THE DOZENS: JOHN MCLAUGHLIN ON STANDARDS by Walter Kolosky

Editor’s note: Guitarist extraordinaire John McLaughlin recently participated in a candid dialogue with jazz.com’s Walter Kolosky. Kolosky now follows up with a Dozens devoted to McLaughlin’s memorable recordings of jazz standards. T.G.





                               John McLaughlin, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Finding a constant element a dozen times in guitarist John McLaughlin’s disparate musical career is about as easy as threading the eye of a needle with a rope. But, there are ways of doing that. McLaughlin has ventured into almost every genre possible and created a few of his own as well. His mastery of the guitar is unchallenged even among those who believe he plays too fast, too loud or too far out. But, because many listeners have focused so much on his technical skill and his loud rock pedigree, they have overlooked something very basic about the core of McLaughlin’s music.

John McLaughlin is a jazz romantic. He has a great deal of respect for his contemporaries who are writing future standards and reverence for his jazz forefathers and the standard repertoire they have left behind. While not always easily discernible, all of McLaughlin’s music has its roots in that jazz tradition. Here are a dozen of the clearer examples of his great respect for the standards and the musicians and composers who created them.


John McLaughlin: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

Track

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

Artist

John McLaughlin (acoustic guitar)

CD

My Goal's Beyond (Ryko RCD 10051)

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Musicians:

John McLaughlin (acoustic guitar).

Composed by Charles Mingus

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Recorded: New York, 1970

Albumcoverjohnmclaughlin-mygoal-sbeyond

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

Mention Charlie Mingus's tribute to Lester Young these days and most people will associate it with Jeff Beck's electric version on his album Wired. That performance was good enough, but did not really please Charlie. He wanted it played with the jazz changes he had written. John McLaughlin played those changes. He also played the tune on a steel-stringed acoustic guitar. Fans familiar only with his jarring electric work from this period were stunned and then quickly enchanted by just how beautiful distortion-master McLaughlin could make an acoustic guitar sound. His exacting jazz chords, clean fleet-fingered runs snapped off like dry branches, and subtle harmonic nuances showed a mastery of the guitar that wasn't known at that time. McLaughlin's emotive performance of "Pork Pie" betrayed a player who, despite his growing fame in the rock world, was really carrying on a tradition.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Carlos Santana & Mahavishnu John McLaughlin: Naima

Track

Naima

Artist

Carlos Santana (acoustic guitar) and John McLaughlin (acoustic guitar)

CD

Love, Devotion, Surrender (Columbia CK 63593)

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Musicians:

Carlos Santana (acoustic guitar), John McLaughlin (acoustic guitar).

Composed by John Coltrane

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Recorded: New York, October 1972

Albumcoverjohnmclaughlin-carlossantana-lovedevotionsurrender

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

This lovely John Coltrane piece has been interpreted innumerable times. It is very difficult to come close to the brilliance of the original. The two attempts that come closest are both provided by string players. Mandolinist David Grisman's versions from several of his albums are highly recommended. I also favor McLaughlin's first recording of the piece which appeared on Love, Devotion, Surrender. McLaughlin was joined by rock guitar superstar Carlos Santana for this recording. Carlos was a rabid fan of McLaughlin and had started to dig what John's spiritual guru, the late Sri Chinmoy, was saying in those days. Whether you believe in gurus or not, there is no doubt the two players themselves were immersed in a spiritual vortex that saw Coltrane, Chinmoy and music itself at its very center. This performance is a devotional prayer without words. McLaughlin is the stronger player and the guide, but the interplay between the two is revelatory. (McLaughlin later also covered the tune on his Coltrane tribute album After The Rain.)

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Carlos Santana & Mahavishnu John McLaughlin: A Love Supreme

Track

A Love Supreme

Artist

Carlos Santana (guitar) and John McLaughlin (guitar)

CD

Love, Devotion, Surrender (Columbia CK 63593)

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Musicians:

Carlos Santana (guitar), John McLaughlin (guitar), Larry Young (Khalid Yasin) (organ),

Doug Rauch (bass), Armando Peraza (congas), Jan Hammer (drums), Michael Shrieve (drums)

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Recorded: New York, October 1972

Albumcoverjohnmclaughlin-carlossantana-lovedevotionsurrender

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

Carlos Santana, a fellow Coltrane admirer, joined John McLaughlin on Love, Devotion, Surrender for "A Love Supreme." Wailing electric guitars and agitated calls and responses punctuate a truly transcendent version. Whether you believe in the organic nature of a divine music or not, you cannot help but be carried away to some distant place upon the chanting refrains from this performance. It is an homage played with the fervor of true believers in a message and a man.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


John McLaughlin: Frevo Rasgado

Track

Frevo Rasgado

Artist

John McLaughlin (acoustic guitar) and Paco De Lucia (acoustic guitar)

CD

Friday Night in San Francisco (Columbia CK 37152)

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Musicians:

John McLaughlin (acoustic guitar), Paco De Lucia (acoustic guitar).

