Musician magazine, in a 1993 survey of “The 100 WË Great Guitarists of the 20th Century,” referred to John McLaughlin as “the mystic credited with inventing real fusion.” The guitarist himself—whose work has embraced jazz, rock, blues, Indian music, and flamenco, among other styles—has long disdained the label. “I’m not trying to make any kind of fusion—it just happens that way,” he protested to Guitar Player. Yet McLaughlin’s fearless hybridization of musical genres blazed a trail for other musicians and demonstrated a set of possibilities that spawned the eclectic jazz-rock movement that came to be known as “fusion.”
McLaughlin has always been far too restless to dwell in any musical territory for long. From his early work with the Graham Bond Organization to his innovative excursions with jazz legend Miles Davis to his increasingly ambitious endeavors with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti, and his own trio as well as countless brief collaborations, McLaughlin has pursued his own musical development with an openly spiritual outlook. “My work in music is a work of the spirit,” he proclaimed in a Down Beat interview. “It’s a development of my spirit, and the development of myself as a human being.”
That development began in Yorkshire, England, where he was born in 1942. Raised to a background of classical music, he studied the violin—as his mother had—as well as piano, but became interested in the guitar early in his adolescence. This was due in part to the influence of one of his brothers but largely to that of American blues, European jazz, and flamenco. Recordings by blues artists like Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, and Big Bill Broonzy, as well as jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, were particularly galvanizing for the young musician. “When I first discovered guitar at age 11, it was a five-dollar acoustic nylon-string guitar,” McLaughlin recalled in a Guitar Player interview. “I didn’t know what acoustic or electric guitars were.” He added that “The very first time I ever played the guitar I fell in love with it. I loved the sound, I loved the feeling.”
As he got a bit older, he felt an increased desire to emulate the great jazz guitarists. Soon Reinhardt “was my hero,” he told Down Beat. “Later I heard Tal Farlow and found what I consider a genius. Tal was a great source of inspiration for me.” The great artists of bebop and post-bop jazz, too, made an indelible imprint on McLaughlin: Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. The latter’s spiritual odyssey A Love Supreme took him a long time to understand, he recalled, but years later he would translate the piece into a fiery guitar duet with Carlos Santana. It was drummer Tony Williams, however, whom he wanted to play with most of all.
Born January 4,1942, in Yorkshire, England; mother was concert violinist.
Worked as a guitar teacher, 1960s; joined group Tony Williams Lifetime, c. 1969; recorded with Miles Davis, 1969; released solo album Extrapolation, Polydor, 1969; formed Mahavishnu Orchestra and released its Columbia debut, 1972; formed Shakti and released its debut Shakti With John McLaughlin, 1976; recorded and performed as solo artist and guest performer, 1978—; recorded live and studio albums with Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meola, 1981-83; left Columbia and signed with Warner Bros., 1981; re-formed Mahavishnu Orchestra with new lineup, 1984; appeared in and performed on soundtrack of film Round Midnight, 1986; moved to Verve Records, c. 1987; formed John McLaughlin Trio, 1988.
Addresses: Record company —Verve Records, Worldwide Plaza, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
He began playing professionally in London in the early 1960s, hooking up with the Graham Bond Organization, a seminal outfit that included bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, later the rhythm section of the influential psychedelic-blues trio Cream. McLaughlin also worked with Brian Auger’s band Trinity and with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. He was still in England when he became interested in Eastern religion and music; the sitar master Ravi Shankar made a particularly strong impression on him. It was the beginning of a very long artistic and spiritual quest.
In the meantime, however, he was still searching for his niche as a musician. Working as a guitar teacher, he had a number of promising pupils, including future Yardbird and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. He shared a London apartment with bassist Dave Holland, and the two of them played experimentally with drummer Jack DeJohnette, who taped the session. When Holland hooked up with Miles Davis, he described his former roommate to Davis’s drummer—Tony Williams—as a fantastic player. DeJohnette played the tape for Williams on a separate occasion; as a result, Williams invited McLaughlin to join his new band Lifetime.
