Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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McLaughlin, John

John McLaughlin, considered by many to be among the most unique and influential guitar players of the modern era, was born on January 4, 1942 in Yorkshire, England and was the youngest of five children. His parents went their separate ways when he was only seven. He stayed with his mother and moved away from Yorkshire to a small seacoast village near the Scottish border. John has very little memory of his father, who was a turbo engineer by trade. His mother and his sister and his brothers, who were great intellects and would go on to careers in academia, supplied him with the tools for life.

        John McLaughlin, 2006, photo by Ina McLaughlin

When he was 11, John inherited an acoustic guitar from his brother David that had been passed down from each of his brothers. One of them taught him a few chords. Through the chords he discovered the blues. John became an instant fan of blues legends Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy. He lived with the instrument day and night and began devoting every waking moment to its mastery. One day his amateur violinist mother Mary had to take away the guitar because the fingers on his left hand were bloody from playing it.

It’s not work,” McLaughlin has commented. “It’s not anything. It’s just you love that instrument so much and you just go for it.” When John was about 13 years old, he heard some Indian music on the radio. It made his hair stand on end. He did not pursue any further understanding of what he heard because it was from some far away place. But it had left its mark.

About a year later, John discovered flamenco. He was instantly attracted to it because he could feel the blues deep inside of it. John played the guitar using his first fingernail to pluck the strings until he heard the great gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. To play like him, John needed a pick.

While in school he played in three bands. Playing in front of the class provided much opportunity for young John to mess things up. He did so often. But the pressure of public performance did much to accelerate his learning process. “It was very stimulating for me to have the chance to play on a fairly regular basis in front of the class because it’s a ‘public,’” he has remarked about this period. “No matter what kind of public it is, it’s a public. And the moment you stand up and try to do something in front of a public is when you start learning. And you start quickly discovering how really incompetent you are.”

In 1958 McLaughlin left home to begin his professional music career. He moved to Manchester, England and played with Big Pete Deuchar and his Professors of Ragtime. John got some important experience under his belt before the band eventually broke up. He then decided to relocate to London.

McLaughlin’s first big break came when he landed a gig with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. Georgie’s band was jazz influenced and one of the most popular live acts in London. “This was good music,” McLaughlin has recalled. “You’d be doing King Pleasure and Mose Allison tunes…It was R&B. But anyway, you take the R&B out of jazz you don’t have any jazz left. Do you? Georgie had a great voice and played Hammond organ. It was a good band. “

When John was 21, he joined the Graham Bond Quartet. Bond was a very charismatic keyboardist who would influence McLaughlin in other more personal ways. Bond introduced the young guitarist to the concept of self-realization. John would begin a lifelong investigation into the nature of being and consciousness. This would shape his approach to life and to music.

It was during this time and afterward that John became very good friends with guitarist Big Jim Sullivan, who several years later would become the guitarist for singer Tom Jones. Sullivan was really into Indian music. This intrigued McLaughlin, who still remembered the impact a few minutes of Indian music on the radio had on him when he was a kid.

“ It was Big Jim Sullivan who let me hear the vina player Balachander for the first time,” McLaughlin comments. :This had a big impact on me. I must have been 25 by this time. But I recognized the South Indian music. I recognized that it was also part of what I’d heard when I was about 13 years old.”

In 1968, John did a stint with the Gordon Beck Quartet. He also toured Europe with the free jazz vibes player Gunther Hampel. In addition, John developed an affinity for the baritone sax during this period. This turned him on to John Surman’s playing. McLaughlin formed a band that included Surman, Tony Oxley on drums, and Dave Holland on bass. The group managed to get a few gigs.

McLaughlin got a call one day offering him the opportunity to make his own record. The record became Extrapolation, which has since been called by some the greatest jazz album ever recorded by a British artist. Concurrently, Miles Davis’ young drummer Tony Williams heard a tape of McLaughlin jamming with Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. “Unbeknownst to us,” McLaughlin recalls, “Jack recorded it on a little cheap, old tape machine. It was during some conversation in America that Tony was telling Jack he was thinking of leaving Miles and forming his own trio. He was asking Jack about a guitar player. Jack said, “Well, listen to him.” – listen to me. He played him the tape with us jamming together. That’s what eventually led to the call from Tony.”

