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Guest Appearances: John McLaughlin as a Sideman

By Published: July 8, 2004

McLaughlin's contributed revelatory performances to several Miles Davis records, including In a Silent Way, Tribute To Jack Johnson, and Bitches Brew...

Guitar great John McLaughlin has been leading his own bands and playing his own compositions for over thirty years. But like most musicians, he has paid his dues. John McLaughlin has played in jazz bands since the 1950s, and had appeared on numerous projects as an unnamed studio guitarist throughout the '60s. During this time he also performed with Brian Auger, Graham Bond, Ginger Baker, Kenny Wheeler, Jack Bruce, Gunther Hampel, and many other up and coming European jazz and blues players.

However, it was not until his historic contributions to several seminal Miles Davis albums, brought about by the generous act of bassist Dave Holland's introduction to Miles, that John McLaughlin came to widespread attention. Over the years since, McLaughlin has been called to appear as a guest on many important recordings. One cannot get a complete picture of John McLaughlin the musician without acknowledging these other performances. This essay is an attempt to recount those appearances in order to determine how McLaughlin may have interpreted the music of others, as well as how those contributions may have defined him. It is my fervent hope that those of you interested in McLaughlin's music may find useful directions in these words that lead you to discovering some of this music yourself. I promise you, it will be an exciting, ear-opening journey.

McLaughlin's contributed revelatory performances to several Miles Davis records, including In a Silent Way , Tribute To Jack Johnson , and Bitches Brew —and, to a lesser degree, Live Evil , On the Corner , Big Fun , and Get Up With It. These recordings were to help set the foundation for both fusion music and his own growth as a world class musician. Miles claimed John and Jimi Hendrix were his two favorite guitarists. Such an endorsement must have buoyed McLaughlin greatly.

Much has been written about McLaughlin's wild abandon on the Davis records. He was clearly the star of the fusion classic Tribute to Jack Johnson with his rave-up electric chords and funky blues inspired licks. His gentle side showed with some sensitive acoustic playing on In a Silent Way. By the time Miles recorded Bitches Brew , he thought so much of McLaughlin that he simply titled one of the songs after him. The guitarist could not have made a greater impact in jazz music than on these albums. For those of you who want to listen to the development of McLaughlin's confidence, these albums are highly recommended.

One day in 1968, Cream Bassist Jack Bruce saw a dejected John McLaughlin walking down the street of an English town. McLaughlin, whom Bruce knew, was down on his luck and living hand to mouth. Jack felt sorry for him and decided to hire him for an upcoming record project. It is a good thing he did. Not only was John able to eat a little better, but music fans were rewarded with the record Things We Like. Bruce and McLaughlin, along with Brit saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith and drummer Jon Hiseman, blow through jazz blues changes as if they were not even there. Things We Like has been a very hard record to find for years. Recently some imports have been showing up... grab one if you can, so you can listen to the energy of these brilliant players in their formative years.

Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin were born to play together. They would have done so more often if McLaughlin had accepted Weather Report's invitation to "join the band." But McLaughlin was forming The Mahavishnu Orchestra and NOTHING was going to stop that! Shorter's Super Nova was recorded in 1969 and featured a Who's Who of future jazz-rock superstars. McLaughlin shared guitar duties with the late Sonny Sharrock. For much of the album their playing, quite frankly, is indistinguishable from each other. Jack DeJohnette and Chick Corea play drums. Miroslav Vitous is on Bass. Airto is the percussionist and Walter and Maria Booker add their talents on guitar and vocals.

Super Nova is a showcase for Shorter and a learning ground for McLaughlin. Mclaughlin's musical personality is somewhat hidden on this effort and comes in the general form of background noises. (Again, this is when it can clearly be identified). McLaughlin's jingly chords can be heard here and there and it is easily imagined this young man, relatively new to the U.S. and his fellow musicians, is searching for a groove. Super Nova delivers enough goods to be worth an investment. Shorter's "Water Babies" is the outstanding cut of the album.

Shorter's Motto Grosso Feio is a much different matter. Recorded one year after Super Nova , it clearly displays a John McLaughlin with a musical direction and a strong personality. This recording was "lost in the vaults" for several years before it was discovered and released. This session was an acoustic affair.It was much more relaxed and full of free-formed melodies and sub-melodies. Find this CD and purchase it. Shorter again is the leader, but by no means is this an album that features him exclusively. All musicians are in fine form. Once again, Chick Corea is employed in the percussionist vein. Dave Holland lends a hand or two on bass and guitar and Ron Carter cellos out some very fine lines. The drummer for the occasion was a 19 year-old female wunderkind, Michelin Prell. Of her future years, we know not. (Strong rumor has it that Michelin Prell was a pseudonym for Tony Williams because of a contractual issue. 2002 Update: It appears there was indeed a Michelin Prell. But even that is just a rumor!)

