate of `Vital Transformation’, `The Dance Of Maya’ of `You Know, You Know’.
Better still was the MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA’s sophomore set, BIRDS OF FIRE (1973) {*8}, a record that surprised many pundits when it gate-crashed both the US and UK Top 20. Crossing over the tight boundaries between jazz-fusion and KING CRIMSON-like prog, the defining moments on this angular and complex LP were in the opening title track, `Miles Beyond (Miles Davis)’, the Flamenco-fuelled `Thousand Island Park’, the crescendo-inducing `Hope’ (i.e. the 2 minutes leading into the wonderfully wigged-out `One Word’), and the one-that-got-away single `Open Country Joy’.
Busying himself in a collaborative album with CARLOS SANTANA (`Love Devotion Surrender’), a MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA concert set containing three lengthy, fresh-of-the-press cuts (`Trilogy: Sunlit Path – La Mere De La Mer – Tomorrow’s Story Not The Same’, `Sister Andrea’ and the side-long `Dream’), BETWEEN NOTHINGNESS & ETERNITY – LIVE (1973) {*7}, closed the first cosmic chapter for the ensemble.
John dissolved the original line-up (both COBHAM and HAMMER respectively mounting their own solo inner flames), and recruited a more string-orientated cast of MAHAVISHNU… musicians, including French virtuoso violinist JEAN-LUC PONTY (ex-FRANK ZAPPA band), keyboardist/singer Gayle Moran, bassist Ralphe Armstrong, and drummer/percussionist Narada Michael Walden. Produced by the legendary George Martin and performed alongside the London Symphonic Orchestra (conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas), their second near-US Top 40 set, APOCALYPSE (1974) {*7}, was another refined statement of intent. Bolstered by prog-length pieces, `Vision Is A Naked Sword’ and `Hymn To Him’, it stretched their jazz-rock motifs into classical ones.
Disgracefully underrated at the time (and since!?) for its bombastic and/or complex self-indulgent diversions, the ethereal VISIONS OF THE EMERALD BEYOND (1975) {*9} only scraped a lowly US peak position of #68. What planet were they on!? Balancing on a precipice of passionate prog and neo-classical nuances (okay, the second side meandered into MAGMA territory on the fracking finale `On The Way Home To Earth’), the whole of side one (featuring the heavenly `Eternity’s Breath – Parts 1 & 2’, the FOCUS-esque `Lila’s Dance’, the bubbling `Can’t Stand Your Funk’ and the PONTY-piece `Pastoral’), were out of this world, while the grandiose opening three consecutive cuts of the flip-side (the freak-folky `Faith’, the body-popping `Cosmic Strut’ and Gayle’s blinding minute of mayhem, `If I Could See’), were truly inspired by the gods.
Retaining only Walden and Armstrong, while adding Stu Goldberg (keyboards), the back-to-basics jazz-fusion album, INNER WORLDS (1976) {*6}, was down to both MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA and JOHN McLAUGHLIN. Stalling at #118 chart-wise, one funky track in particular, `Planetary Citizen’, was of interest a decade and a half later to Bristolians MASSIVE ATTACK, who indeed sampled the high-octane singing of Norma Jean Bell and Carol Shive for their `Unfinished Sympathy’ classic. Spiritually at ease with its synthetic noodlings, it nevertheless bounced along the cosmos of continuum a la `Miles Out’, `All In The Family’ and the sedate `Lotus Feet’.
McLAUGHLIN duly abandoned the project, opting for a more overtly spiritual direction with Indian classical (World music) acoustic outfit, SHAKTI. Not his most intentionally commercial venture by any stretch of the imagination, and founded the previous summer “live” with Madras-born violinist L. (Lakshminarayana) Shankar, plus augmentation from Vikku Vinayakram (ghatam, mridangam), Zakir Hussain (tabla) and initially, Ramnad V. Raghavan (mridangam), their first East-meets-West unison was up and running on SHAKTI with JOHN McLAUGHLIN (1976) {*7}. Comprising the cross-pollenated and meditative `Lotus Feet’ and a couple of expeditious ragas, `Joy’ (at 18 minutes) and the 29-minute `What Need Have I For This – What Need Have I For That…’, jazz-fusion had adopted a buoyant baby cousin.