In February of 1969, McLaughlin went to New York to be in Williams’ new group which would eventually be named The Tony Williams Lifetime. Within two days of his arrival he found himself in the recording studio with the great Miles Davis for the In A Silent Way sessions. “I was just really lucky,” McLaughlin has explained. “I was in the right spot in the right time with the right instrument. The fact that Tony still had a week to do with Miles was instrumental in my meeting Miles within like 24 hours. In fact, I met him the same day I arrived in America.”

For the times, Lifetime was a truly bewildering experience. Playing distorted and twisted lines, McLaughlin tried to keep pace with Williams’ constant machinery. Larry Young, the third member of the trio, was producing screeches and high-pitched whines from his B-3 that often times could only be heard by dogs. This was not a band for everybody. It was especially anathema to anyone that couldn’t stomach volume. Lifetime was cranium-crunching loud. Later, The Cream’s bassist Jack Bruce would join the group.

During Lifetime, McLaughlin was quite busy on other projects as well. He appeared on saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s Super Nova and Miroslav Vitous’ Infinite Search records. Miles was using him for session after session. In fact, he had turned down a more stable role with Davis to play with Lifetime.

It was around this time that John first met a drummer named Billy Cobham. They would play together on Davis’ A Tribute To Jack Johnson. On the tune “Right Off,” McLaughlin created one of the first great jazz-rock guitar warning shots. During this time McLaughlin also recorded his first American album. The very distorted electric jazz-rock Devotion featured Larry Young, Billy Rich on bass and Buddy Miles on drums was produced by Jimi Hendrix’ manager Alan Douglas.

John continued to do some occasional gigs with Miles Davis. Up to this time, putting together his own band was one of the furthest things from his mind. But one night after a show with Miles at Lennie’s on the Turnpike in Boston, Davis told John it was time for him to start forming his own band. So he did.

In 1971, while McLaughlin was in the process of finding some players, he still owed a second record to Douglas. He recorded My Goal’s Beyond. An acoustic record, it featured John playing solo, with some overdubbing on one side, and a group of musicians performing Indian influenced compositions on the other side. The recording would go on to have a far and continuing influence that lasts through today. The drummer in the ensemble was his new friend Billy Cobham.

McLaughlin asked Cobham to be in his new band. Eventually, he would be joined by Irish Bassist Rick Laird, who had performed with Wes Montgomery and many other jazz masters, Czech keyboardist Jan Hammer who was with the Sarah Vaughn band and American violinist Jerry Goodman, who was coming out of the popular folk-rock band The Flock.

McLaughlin’s personal life continued to be steeped in pursuit of spiritual meaning. He had become a disciple of one Guru Sri Chinmoy who had a small but devoted following in NYC. It was Chinmoy who suggested the name of the new band- The Mahavishnu Orchestra. The word “Mahavishnu” means “creator and preserver” in Hindi.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra attained the commercial success that no band coming out of modern jazz music had up until that point. Its deafening loud cross-pollination of jazz and electric rock, mixed with Indian rhythms, found a welcome home in the ears of thousands of open-minded listeners in the jazz and rock worlds. At the same time, the band was controversial in some parts of the jazz community for its unadulterated use of electric instruments. After a brief, but held-over, premier stint at the Gaslight Club in New York City- it was off to the races.

Mahavishnu sold thousands of records and filled arenas all over the world. McLaughlin became a superstar, but every member of the band was an extremely gifted musician and their interplay, including otherworldly improvisational forays, created the band that, because of its trailblazing, will always be the most noteworthy in any discussion of John McLaughlin’s music.

After recording three popular and groundbreaking albums, the original Mahavishnu Orchestra disbanded due to serious acrimony. It was a case of too much fame too soon. McLaughlin put together two more versions of the band that, although good, never achieved the heights of the initial Mahavishnu.

In 1975 McLaughlin formed the Indo-Fusion jazz outfit Shakti. It was one of the first bands to play “world music.” Featuring the Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, the group made the strong case that Classical Indian music could be seamlessly integrated with western jazz. Due to his participation in and mastery of this music, which continues in a very strong way to this day, McLaughlin has attained “maestro” status in India.