Composed by Egberto Gismonti

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Recorded: San Francisco, CA, December 5, 1980

Albumcoverjohnmclaughlin-pacodelucia-aldimeola-fridaynightinsanfrancisco

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

Brazilian composer and multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti's popular "Frevo Rasgado" has proven to be the perfect vehicle for John McLaughlin to show his multifaceted skills for many years now. Live in performance duet with the great flamenco guitarist Paco De Lucia, McLaughlin shows his arranging skills, jazz and flamenco-style chops, his stop-and-start-on-the-side-of-a-dime control, his masterly comping for another of the world's best guitarists, and his improvising genius. For extra measure, he throws in some drama by displaying pyrotechnics and show-business tricks. "Frevo," as it is often called for short, may be too international in flavor and too difficult to play to become a major part of the everyday standard jazz repertoire, but it deserves to be.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


John McLaughlin: My Foolish Heart

Track

My Foolish Heart

Artist

John McLaughlin (electric guitar)

CD

John McLaughlin – Electric Guitarist (Columbia CK 46110)

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Musicians:

John McLaughlin (electric guitar).

Composed by Victor Young

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Recorded: New York, 1978

Albumcoverjohnmclaughlin-electricguitarist

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

Victor Young wrote the music for the 1949 movie of the same name, which critics hated. Despite the film's negative press, "My Foolish Heart" earned Young one of his 20 lifetime Oscar nominations, this time for Best Song. John McLaughlin lowered the tuning of the low E string so he could use his thumb to provide a lower-register bass to accompany his lush chords and pristine single-note runs. McLaughlin's sound is gorgeous. The melancholy ballad is the last cut on the record and is an outlier on an album full of heavy fusion. McLaughlin likes to jar you that way. I don't think he does it to show off. Rather, he wants you to cool down and relax after experiencing his all-out sonic attack.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


John McLaughlin: Blue in Green

Track

Blue in Green

Group

John McLaughlin Trio

CD

John McLaughlin Trio – Live at The Royal Festival Hall (JMT 834 436-2)

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Musicians:

John McLaughlin (acoustic MIDI guitar),

Kai Eckhardt (bass), Trilok Gurtu (percussion)

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Composed by Miles Davis

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Recorded: London, November 27, 1989

Albumcoverjohnmclaughlin-liveatroyalfestivalhall

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

Miles wrote it! No, Bill Evans wrote it! For some, the argument goes on and on. (Evans credits Miles on his album, so I will go with that.) At any rate, McLaughlin has had two passes at this piece over the years. His solo acoustic interpretation on My Goal's Beyond is marked as a favorite by many. But the superior version is to be found on Live at Royal Festival Hall. McLaughlin, using a new acoustic guitar with midi effects, not only twists the tune around crooked, he challenges the concept of the space-time continuum while he's at it.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


John McLaughlin: Very Early

Track

Very Early

Artist

John McLaughlin (acoustic MIDI guitar)

CD

Time Remembered – John McLaughlin plays Bill Evans (Verve 314 519 861-2)

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Musicians:

John McLaughlin (acoustic MIDI guitar),

The Aighetta Quartet (acoustic Guitars), Jan Maresz (bass)

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Recorded: Milan, Italy, March 1993

Albumcoverjohnmclaughlin-playsbillevans-timeremembered

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

This is one of Bill Evans's most beautiful compositions. McLaughlin's admiration for Evans is well known. He played "Very Early" on his Belo Horizonte album. But he gives it a lengthier treatment on his tribute to Bill Evans, Time Remembered. Performing with a guitar quartet and a bassist, McLaughlin treats the tune as if it were a fragile piece of glass. The overuse of reverb in the recording is a little annoying, but it does not break the spell of this lush lullaby. This is McLaughlin in his most romantic, almost saccharine, bag. There is a great energy nonetheless to his improvised parts. Some people didn't like McLaughlin's heavily arranged "classical" approach to Evan's music on this and other tunes. But my wife loves the album. If my wife can love any album from an electric fusion god, there is hope for us all.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


John McLaughlin: No Blues

Track

No Blues

Artist

John McLaughlin (electric guitar)

CD

The Free Spirits – Tokyo Live (Verve 314 521 870-2)

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Musicians:

John McLaughlin (electric guitar), Joey DeFrancesco (organ), Dennis Chambers (drums).

