He has been hailed as the ‘best guitarist alive’ by fans, critics and his own fellow guitarists. In a career spanning over five decades, John McLaughlin has established himself as a global phenomenon cutting across genres. He has collaborated with the musical legends from the West to the East.
His lightning fast movement across the fret board, harmonic sophistication and technical precision, coupled with unconventional time signatures and exotic scales, have impressed generations of music lovers.
Encouraged by his mother, McLaughlin started studying the violin and piano as a child. He remembers the moment that marked him for life as a musician: “I would have been about five years old, and my mother had Beethoven’s 9th playing. At the end of the Symphony, there’s a vocal quartet that suddenly gave me goose bumps all over my body. It was a strange and agreeable experience that I knew was directly related to that music.
” At the age of 11, McLaughlin inherited the guitar that was discarded by his brothers, and it was “absolute love from the start, and I even took it to bed that night. I have loved her ever since.” Although his brothers were not musicians, McLaughlin credits them with exposing him to a variety of music.
He says, “From the age of 11, I was exposed to music from cultures such as Mississippi Blues Delta singers and guitarists, the world of Flamenco, South Indian Temple music, and at 14 years old, Jazz. The first Jazz musician I heard was Django Reinhardt, who blew my mind. At 15, I heard the early Miles Davis and, at 16, the pivotal recording — Milestones with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. Shortly afterwards came the ‘Giaconda’ of Jazz recordings, ‘Kind of Blue’. I realised then that this was my music, my school, and these musicians were my gurus.”
By the early 60s, McLaughlin started playing with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, an R&B outfit. At the same time, he was listening to Miles and Coltrane and became influenced by their music. He started playing gigs at a few London clubs with a mix of R&B and Jazz, terming the period as ‘very interesting’. He started playing with Graham Bond, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. This was a wilder band than the Blue Flames, with correspondingly more freedom and less money. The rest of the London phase of his life comprised playing with many musicians and for studio recordings, which he says was good for his finances but deadly on his creativity.
In the late 60s, McLaughlin got a call from Tony Williams to play with his group, Lifetime, in New York. He arrived at the US at the end of an amazing decade that was characterised by social upheaval, the psychedelic movement.
There, he got a dream call from Miles Davis and played for electric jazz-fusion albums ‘In a Silent Way’, ‘Bitches Brew’, ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’ and ‘On The Corner’.It was Miles who encouraged him to start his own band: “This was the most honest man I’d ever met, so I took him at his word.” That marked the beginning of the legendary band Mahavishnu Orchestra that he formed with violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird and drummer Billy Cobham.
John McLaughlin has over the years starred in several bands and has collaborated with legendary musicians, from Jimi Hendrix to Zakir Hussain. He still fondly recalls his first major band Mahavishnu, stating that it is “one of the greatest bands ever, and it’s regrettable that it ended in acrimony. Too much success, too quickly.” He goes on to add that “Mahavishnu gave birth to one of my greatest recordings, speaking personally, which is ‘Visions of the Emerald Beyond’.”
Talking about Indian music and philosophy, McLaughlin says, “I’d been affected by Indian music in my early teens. There are two aspects to Indian music that are fundamental to jazz, the rhythmic improvisations and the all-inclusiveness of the human dimension. I had begun meditating in the UK around 1967, and by the time I got to New York, I was looking for a spiritual guru. I was under the influence of the Sufis, Ramana Maharshi and Vivekananda, but found a special strength in Sri Chinmoy. I studied under him for five years by which time Shakti had been born.” Shakti came into being in the early 70s and featured L Shankar on violin, Zakir Hussain on tabla, Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam and Ramnad Raghavan on mridangam for a while.
The three albums — ‘Shakti’, ‘A Handful of Beauty’ and ‘Natural Elements’ — essentially took Indian music to the world. Talking about Shakti and Indian music, McLaughlin maintains that “Shakti was born out of my desire to play with the great musicians of India. Even though I studied North and South Indian theory and practice, I never wished to be an Indian musician. I’m a jazz man with Western roots. I was so lucky that I got to study with South Indian Master, Ramanathan, and became an extra-curricular student of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar in the mid 70s. My debt to them is huge. By the end of 1975, I realised that I had to concentrate more on Shakti, and at that point, to the immense chagrin of my agent, manager and record company, abandoned Mahavishnu. Today, I have the honour of still playing with Zakir and have been blessed by the inclusion of singer Shankar Mahadevan, mandolinist Srinivas and Vikku’ son, Selvaganesh Vinayakram.”
He also plays with his band 4th Dimension along with drummer Ranjit Barot, bassist Etienne M’Bappe and keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband. The band will play in India as a part of the Asian tour. Talking about it, he says, “Despite the horrible bureaucracy involved in obtaining a visa, every time I’m in India, I feel at home.”
Talking about his current projects and the future, McLaughlin says, “I have just finished mixing a live recording made in Boston a few months ago with my current band. At some point, old age will really kick in, then, the guitar will be hung on the wall.” His global fan following would certainly hope that it does not happen soon.