It was early 1969 when the guitarist came to America to play in one idol’s band; within two days he had met Miles Davis and found himself in the studio working on Davis’s album Ina Silent Way. He worked on a number of other albums with the legendary trumpeter-composer-bandleader, including A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, Big Fun, and the groundbreaking Bitches Brew, which saw Davis inaugurating the jazz-rock era almost singlehandedly. Davis titled one track “John McLaughlin”; the guitarist later told Down Beat this “was the biggest surprise to me. I mean, I saw it on the record. I was shocked, really shocked.” He would return the compliment by placing a piece called “Miles Davis” on an album some ten years later. Davis also brought McLaughlin together with rock guitar trailblazer Jimi Hendrix for a jam session.
In a Guitar Player interview McLaughlin discussed Davis’s profound influence upon him: “With Miles, for me, it was his simplicity, his directness, the authority of his music from a rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic point of view. His conceptualizations, from my point of view, were revolutionary. Everything I could see in Miles touched me.”
Though Davis—who died in 1992—at times left composing and arranging to the many talented musicians in his fold, he displayed “the capacity and the ability to draw out of people things that even surprise the musicians themselves.” McLaughlin found liberation in Davis’s general, even cryptic directions: “He’s amazing to work with, because he’d never say, ‘I don’t really want that’; he’d just say, ‘play long’or ‘play short’. Once he told me, ‘Play like you don’t know how to play guitar.’ That’s Miles, and you just go along with it.”
Though the guitarist had to refuse Davis’s invitation to join his band because of his investment in Lifetime—which briefly featured Bruce on bass—he did later heed his recommendation to put his own band together. McLaughlin put out his first solo release, Extrapolation, in 1969. More solo efforts—notably 1971’s My Goals Beyond— followed, but soon McLaughlin was driven to assemble a more ambitious group.
Having become a disciple of the guru Sri Chinmoy, he’d also become interested in fusing Eastern and Western musics. Working with keyboardist Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman, bassist Rick Laird, tabla player Alia Rakha and drummer Billy Cobham, he formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The band would do much to shape the fusion of the ensuing decade; McLaughlin’s playing covered a huge stylistic territory. Indeed, wrote jazz scholar Joachim Berendt, “One is almost tempted to say that he plays all guitars simultaneously.”
McLaughlin himself would adopt the name Mahavishnu; in 1973 he recorded an album with Santana and in the ensuing years made several more albums with the Orchestra, though with frequent personnel changes. According to Down Beat’s Lee Jeske, the group “reached a plateau for electric interplay and depth of feeling that has, to these ears, never been equaled.”
Differences within the group caused friction, however, though McLaughlin revived Mahavishnu with different players some years later. “If you consider electric fusion music to be part of the jazz mainstream—not everyone does—then McLaughlin may be the most influential jazz figure since Coltrane,” proclaimed Rolling Stone in 1976. “As far as guitar is concerned,” Berendt opined around the same period, “McLaughlin certainly is the towering figure of this development.”
By the mid-1970s he had grown restless again, however, and formed the more acoustically oriented Shakti, with violinist L. Shankar, tablaist Zakir Hussain, and two other Indian musicians. This project became his main focus until 1977, when, as he told Guitar Player, “I wanted to get back into some jazz and electric guitar.” The solo albums Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist and Electric Dreams, with the One Truth Band, soon ranked among his most highly regarded works.
During the 1980s McLaughlin returned to the acoustic guitar. This led to a falling out with his record label Columbia and a move to Warner Brothers, which seemed to have more respect for his new direction. “One of the fundamental differences is that, with the acoustic guitar, the notes die out very quickly,” he reflected in a colloquy with Jeske of Down Beat. “This is a more tragic sound, it’s more poignant in a beautiful sense. So, that in itself compels the player to modify, in some far-reaching ways, what he’ll play.” McLaughlin added, “It reminds me of music I heard before I was born in this life,” in a 1994 Guitar Player interview with Matt Resnicoff.