At about this same time, McLaughlin was making appearances on two albums from the great Bassist Miroslav Vitous. McLaughlin's contributions to Mountain in the Clouds , also known as Infinite Search , are very noteworthy. This album also featured the saxophonist Joe Henderson. I highly suggest any serious listener obtain this album. It is full of exciting early fusion work. Vitousí album Purple is a rare find, but not a very good album.

A guitar compatriot over the years, Larry Coryell released a groundbreaking record in 1969 called Spaces. Spaces is a must for any serious listener and to this day features Larry's best-playing. Larry and John provide the hottest acoustic guitar duet of the time with Rene's Theme". Coryell has said this is the best John McLaughlin ever sounded on record. A self-serving comment for sure, but if Larry says so, it is probably because McLaughlin brought out the best in Coryell's own playing. From the opening cut Spaces is an electric smorgasbord of snapping guitar strings. The entire album is blessed to also include Chick Corea, Miroslav Vitous and Billy Cobham who destroy all pre-conceived notions of what jazz or rock should be. Spaces is a five-star outing and is one of the most important early recordings in the musical evolution of John McLaughlin. McLaughlin also appears on Coryell's Planet End. It is quite possible the performances on this album didnít make the cut for the Spaces. This record is only for the John McLaughlin fan that must have everything.

In the early 1970's, the music and concert tour scene was much more diverse than it is today. Friendships were formed on the basis of concert tours that featured acts as disparate as the Allman Brothers, Aerosmith, Santana, Miles Davis, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Eric Clapton etc. Surely, it was in such an environment that John McLaughlin met and became friends with James Taylor. Otherwise, why such a collaboration as appears on James Taylor's One Man Dog ? The tune, music and WORDS by McLaughlin, is entitled "Someone" and although it doesn't deserve to be on James Taylor's Greatest Hits...is quite beautiful. In addition to his vocals, James plays guitar. News Flash! For those of you not aware of James Taylor's guitar playing. He is killing! McLaughlin rips for a chorus or two but sticks to the folk formula for this outing.

Pop singer Linda Ronstadt appeared on One Man Dog as well. She also appeared on another recording with McLaughlin, Carla Bley, and Paul Haines, Escalator Over The Hill. (Remember how I said the music community was more diverse back then?) Recorded over three years, 1968-1971, EOTH is a behemoth of a production starring hundreds. McLaughlin's mate Jack Bruce appears, as does the late Jazz great, Don Cherry. EOTH is very difficult to categorize. Rock-jazz in nature, it seeks to the higher limits of achievement and, for the most part, arrives there. It was lushly packaged and featured an extensive program complete with lyrics and pictures. Featuring 27 "tunes", the album effectively captures many fine performances and many non-descript ones. It is certainly an important record for McLaughlin as his playing dominates even when not heard. EOTH is an excellent recording to own if you are a McLaughlin fan and have several hours to kill listening to its entire production. McLaughlin's playing is fierce and betrays his upcoming guitar style to a great degree.

The late reed player Joe Farrell was a soul who died too young. A brilliant player, Farrell released The Joe Farrell Quartet in 1970 and helped define the continuing merging of jazz and rock. This album is a consummate piece of work that features beautiful playing from Farrell, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland and McLaughlin. The first fully realized reading of McLaughlin's classic "Follow Your Heart" appears on this record. It is the most pleasing version McLaughlin has recorded. This "Follow Your Heart" has the guts and soul of his non-titled electric version from Extrapolation and the beauty of his acoustic rendering from My Goal's Beyond. This album is a stellar outing and should be listened to continuously until your CD player breaks.

McLaughlin plays up an electrical storm on his pal Carlos Santana's Welcome. The tune is called "Flame Sky." Because the album is hard to find, the performance is surprisingly little known.