Retreating to the confines of a London studio with band in hand, 1977’s organic sophomore piece, A HANDFUL OF BEAUTY {*6}, was another set to lift the spirits – wherever they were hiding. Saddled next to the obligatory marathon expeditions from the forests of fusion, `India’ and `Isis’, more accessibly trimmed pieces could be tasted by way of the traditional `Kriti’ and the free-spirited, larynx-twisting opener `La Danse Du Bonheur’.
The SHAKTI triumvirate was concluded with final instalment, NATURAL ELEMENTS (1977) {*7}, another creation from the gods, and one that surely inspired the likes of RY COODER, PETER GABRIEL and other artists taking a cinematic approach to their work. Allowing oneself fresh fields to explore and inhale, the hope and joy that tracks such as `Happiness Is Being Together’, `The Daffodil And The Eagle’ and `Peace Of Mind’, bring to the tabla(!), were insurmountable.
Acolytes had to be as adaptable and as mindful of the maestro McLAUGHLIN, on where his next voyage would take him. Assisted on his solo-credited 1978 LP, ELECTRIC GUITARIST {*7}, by soloists in their right, CHICK COREA, CARLOS SANTANA, JACK BRUCE, STANLEY CLARKE, DAVID SANBORN (not forgetting the input from COBHAM and Goodman), the man was in fine fusion fettle on broody selections: `New York On My Mind’, `Do You Hear The Voices That You Left Behind?’ and the closing instrumental cover of Ned Washington & Victor Young’s `My Foolish Heart’.
Towards the end of the decade, the erstwhile fusion pioneer returned to his trusty guitar with The ONE TRUTH BAND (i.e. Stu Goldberg, L. Shankar and drummer Tony Smith), to unveil the funk-driven jazz exploration of ELECTRIC DREAMS (1979) {*6}. Naming one flighty jam track, `Miles Davis’, in rhetoric aplomb to his Bitches Brew MC, `Love And Understanding’ and `The Dark Prince’ proved McLAUGHLIN could sidle between sophistication and complex improv.
Encircling McLAUGHLIN’s solo venture, BELO HORIZONTE (1981) {*6} – featuring the aptly-named `Very Early (Homage To Bill Evans)’ and the enlightening opening title track (were TORTOISE listening?) – the man’s celebrated link-up with AL DI MEOLA and PACO DE LUCIA: FRIDAY NIGHT IN SAN FRANCISCO (1981) {*7}, remains one of the best selling live items in his catalogue, a record which, along with the trio’s studio follow-up, PASSION, GRACE & FIRE (1983) {*6}, concentrated on acoustic, Flamenco/Latin-based material.
A re-formed MAHAVISHNU – McLaughlin and Cobham with newcomers Mitchell Forman (keyboards), Bill Evans (saxophone), Jonas Hellborg (bass), plus Danny Gottlieb (percussion) – dispatched the eponymous MAHAVISHNU (1984) {*4}, an utterly disappointing trek through the minefields of jazz-fusion. Unperturbed when COBHAM again bailed (his berth taken by a promoted Gottlieb), the JOHN McLAUGHLIN/MAHAVISHNU-credited ADVENTURES IN RADIOLAND (1987) {*5}, rode their luck beyond the pale.
The mid-80s also saw McLAUGHLIN making an appearance on the Round Midnight jazz flick soundtrack, but in a fresh decade, the guitar virtuoso continued exploring new possibilities in jazz, performing “MEDITERRANEAN” CONCERTO (1990) {*5} with the London Symphony Orchestra and Katia Labeque.
The mostly acoustic JOHN McLAUGHLIN TRIO (with Kai Eckhardt on fretless electric bass and Trilok Gurtu on drums) released the November 1989 recording LIVE AT THE ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL {*6} the following spring, while similar personnel completed studio return, QUE ALEGRIA (1992) {*6}; the veteran jazz-fusion meister utilised a guitar synth to augment his acoustic playing.
