Personalities | John McLaughlin | Seventies | Jazz & Blues

By turns avant-garde adventurer, high-voltage rocker and Third World explorer, Yorkshire-born guitarist John McLaughlin has seldom repeated himself. Born in 1942, McLaughlin studied piano from the age of nine and taught himself guitar after becoming interested in country blues, flamenco and Django Reinhardt.

A gig with Pete Deuchar’s Professors of Ragtime in 1958 was his ticket to London, where the storm that would become the British Invasion of the US was brewing. He played with Georgie Fame, Graham Bond and Brian Auger, and picked up studio session jobs – ranging from Petula Clark to David Bowie.

Choosing Jazz

By 1967, McLaughlin had tired of session work and moved to Germany to play with vibraphonist Gunter Hampel. Occasionally, he returned to London to jam with musicians such as bassist Dave Holland and drummer Tony Oxley and, eventually, to record the album Extrapolation (1969), one of the most exciting debuts in contemporary jazz. Already in place were the remarkably fluid technical facility, diamond-hard tone and harmonic imagination that would set him apart from most jazz guitarists.

Concurrent with this recording, McLaughlin was invited by drummer Tony Williams to join his new band, Lifetime. Within hours of landing in the US, McLaughlin was jamming at Count Basie’s club in front of an audience that included Miles Davis. Davis, several months into a two-year period of intensive recording activity, did not waste time; he invited McLaughlin to the studio on 18 February 1969 for what would form part of the seminal In A Silent Way (1969). While working with Lifetime, McLaughlin helped shape four other key Davis recordings: Bitches Brew (1969), Jack Johnson (1971), Live-Evil (1971) and Big Fun (1974).

Following A New Leader

McLaughlin was extraordinarily prolific during his first 18 months in the US. In addition to the work with Davis and the Tony Williams Lifetime albums Emergency! (1969) and Turn It Over (1970), he recorded the rock-influenced Devotion (1970), the adventurous Where Fortune Smiles (1970) and the acoustic My Goal’s Beyond (1970). The title and meditative mood of the latter album pointed to a major turning point in his life, a spiritual awakening that would find him pledging allegiance to a mystic, re-christening himself Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and launching a band that would set the bar much higher for instrumental prowess in the burgeoning jazz-rock movement.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra debuted in July 1971 and stunned listeners with rapid-fire unison melody lines played between McLaughlin, violinist Jerry Goodman and keyboardist Jan Hammer, unusual time signatures and advanced dynamics. The band’s first recording, The Inner Mounting Flame (1971), remains a landmark work of the era. McLaughlin continued to use the Mahavishnu Orchestra name for subsequent bands, but none matched the original for power and invention. The second group is notable for McLaughlin’s collaboration with an ensemble conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, documented on the album Apocalypse (1974).

Discovering Other Worlds

In 1976, McLaughlin surprised devotees by releasing Shakti, a recording of his acoustic encounter with four...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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