Struck by the impressive work of Spanish guitarist Paco De Lucia, McLaughlin sought him out; the two played some concerts with Larry Coryell, and performed and recorded with Al Di Meola. 1987 saw the release of an album by a new Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring McLaughlin’s luthier Abraham Wechter on acoustic guitar. McLaughlin also wrote a concerto for guitar and orchestra and formed a trio with percussionist Trilok Gurtu and a changing roster of bassists including Kai Eckhardt and French sensation Dominique Di Piazza. In 1990 McLaughlin’s career was endangered by a freak accident: a television set moving on a mounting track sheared off the tip of his left index finger. Fortunately the finger was reassembled in surgery, but the guitarist couldn’t play for two months and reported to Musician that he was “having nightmares, waking up in the middle of the night sweating.” Soon, however, he was performing again. He released Que Alegria in 1992; recorded live in the studio, the album won a plaudit from Down Beat. “At 50, the inner fire is still burning,” declared reviewer Bill Milkowski. “He’s just cooking on a lower flame.”
The following year saw the appearance of his tribute to jazz pianist Bill Evans called Time Remembered in 1993. The Evans tribute involved a European guitar quartet; “I felt that if I transcribed it for a number of guitars, I could get this essential character, translated from the paino and the way he played, to the acoustic guitars,” he noted in a Down Beat profile. Reviews mere mixed; some critics, like Howard Mandel of Pulse!, complained that McLaughlin “has stifled the momentum” of Evans’s best work and made an album that “seems too still for jazz.” Entertainment Weekly’s David Hajdu, however, proclaimed “this guitar guru has finally found the God of the Details.”
The guitarist didn’t wait around for his review; he was already discussing forming an organ jazz trio and returning to the electric. He’d long since given up gurus and followed a more personal path, but as Guitar Player’s James Rotondi observed, “McLaughlin’s music continues to reflect his spirituality, passion for life, and great discipline.”
Success at the critical or commercial level has always mattered less to the guitarist than the heroic process of creativity. “I’m an eternal learner,” he insisted in a Down Beat profile. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning; it’s a personal idiosyncrasy. I’m looking all the time for a way through music—searching, in a sense, for those different ways—harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically. For me the big joy of life is to play—that’s the big joy—just to play music.”
Extrapolation, Douglas Records, 1969.
Devotion, Douglas Records, 1971.
My Goals Beyond, Polydor, 1971.
Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist, Columbia, 1978.
The Best of John McLaughlin, Columbia, 1980.
Belo Horizonte, Warner Bros., 1981.
Music Spoken Here, Warner Bros., 1982.
Live at the Royal Festival Hall, JMT, 1989.
Mediterranean Concerto, Columbia, 1990.
Que Alegria, Verve, 1992.
Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans, Verve, 1993
Where Fortune Smiles, Pye Records.
With Tony Williams and Lifetime; on Polydor
Turn It Over.
With Miles Davis
In a Silent Way, 1969.
Bitches Brew (includes “John McLaughlin”), 1969.
A Tribute to Jack Johnson, 1970.
Big Fun, 1974.
Get Up With It, 1974.
You’re Under Arrest, 1985.
With Devadip, Carlos Santana
Love, Devotion, Surrender (includes “A Love Supreme”), Columbia, 1973.
With the Mahavishnu Orchestra
The Inner Mounting Flame, Columbia, 1972.
Birds of Fire, Columbia, 1973.
Between Nothingness and Eternity, Columbia, 1973.
Apocalypse, Columbia, 1974.
Visions of the Emerald Beyond, Columbia, 1975.
Inner Worlds, Columbia, 1976.
Mahavishnu, Warner Bros., 1984.
Adventures in Radioland, Verve, 1987.
With Shakti; on Columbia
Shakti With John McLaughlin, 1976.