In 1979 McLaughlin, Larry Coryell (later replaced by Al DiMeola on record) and Paco DeLucia formed the fusion acoustic group The Guitar Trio. Hailed around the world, especially in South America, because of its latin-tinged undercurrent, the trio had two successful records and played to full houses in every international venue possible. Its album, Friday Night in San Francisco is arguably the most popular acoustic guitar record ever released.

McLaughlin played in several different settings in the 1980s after the success of the trio. However, during this decade his career suffered commercially. There was an effort to put together a new Mahavishnu band using new players and Billy Cobham. This did not work and Cobham was replaced by Danny Gottlieb.

As the decade waned, McLaughlin went on to write a guitar concerto, The Mediterranean that was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and formed several acoustic trios with the Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu and revolving bass players.

The 1990s and 2000s saw a strong comeback for McLaughlin as he formed an organ trio, a fusion band, had a reunion with DiMeola and De Lucia, formed a new Shakti group and wrote yet another concerto, Thieves and Poets. His guitar instruction DVD This is the Way I Do It was also very well received.

McLaughlin’s guitar playing has been universally admired for several decades. But, in recent years, reverence for McLaughlin’s composing has greatly increased due to the acknowledgement that he has been in the forefront of several important musical movements that have influenced musicians two generations removed. These movements have been the appreciation of the acoustic guitar, his founding father status of jazz-fusion and what has become known as “world music.” No fewer than 5 tribute albums to his music have been released in recent years, and more are planned.

Additional Reading:

Kolosky, Walter. Power, Passion and Beauty - The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra : The Greatest Band That Ever Was. Published by Abstract Logix Books (ISBN 0-9761016-2-9).

Selected Discography John McLaughlin as Leader:

John McLaughlin: Extrapolation. (1969)
John McLaughlin: Devotion. (1970)
John McLaughlin: My Goal’s Beyond (1971)
Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Inner Mounting Flame. (1971)
Mahavishnu Orchestra: Birds of fire. (1972)
Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Lost Trident Sessions. (1973)
Mahavishnu Orchestra: Live - Between Nothingness and Eternity. (1973)
Mahavishnu Orchestra: Apocalypse. (1974)
Mahavishnu Orchestra: Visions of the Emerald Beyond. (1974)
Mahavishnu Orchestra: Inner Worlds. (1975)
Shakti with John McLaughlin. (1975)
Shakti with John McLaughlin: Handful of Beauty. (1976)
Shakti with John McLaughlin: Natural Elements. (1977)
John McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist. (1977)
John McLaughlin & One Truth Band: Electric Dreams. (1978)
Al DiMeola - John McLaughlin - Paco de Lucia: Friday night in San Francisco. (1980)
John McLaughlin: Belo Horizonte. (1981)
John McLaughlin: Music Spoken Here. (1982)
John McLaughlin - Paco de Lucia - Al DiMeola: Passion, Grace and Fire. (1982)
John McLaughlin & Mahavishnu: Mahavishnu. (1984)
John McLaughlin & Mahavishnu: Adventures in Radioland. (1986)
John McLaughlin: The "Mediterranean" Concerto. (1988)
John McLaughlin Trio: Live At The Royal Festival Hall. (1989)
John McLaughlin Trio: Que Alegria. (1991)
John McLaughlin: Time Remembered. (1993)
The Free Spirits featuring John McLaughlin: Tokyo Live. (1993)
John McLaughlin: After the Rain. (1994)
John McLaughlin: The Promise. (1995)
John McLaughlin: The Heart of Things. (1997)
John McLaughlin: Remember Shakti. (1997)
John McLaughlin: The Heart of Things - Live in Paris. (1998)
John McLaughlin: Remember Shakti - The Believer. (1999)
Remember Shakti: Saturday Night in Bombay. (2001)
John McLaughlin: Thieves and Poets. (2003)
John McLaughlin: The Montreux concerts. (17-CD set) (2003)
Remember Shakti: The Way of Beauty. (DVD) (2006)
John McLaughlin: * Industrial Zen. (2006)
John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension: Official Bootleg. (CDR) (2007)
John McLaughlin & S. Ganesh Vinayakram: The Gateway to Rhythm. (DVD) (2007)

The selected entries of this discography, used by permission, come from the much larger and complete John McLaughlin discography compiled by Johann Haidenbauer.

Contributor: Walter Kolosky