Enlisting like-minded Joey DeFrancesco (organ) and Dennis Chambers (drums) for the next few years, there was sad news with the death of his former colleague and formative influence BILL EVANS, a circumstance that prompted the recording of tribute set, TIME REMEMBERED: John McLaughlin plays Bill Evans (1993) {*5}, wherein 50 year-old John also worked with a classical guitar quintet. Steadfast fans no doubt welcomed the man’s return to electric guitar on TOKYO LIVE (1994) {*5}, a release billed with the free spirits (Joey and Dennis), a blues-orientated gig which served as light relief from the grief of its predecessor.
Swapping Chambers for Elvin Jones, AFTER THE RAIN (1995) {*5} and THE PROMISE (1996) {*5}, meanwhile, took their inspiration from various strands of McLAUGHLIN’s recent musical history; for the latter the guitarist worked with a whole range of his favourite collaborators (including Francesco, Chambers, De Lucia, Di Meola and Gurtu) and even some er… fresh faces in the shape of JEFF BECK and DAVID SANBORN. Almost swept under the carpet was McLAUGHLIN’s score to MOLOM: A Legend Of Mongolia (1996) {*6} and the DE LUCIA and DI MEOLA Musketeer-ing venture, THE GUITAR TRIO (1996) {*6}, both dished up for French listeners only.
It was perhaps only a matter of time before McLAUGHLIN resurrected his “Remember SHAKTI” project and so, more than two decades on from the original recordings, the guitarist once again joined forces with Hussain, T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram, and special guest Hariprasad Chaurasia for REMEMBER SHAKTI (1999) {*6}, a spiritually enriching set rooted in Indian classical music. As Vikku moved over for U. Shirinivas and V. Selvaganesh on THE BELIEVER (2000) {*6} set, the rejuvenated outfit travelled to India, in late 2000, for a show which was recorded and later released as SATURDAY NIGHT IN BOMBAY (2001) {*6}.
Prior to the “Shakti” three was THE HEART OF THINGS (1997) {*6}, another fine electric set featuring Chambers, amongst others; confusingly enough, the 1998-recorded THE HEART OF THINGS: Live in Paris {*6}, was issued in 2000. Back on track with THIEVES AND POETS (2003) {*6}, this was a different beast altogether, an ambitious yet intimate and revealing collection of acoustic, classically influenced guitar work comprising both original compositions and a clutch of well-worn but – in McLAUGHLIN’s masterful hands at least – still eminently listenable standards, including `Stella By Starlight’ and `My Romance’.
Standing still for no one and either side of turning O.A.P., INDUSTRIAL ZEN (2006) {*6} and FLOATING POINT (2008) {*6} – the latter his first for North Carolina’s Abstract Logix imprint – McLAUGHLIN had ironed out a few of the creases on his smoothly sophisticated jazz motif.
A subsequent joint effort with CHICK COREA on `Five Peace Band’ (2009), led to fresh horizons on a trio of albums accredited to the multi-cultural JOHN McLAUGHLIN & THE 4TH DIMENSION (i.e. drummer/percussionist/keyboardist Gary Husband, Cameroonian bassist Etienne Mbappe and drummer/percussionist Mark Mondesir). Inspired by JOHN COLTRANE (mainly his `A Love Supreme’), 2010’s TO THE ONE {*7} tore up the pages of time with the freewheeling or intense balance between the half a dozen pieces within.
With Ranjit Barot (drums/vocals) filling the berth of Mondesir, the tight, knotted and infectious electric jazz grooves continued with NOW HERE THIS (2012) {*7}, while the funk-fusion modulated into the live-in-concert THE BOSTON RECORD (2014) {*6}. From `Raju’ to a reprise of Mahavishnu’s `You Know, You Know’, the hour-long set cut at Berklee College of Music the previous year, oozed sophistication.
As another of his esteemed colleagues, DE LUCIA, passed to the other side that February, a solo-billed JOHN McLAUGHLIN set to work on BLACK LIGHT {*7}. Delivered toward the end of 2015, jazz-fusion was all the better for tribute Flamenco piece, `El Hombre Que Sabia’, while the complex rush of blood from `Here Come The Jiis’, `Clap Your Hand’ and `Panditji’, were premiership World class.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Feb2016

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