A Handful of Beauty, 1977.
Natural Elements, 1977.
With the One Truth Band
Electric Dreams (includes “Miles Davis”), Columbia, 1979.
With Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meóla; on Columbia
Friday Night in San Francisco, 1981.
Passion, Grace & Fire, 1983.
Carla Bley, Escalator Over the Hill, JCOA/ECM, 1971.
Graham Bond, Solid Bond, Warner Bros.
Jack Bruce, Things We Like, Atco.
Larry Coryell, Spaces, Vanguard, 1970.
Joe Farrell, The Joe Farrell Quartet, CTI.
Zakir Hussain, Making Music, ECM, 1987.
Round Midnight (soundtrack), Columbia, 1986.
Berendt, Joachim, The New Jazz Book, translated by Morgenstern, et al., Lawrence Hill, 1975.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
Down Beat, June 6,1974; April 1982; March 1985; May 1991 ; December 1991; July 1992; December 1993; January 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, November 19, 1993.
Gramophone, December 1993.
Guitar Player, August 1978; July 1992; May 1994.
Musician, February 1993; August 1993.
Pulse!, March 1994.
Rolling Stone, June 3, 1976.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Verve Records publicity materials, 1993.
"McLaughlin, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mclaughlin-john
"McLaughlin, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mclaughlin-john
Born: Yorkshire, England, 4 January 1942
Genre: Jazz, Classical, World
Best-selling album since 1990: Inner Mounting Flame (1998)
As the leader of the Mahavishnu Orchestra during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the virtuoso guitarist John McLaughlin introduced spiritual themes to the blazing speed, powerhouse rhythms, and newly emergent instruments of electric jazz-rock fusion. Since the 1990s, he has demonstrated how youthful brilliance can flower into maturity across musical genres by revisiting jazz standards and conventional formats that have inspired him, while maintaining his ground-breaking high-tech and high-energy ensembles and Shakti, the acoustic ensemble that brought Hindi classical music to rock audiences. He has also performed original chamber and symphonic works with world-class instrumentalists and orchestras.
Starting conventional piano and violin lessons at age nine, McLaughlin became enamored of the electric guitar at age eleven and largely taught himself the instrument under the influence of recordings by the Chicago blues guitarist Elmore James, the Belgian gypsy Django Reinhardt, the American modernist Tal Farlow, and other blues and swing pioneers. In London during the 1960s, McLaughlin worked with the popular, progressive bands of rockers Georgie Fame and Graham Bond, folk-rocker Brian Auger, and drummer Ginger Baker, a founding member of Cream. McLaughlin roomed with bassist Dave Holland and was a member of the circle of jazz musicians jamming at Ronnie Scott's club. In 1969 McLaughlin released his debut album, Extrapolation, moved to New York City to join drummer Tony Williams's trio Lifetime, and participated in Miles Davis's breakthrough electric jazz albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Although he continued working with Davis intermittently through the 1980s, both in concert and in studio projects, McLaughlin was never formerly a Davis band member. In 1970 McLaughlin became a disciple of Sri Chimnoy, who gave him the Hindu name "Mahavishnu" after the Hindu god of sustenance, and he established the Mahavishnu Orchestra (MO) with keyboardist Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman, bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Billy Cobham. Their unique repertoire of bold, often odd-metered instrumental music excited young audiences attuned to much more basic rock fare. The MO's aura of ecstatic religiosity contrasted with prevailing presentation styles, though its dynamics were akin to those of bands exploring heightened experience through psychedelic drugs.
The original lineup of the Mahavishnu Orchestra released three albums, and, as reorganized in 1974 to include French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, recorded two more with a string section and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. In 1975 McLaughlin initiated Shakti, a lively acoustic ensemble drawing on traditional Southern Indian (Carnatic) music, in which he played guitar with the Indian violinist L. Shankar and the tabla (hand drums) player Zakir Hussein. During that decade McLaughlin also recorded with Carlos Santana and instituted an acoustic guitar trio with European collaborators. By the mid-1980s, when he appeared on The Tonight Show and in the film 'Round Midnight (1986), both times to perform more conventional modern jazz, he had established much of the range he has subsequently pursued.
