John McLaughlin - Biography

Best known as a jazz fusion pioneer and virtuoso guitarist, John McLaughlin refuses to be pigeonholed, saying "I'm not trying to make any kind of fusion—it just happens that way." Over the course of a professional career that started in jazz and pop but has encompassed the blues, R&B and classical music, as well as presaging world music with significant forays into flamenco and Indian music, McLaughlin has been a profoundly influential recording artist and bandleader, whether blazing on electric guitar or simmering on acoustic.


John McLaughlin was born in Yorkshire, England, on January 4th, 1942, the fourth child in a middle class family. After his parents divorced in 1949, the children moved with their mother, an amateur violinist and school teacher, to a small town near the Scottish border. McLaughlin started on the piano at the age of eight. The youngster was soon entranced by the blues and flamenco records that his older brothers brought into the house. He picked up a guitar at age 11, later telling Guitar Player magazine that the “very first time I ever played the guitar I fell in love with it. I loved the sound, I loved the feeling." Over the next few years, he listened to records by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, Belgian manouche guitarist Django Reinhardt, and jazz great Tal Farlow.


In 1958, the sixteen-year-old McLaughlin moved to Manchester to play with Big Peter Duchar and his Professors of Ragtime. When the group broke up, he made his way to London. With the then-new album, Kind of Blue, by the Miles Davis sextet as his starting point, McLaughlin began to explore and absorb the classic jazz repertoire. He also began playing in a number of R&B and blues bands in the capital, starting with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. He became a member of the Graham Bond Organisation in 1963, a quartet that featured Jack Bruce on bass and Ginger Baker on drums, several years before they formed Cream with Eric Clapton. Solid Bond (1963 Warner Bros.), recorded live at Klook’s Kleek, was McLaughlin’s first appearance on record. McLaughlin’s reputation as a guitarist grew quickly in the hothouse atmosphere of the early sixties London scene. He rapidly became an in-demand session player, backing such artists as Petula Clark, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. McLaughlin also played and recorded with progressive jazzmen like pianist Gordon Beck, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and drummer Tony Oxley. By now, he’d discovered the music of John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix, two more important influences.


McLaughlin supplemented his performing income with work as a guitar teacher, counting Jimmy Page as one of his students. He shared a flat with bassist Dave Holland and one night the pair jammed at Ronnie Scott’s with drummer Jack DeJohnette, who taped the session. Soon Holland left England to join the Miles Davis group in New York. Holland told Miles’ drummer Tony Williams about McLaughlin, later playing him the tape. McLaughlin’s playing made a strong impression on Williams, who was on the verge of leaving Davis to form his own electric group. “I called John up at the end of 1968 and told him that I would like to play with him,” Williams said later. “He got on a plane in January 1969 and that was how it all started.” Before McLaughlin left for the US, he recorded his highly-regarded debut, the suite-like Extrapolation (1972 Polydor) with a quartet of Oxley, John Surman on baritone and soprano saxes, and Brian Odgers on bass. His angular, fleet and aggressive sound announced a new voice in jazz guitar, an inventive soloist and masterful comper who felt at home in a variety of time signatures.


One of the first jazz fusion bands, Tony Williams’s Lifetime began as a trio with McLaughlin and organist Larry Young. In the audience at their first gig in New York was Davis, who immediately snagged McLaughlin to play on his next album, the influential In a Silent Way (1969 Columbia). Lifetime made its first record, the double album Emergency! (1969 Polydor), that May. McLaughlin also worked as a sideman on dates led by saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous. He was back in the studio with Davis in August recording the Bitches Brew album. In a 1991 Guitar Player interview with James Rotondi, he commented on his experiences with Davis by noting that the trumpet master had “the capacity to draw out of people things that even surprise the musicians themselves. He’s been a guru of sorts to a lot of people. He was certainly a musical mentor to me.”


In 1969, McLaughlin signed a contract with Douglas Records and made a pair of albums that together establish the basic pattern his career has followed ever since. First came the high energy fusion of Devotion with a quartet of Young, Billy Rich on bass and Buddy Miles, fresh from Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, on drums. As McLaughlin writes on his web site, “As a sign of the times, the music is becoming louder and stronger and more crazy, however, in addition to my love for the electric guitar, I am still in love with the acoustic guitar, and would like that people appreciate its beauty. For that reason the second (and last) album for Alan Douglas is My Goal's Beyond.” This all-acoustic album features McLaughlin on a series of guitar solos on one side, including pieces devoted to Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and Miles Davis. The other side of the disc was taken up by two long tracks that fuse jazz with Indian music, with larger ensembles including bassist Charlie Haden, saxophonist Dave Liebman and Badal Roy on tablas. McLaughlin, who considers his work in music to be “…a work of the spirit," became a follower of Sri Chinmoy during this time, taking the name Mahavishnu.


Lifetime had become a quartet with the addition of bassist Jack Bruce (at McLaughlin’s suggestion) by the time they recorded Turn it Over (Polydor) at the beginning of 1970. McLaughlin was also in the studio with Davis that spring, recording music that would eventually be parceled out on several releases over years to come, including Big Fun, Live/Evil, and A Tribute to Jack Johnson (all Columbia). There were also sessions with saxophonists Joe Farrell and Wayne Shorter, Vitous, and guitarist Larry Coryell before McLaughlin went to Europe on tour with Lifetime in the fall of 1970. He left the group soon afterwards, acting on a suggestion by Davis that he form his own band. McLaughlin put together the first edition of The Mahavishnu Orchestra in the spring of 1971 with violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Jan Hammer, electric bassist Rick Laird and drummer Billy Cobham. “I had a lot of music burning in me that I wanted to get out,” he later reflected, “and I was lucky enough to find guys who themselves contributed fantastic feeling to the music.” The band’s three albums, The Inner Mounting Flame (1970 Columbia), Birds of Fire (1971 Columbia), and the live Between Nothingness & Eternity (1974 Columbia), are intense documents of one of the fiercest and most successful fusion bands. McLaughlin became a well-known figure, dressed in white while wielding a double-necked guitar. Another studio album by the group surfaced in 1999 as The Lost Trident Sessions (Legacy).


