All you need to know about British jazz-rock guitarist John McLaughlin is that he has won just about every major poll and award, is on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Guitarists list and has been referred to at various times by both Jeff Beck and Pat Metheny as the greatest guitarist alive.
He has been around the block a few times. He gave guitar lessons to Jimmy Page! He played with Ginger Baker. He hung out with Duane Allman in New York. “Duane was beautiful,” he said. “What a sweetheart and what a guitar player. The Allman Brothers had their own thing going and I love that band.” He jammed with Hendrix whom he absolutely freaking loved. You can hear it here if you’re so inclined.
McLaughlin did a solo album in the late Sixties and then played with drummer extraordinaire Tony Williams. Miles was his hero and when they met, Davis was ready to bring a guitarist into the band but he wanted “my R&B side, my funk side, as opposed to a jazz side” per McLaughlin.
Starting in 1969, McLaughlin played on Miles’ In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, and On the Corner. (Brew even has a song called “John McLaughlin.”) At some point, Miles turned to McLaughlin and told him it was time to form his own band.
And in 1971, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was born. (McLaughlin had been introduced to the teachings of Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy by Larry Coryell. Hence, Mahavishnu.) The band’s first lineup featured McLaughlin, drummer Billy Cobham, bassist Rick Laird, keyboardist Jan Hammer, and violinist Jerry Goodman. (Hammer later played with Jeff Beck; Goodman with Dixie Dregs.) Their first live gig was opening for bluesman John Lee Hooker. Imagine that.
Mahavishnu’s music was highly complex polyrhythmic jazz-rock. And if you are too young to remember them, I can only tell you that contrary to what you might think, they were wildly popular. They came along at a time when rock and jazz were combining, prog-rock was expanding and audiences were eager to explore new sounds right along with the bands that were creating them.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame was released in November 1971. It knocked everybody’s socks off. Nobody’d ever heard anything quite like it.
From that album, “Meeting of the Spirits.”
Things could have gone completely differently as McLaughlin was asked by bassist Miroslav Vitous to join a band he was forming called Weather Report. But John knew he had to do his own thing. “I’m under orders,” he’d say (from Miles.) But through Vitous, he met Jerry Goodman.
One of McLaughlin’s favorite songs from the first album is called “You Know You Know.” It’s got a mysterious feel to it. It’s also, for whatever reason, been sampled by everyone from Massive Attack to Mos Def:
The band toured around the world and weren’t able to put another album together for about another year or so. In January of 1973, they released the terrific Birds of Fire. I wanted to put something slower and moodier here but I could not resist the title tune:
Alas, apart from a live album and another release 25 years later from the vault, this was the last album recorded by this incarnation of the band. Jean-Luc Ponty joined the band but I confess I lost track of them and spent more time listening to their solo stuff. (I saw Cobham just a few years ago in Cambridge.) They added vocals and got funkier but for me it just wasn’t the same.
McLaughlin went on to play with Carlos Santana and has done any number of solo electric and acoustic albums. He did an album with the late flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia and Al DiMeola a few years ago.
Alas, he played a farewell tour recently of which I was somehow completely unaware. (He played with guitarist Jimmy Herring who played with the Allmans and was offered, but turned down the Dickey Betts slot.) McLaughlin said that travel in a post-9/11 world had gotten more difficult although it sounded like he left the door open a bit for a possible return. If he does come back, I’m there.