McLaughlin does not reiterate his interests; he advances them. He has pioneered the use of guitar-synthesizers and MIDI interfaces in electric jazz settings. He has promoted Hindustani musicians, including percussionist Trilok Gurtu and flutist Hariprasad Churasia, and many worthy young instrumentalists (including guitarist Dominique di Piazza; bassists Kai Eckhardt, Matthew Garrison, and Jonas Hellborg; and saxophonist Gary Thomas) in his diverse ensembles. He has adapted repertoire associated with the pianist Bill Evans and the saxophonist John Coltrane to the guitar, and has initiated classically inclined efforts, recording with the concert pianist Katia LaBeque and debuting his neo-Romantic "Mediterranean Concerto" (1988) with Tilson-Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
Especially since the 1990s, McLaughlin has strived to bring elements of his diverse projects together. His refined lyricism is evident in the funk-oriented music of his band Free Spirits, with organist Joey DeFrancesco and soul-drummer Dennis Chambers. His Mahavishnu energy infects acoustic trio recitals with fellow guitarists Paco De Lucia and Al DiMeola, and his jazz-derived phrasing is in evidence in his Indian and classical settings. He records prolifically, alternating among his ensembles while nurturing his compositional ambitions in the chamber and orchestral genres. In 2003 McLaughlin prepared a three-movement score commissioned by choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot for the Ballets de Monte Carlo titled "Thieves and Poets," featuring symphony orchestra and violin, cello, clarinet, classical guitar, and himself as soloist, to be recorded by I Pomeriggi Musicali Orchestra of Milan. Simultaneously, he prepared recordings of his favorite American songbook standards, including "Stella by Starlight" and "My Foolish Heart."
McLaughlin never blunts his passion or technique, and his ever-wider repertoire emphasizes the "one world" message of his earliest Mahavishnu days. From the 1970s to the turn of the twenty-first century, McLaughlin has continued to wed sacred and secular goals and pleasures. In performance, whatever his ensemble, he exudes both an immediate presence and a transporting intensity.
Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969); Devotion (Douglas, 1970); My Goal's Beyond (Rykodisc, 1970); Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971); Birds of Fire (Columbia 1973); Apocalypse (Columbia, 1974); Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia, 1975); Shakti (Columbia, 1976); Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist (Columbia, 1978); One Truth Band (Columbia, 1978); Belo Horizonte (Warner Bros., 1981); Music Spoken Here (Warner Bros., 1983); Mediterranean Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (Columbia, 1988); The Lost Trident Sessions (1999). With Miles Davis: In a Silent Way Sessions (Columbia, 1969); Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970); A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970); Big Fun (Columbia, 1972); On the Corner (Columbia, 1972); You're Under Arrest (Columbia, 1985); Aura (Columbia, 1985); Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra, "The Mediterranean" (CBS, 1990); John McLaughlin Trio, Live at the Royal Festival Hall (JMT, 1990); Qué Alegría (Verve, 1992); Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans (Verve, 1993); The Free Spirits, Tokyo Live (Verve, 1994); After the Rain (Verve 1995); The Promise (Verve, 1995); Paco De Lucia/Al Di Meola/John McLaughlin (Verve, 1996); The Heart of Things (Verve, 1997); Remember Shakti (Verve, 1998); Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Lost Trident Sessions (Columbia Legacy, 1999); The Heart of Things: Live in Paris (Verve, 2000); Remember Shakti: The Believer (Verve, 2000); Remember Shakti: Saturday Night in Bombay (Verve, 2001). With the Tony Williams Lifetime: Spectrum: The Anthology (Polygram, 1997).
"McLaughlin, John." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mclaughlin-john
"McLaughlin, John." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mclaughlin-john