McLaughlin was back in the studio with Davis for the controversial On the Corner (1972 Columbia). In the fall of 1972, he collaborated with guitarist Carlos Santana on Love Devotion Surrender (Columbia), which included several compositions by John Coltrane. Internal dissension led to the breakup of the original Mahavishnu group by the end of 1973. McLaughlin immediately reconstituted the band with new musicians, including violinist Jean Luc Ponty and drummer Narada Michael Walden. He also added strings and horns for Apocalypse (1974 Columbia) and Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975 Columbia), before cutting back to a quartet.


By 1975, feeling the pull of Indian-flavored acoustic music, McLaughlin turned away from electric music and formed Shakti, a pioneer of the world music phenomenon. McLaughlin helped to develop a special guitar for the project with sympathetic strings and a scalloped keyboard. The band included L. Shankar on violin, Zakir Hussain on tabla, T. H “Vikku” Vinayakram on ghatam and Ramnad Raghavan on mridangam. This was his main vehicle for several years, until the pendulum swung back to the electric side with the all-star Electric Guitarist (1979 Columbia), which included appearances by Bruce, Williams and DeJohnette.


The short-lived One Truth Band, with Shankar, Stu Goldberg on keyboards, Fernando Saunders on electric bass and Tony Smith on drums, recorded Electric Dreams (Columbia) in late 1978, just before McLaughlin’s trip to Cuba to play in the Trio of Doom with Williams and Jaco Pastorius on bass. That band’s only recordings were collected in 2007 by Legacy. In 1979, McLaughlin teamed up with flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía and Coryell as the Guitar Trio. Coryell was soon replaced by Al Di Meola and the group has periodically reformed for concerts and recordings.


Sticking with acoustic guitar in the early eighties, McLaughlin worked with a band that included keyboardists Katia Labeque and François Couturier on two albums, Belo Horizonte (1981 Warner Bros.) and Music Spoken Here (1982 Warner Bros.). He reunited with Miles Davis when the trumpeter appeared with the Danish Radio Big Band on Aura (1985 Columbia). He appeared alongside Dexter Gordon in Bertrand Tavernier's film Round Midnight in 1986 and also played on the soundtrack album. That same year, his Mediterranean Concerto, orchestrated by Michael Gibbs, was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with McLaughlin improvising on acoustic guitar. In 1987, the guitarist toured in a duo with bassist Jonas Hellborg. By 1989, McLaughlin was combining acoustic guitar and guitar synthesizer in a trio format with bassist Kai Eckhardt (later Dominique Di Piazza) and percussionist Trilok Gurtu. The group recorded two albums, Live at the Royal Festival Hall (1989 JMT) and Que Alegria (1991 Verve).


Time Remembered : John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans (1993 Verve) paid tribute to one of the guitarist’s key influences with performances of ten of the pianist’s distinctive compositions in the unusual setting of a guitar sextet. Later in 1993, McLaughlin formed his new trio with organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Dennis Chambers. They make several world tours and during a stopover in New York in October 1994, McLaughlin and DeFrancesco had a chance to record with the legendary Elvin Jones on After the Rain (Verve). The Guitar Trio, with de Lucia and Di Meola, got back together in 1996 for a summer tour and recording. McLaughlin’s next electric ensemble was The Heart of Things with Chambers, saxophonist Gary Thomas and keyboardist Jim Beard, which made one self-titled album in 1997 (Verve). Since 1998, he has periodically reunited with original Shakti member Zakir Hussain in the group Remember Shakti, which also includes mandolinist Upalappu Srinivas. In 2003, he recorded his ballet score, Thieves and Poets (Verve), plus arrangements of jazz standards for classical guitar ensemble. This is the Way I Do It: The Ultimate Guitar Workshop on Improvisation (Mediastarz), a three-disc instructional video for advanced guitar students, appeared in 2004. Walter Kolosky reviewed it for All about Jazz by hailing it as “the first music instruction DVD to use the full capabilities of the medium.” His latest electric group, The 4th Dimension, in McLaughlin’s words, “has existed in a vague kind of form for several years now. It began as an experiment in 2004.” McLaughlin’s most recent fusion recordings, Industrial Zen (2006 Abstract Logix) and Floating Point (2008 Abstract Logix) find him using digital effects and programming loops and a guitar synth, as well as working Hussein’s tablas into the mix.


In 2008 and 2009, McLaughlin has been on the road with keyboardist Chick Corea, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride and either Vinnie Colaiuta or Brian Blade on drums as the Five Peace Band. The ever-restless McLaughlin describes himself as “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."


An excellent introduction to his music is The Essential John McLaughlin (2007 Legacy), a gathering of material from a wide variety of labels. Serious fans will be interested in String Theory (2004 Warner Bros. UK), a 17-CD box set of all of McLaughlin’s appearances in many different lineups at the Montreux Jazz Festival, from 1974 with a late edition of the Mahavishnu Orchestra to a 1999 show with Remember Shakti.

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