Composed by Miles Davis

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Recorded: Tokyo, Japan, December 1993

Albumcoverjohnmclaughlin-thefreespirits-tokyolive

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

McLaughlin's organ trio group The Free Spirits released its one and only album, Tokyo Live, in 1993. It is not one of my favorite McLaughlin groups because I was never really happy with the sound of John's guitar. In person and live it was a great band because you could see John playing. But on record, his sound was too close to Joey DeFrancesco's organ to tell them apart during unison playing. With that caveat out of the way, the band, with Dennis Chambers on drums, did a killer version of "No Blues." With unison playing less of a role in this tune, McLaughlin's blues chops are front and center. They are somewhat traditional in sense of form, but his bending of the notes downward in pitch and not upward creates yet another John McLaughlin trademark sound.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


John McLaughlin: Manha De Carnaval

Track

Manha De Carnaval

Artist

John McLaughlin (acoustic guitar)

CD

The Guitar Trio (Verve 314 533 215-2)

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Musicians:

John McLaughlin (acoustic guitar), Al Di Meola (acoustic guitar).

Composed by Luiz Bonfa

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Recorded: Wiltshire, England, Summer 1996

Albumcoverpacodelucia-johnmclaughlin-aldimeola-theguitartrio

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

McLaughlin has been playing the Brazilian standard "Manha De Carnaval," sometimes called "Black Orpheus" because of the movie it came from, since at least 1980 when he performed it in trio with Larry Coryell and Paco De Lucia. This is a duet with Al Di Meola. John is the stronger lyrical player even though you would tend to think any Latin music would be more of Di Meola's bailiwick. The tune's sad but optimistic melody is the perfect canvas for McLaughlin to paint washes of nuance.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


John McLaughlin: Afro Blue

Track

Afro Blue

Artist

John McLaughlin (electric guitar)

CD

John McLaughlin – After The Rain (Verve 527 467-2)

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Musicians:

John McLaughlin (electric guitar), Joey DeFrancesco (organ), Elvin Jones (drums).

Composed by Mongo Santamaria

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Recorded: New York, 1994

Albumcoverjohnmclaughlin-aftertherain

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

McLaughlin's energetic version of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" from After the Rain is a fully realized treatment of the tune most often associated with John Coltrane. McLaughlin, organist Joey DeFrancesco and Coltrane alumnus Elvin Jones on drums drive the tune as if it were one of those monster trucks going down a steep hill in Baja. McLaughlin mutes his chorused guitar sound a bit, which may be a detriment. But if you pay attention, his swinging line-playing evokes Coltrane's sax forays.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


John McLaughlin: My Romance

Track

My Romance

Artist

John McLaughlin (acoustic guitar)

CD

John McLaughlin – Thieves and Poets (Verve 011 370-2)

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Musicians:

John McLaughlin (acoustic guitar),

The Aighetta Quartet (acoustic guitars), Jan Maresz (bass)

.

Composed by Rodgers and Hart

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Recorded: Monaco, 2003

Albumcoverjohnmclaughlin-thievesandpoets

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

This could be a fun thing to do: play McLaughlin's beautiful acoustic rendition of "My Romance" to someone unfamiliar with John's playing. Its harp-like chords and deep rich melody notes will enchant the listener. Then play the McLaughlin Mahavishnu Orchestra's head-jarring electric "Birds of Fire" immediately. After you resuscitate the now-shocked listener, try your damnedest to convince him or her that it was the same guitarist playing both songs. You will not be able to do it!

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Joe Farrell: Follow Your Heart

Track

Follow Your Heart

Group

Joe Farrell Quartet

CD

Joe Farrell Quartet (CBS Associated ZK 40694)

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Musicians:

Joe Farrell (sax), Chick Corea (piano), Dave Holland (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), John McLaughlin (electric guitar).

Composed by John McLaughlin

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, July 1970

Albumcoverjoefarrellquartet-johnmclaughlin

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

I am cheating a bit calling this tune a standard. It is not. But damn it, this should be. Here's my case: I once heard it on a soap opera. Guitarist Bill Frisell covered it on his fine album Ghost Town. John Abercrombie also takes a skilled whack at it on the Mahavishnu tribute album Visions of an Inner Mounting Apocalypse. That's enough justification for me. Here, a young electric John McLaughlin plays with Joe Farrell, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. (Chick Corea sits it out.) What a band and what a performance! "Follow Your Heart" is a melodious ballad with a hook, played in a relaxed mode with an unusual time signature (11/8) and enough open space for all of the players to successfully contribute. It is also one of the earliest examples of McLaughlin showing off those comping "jangly" chords he would become famous for. ("Follow Your Heart" also appears in part on McLaughlin's album Extrapolation and in full on My Goal's Beyond.)

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky



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