John McLaughlin was the first jazz musician who I could relate to when I gingerly stepped across the great divide between rock and jazz in 1971. While Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter seemed to come from another realm, I could tell McLaughlin was cut from the same cloth as my heroes Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman.
Born in 1942 in Yorkshire, McLaughlin exploded onto the North American jazz scene in 1969/70 with appearances on trumpeter Miles Davis’ seminal recording In A Silent Way, Emergency! by drummer Tony Williams’ band Lifetime, and two wildly dissimilar albums – Devotion and Where Fortune Smiles – under his own name.
As is often the case, what appeared to be an overnight sensation had been brewing for years. McLaughlin – who taught himself to play after growing interested in American country blues, flamenco and the gypsy music of Django Reinhardt – built a successful career as a session guitarist in London during the ‘60s, recording with artists ranging from Petula Clark to David Bowie. But, by 1967, he had tired of the session life and moved to Germany to play jazz with vibraphonist Gunter Hampel. He would return occasionally to Britain for gigs with musicians like bassist Dave Holland and drummer Tony Oxley, and one of these trips resulted in his first album, Extrapolation, which remains one of the most exciting debuts in contemporary jazz. Already in place were his remarkably fluid technical facility, diamond-hard tone, and vivid harmonic imagination.
His achievements led to an invitation from Williams to join organist Larry Young in New York City to form Lifetime, and within days of his arrival in the States, to join Davis in the studio for the first of several recordings. The iconoclastic trumpeter was several months into a two-year period of intensive studio activity, and in addition to In A Silent Way, McLaughlin became a key part of Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, Live-Evil (where I first encountered him) and Big Fun. His sound – ranging from harp-like arpeggios to funky rhythm parts to excoriating, hyper-amplified solos – immediately placed McLaughlin alongside Hendrix as one of the new voices on the instrument.
“What strikes you when you listen to those sessions is that he was such a complete player,” says Bob Belden, who has won several Grammy Awards for his work in producing box sets of Davis’ electric music. “He had a whole range of styles, but, like Hendrix, what really made him stand out was his respect for the blues – something that most American guitarists didn’t have. He just needed to be around players of his own calibre to shine.”
In 1971, when long hair, ragged denim and flannel ruled music fashion, McLaughlin sheared his hair, donned white clothing and adopted the name Mahavishnu to symbolize his devotion to religious leader Sri Chimnoy. But, despite these radical changes, it was his new band that drew attention. An electric quintet, the Mahavishnu Orchestra stunned listeners with rapid-fire unison melody lines, unusual time signatures and advanced dynamics. The band’s first recording, The Inner Mounting Flame, remains a landmark work of the era. It's one of those recordings that I remember exactly where I was – in the basement of the Le Chateau store on Ottawa's Rideau Street – when I first heard it.
“McLaughlin’s sound was so different for that time,” says Ottawa guitarist Wayne Eagles, who teaches through Carleton University’s music department. “He had just incredible facility in his picking hand, and a distinctively angular, jagged way of phrasing.”
Within three years, McLaughlin had disbanded the original group and, maintaining the band’s name, was exploring orchestral work and synthesizers. In 1976, he made the jaws of guitar lovers drop again when he formed Shakti, an acoustic group featuring four traditional Indian musicians; his acoustic playing was as fluid and distinctive as his electric style.
“He’s an amazing acoustic player,” says jazz guitarist Pete McCann, one of McLaughlin’s most-prominent disciples. “His work on both steel-string and nylon-string guitar rank him as one of the best acoustic players ever to play the instrument.”
After Shakti, fans could never again pin McLaughlin down to a predictable style. His subsequent works included renewed interest in the jazz-rock fusion he helped pioneer, collaborations with his then-partner, classical pianist Katia Labéque, and spirited – but overtly commercial – meetings with guitarists Paco de Lucia and Al DiMeola.
For the past 20 years, he has followed his own imagination, adapting the dreamy music of jazz pianist Bill Evans to guitar, touring in a trio with organist Joey DeFrancesco, and continuing his pursuit of Indian classical music in Shakti Remembered.
“He’s a remarkable musician for his ability to do so many different things,” says Los Angeles guitarist Skip Heller. “He’s a fountainhead of the guys who made the guitar a frontline instrument in jazz, and he has maintained a totally world view of the instrument.”
“He has been a resounding influence on guitarists in the past 35 years,” says Eagles. “His music always sounds up to date, and he’s still at the top of his game.”
Indeed he is, as he demonstrated on a tour that brought him through Ottawa in 2008 and on his new CD, To The One. Backed by Gary Husband on keyboards and drums, Etienne M'Bappe, bass, and primary drummer Mark Mondesir, McLaughlin is back to cranking up the volume and playing with the abandon and speed he blew us away with 40 years ago. Mondesir has the same flair for polyrhythms and rolls as Billy Cobham, and M'Bappe – the latest of a series of bassists McLaughlin has used who sound like they're channeling Jaco Pastorius – continually drives the band forward.
As the title implies, McLaughlin is delving into his spiritual side again (his brief liner notes pay homage to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme) but while on recordings like Love, Devotion, Surrender (with Carlos Santana) McLaughlin was so intense about his spiritual search that he seemed to be flogging himself with music the way a devotee might flagellate himself with sharp branches, he seems more at peace now. "Special Beings" lopes along at a leisurely pace, and despite the searing tone of his guitar on "The Fine Line," this is music that sounds like it's filled with joy rather than a desperate search for enlightenment.