In 1975, McLaughlin appeared on former Return to Forever bassist Stanley Clarke's great album Journey to Love. In a trio format along with Chick Corea, McLaughlin and Clarke rip through the acoustic "Song To John". "Song To John", which appeared in two parts, was dedicated to John Coltrane. Blistering runs and sympathetic accompanying prevail. McLaughlin appears to have used his acoustic scalloped Shakti guitar. Journey To Love is an album every fusion-head should own. The rest of the album is strong with just a couple of "smooth" moments that foretell what would later ruin Stanley's musical development.

The beautiful duet "Desert Song" appeared on Stanley Clarke's School Days... again, an acoustic outing that truly showcased Clarke's bowing abilities. McLaughlin, as usual, displayed dominance of his instrument and translated this tune into one of great meaning. Someday, perhaps, these two giants will find common ground and perform together again.

Larry Coryell surfaces again on Paco DeLucia's Castro Marin. Recorded in 1980, this session features the ill-fated Guitar Trio of McLaughlin, Coryell, and DeLucia. This Trio was eventually dismantled because of personal problems Coryell was dealing with at the time. "Palenque" is the tune the Trio recorded and it is truly a fine piece of music. Since this Trio never was able to release a record, this is the only opportunity to listen to its recorded vitality. (That is, unless you can obtain a copy of the commercially available The Meeting of the Spirits video). Coryell certainly is a different player than Al DiMeola and gives the Trio a different sound. A comparison of the two is certainly not worth the time. John's guitar, as always, sounds as if perfection was its middle name. And what can be said of Paco that is not of a drooling nature? This album belongs in the collection for sure.

In 1981, producer Creed Taylor released the overblown Fuse One. The idea was to feature many of the day's top jazz performers crossing over and playing on each other's tunes. In other words, "No real band leaders". Overall, this recording, which also showcased lush orchestral backgrounds, was a dismal failure. In many ways, it was a father to what we now know as that GODAWFUL "smooth jazz." Caught-up in this ill-advised session, along with McLaughlin, was George Benson, Wynton Marsalis (YES!), Stanley Clarke, and Dave Valentin, plus our heroes Tony Williams, Joe Farrell, Larry Coryell and many others.

There is some good news. On its CD reissue, Fuse One , combined with a second Fuse recording, the orchestra was removed. The bad news is that much of the album still remains an awful mess. However, McLaughlin certainly saves the day with two awesome showstoppers! "To Whom All Things Concern" is one of the best McLaughlin jazz-rock anthems ever written. (This tune drives through this album like a Mack Truck!) Its performance outclasses the rest of the album and he should record it again so that those of us lucky enough not to own Fuse One will have a chance to hear it. This is a hot cut and features Stanley Clarke, Joe Farrell on tenor and a driving Ndugu on drums. "Friendship", the other McLaughlin piece, is more reserved but forthright nonetheless.

Clearly, through John McLaughlin's career there have been peaks and valleys. And with the exception of some guest performances with Miles Davis, most notably on the jazz-pop oriented You're Under Arrest , McLaughlin's sideman appearances became more infrequent in the 1980's. It is also possible that McLaughlin refused many opportunities. At any rate, only several releases feature John as a guest during the decade.

In the mid '80s John formed a new Mahavishnu featuring the ex-Miles' sax-player Bill Evans. In 1985, Bill Evans released his own The Alternative Man. Alternative Man featured the state of the art jazz-fusion of its time. Just a taste of "pop" would enter from time to time, mostly in the form of an ingratiating hook, but the overall musicality of the album is at the highest levels. And as always, McLaughlin's guest appearance on two cuts offers a totally different take than can be found on the rest of the album. Both cuts showcase John on acoustic guitar and on "Survival Of The Fittest" it is at its fluttering best. This tune is a cycle of fleeting chords and wispy soprano sax. It builds and disappears. "Flight of the Falcon" arrives and never goes away. It is the highlight of the album and deservedly ends it. The Alternative Man is a delightful album. Good luck in finding it.

In 1986, John McLaughlin made his movie debut, looking at the camera and mumbling. A movie star he was not. A shooting musical star he is and will always be. In Round Midnight , yet another fascinating but depressing jazz film, McLaughlin played the guitar in one of Dale Turner's (Dexter Gordon) bands. It was the 1950's, and McLaughlin played his part by assuming the role of a 1950's guitarist. He did it rather well and his playing, although breaking no ground whatsoever, was evocative and fitting for the soundtrack. That and unrecorded soundtrack companion recordings were released in 1986. If you want to hear McLaughlin with Dexter and Herbie Hancock play some standards and sound-track themes, go for it. If not, that's perfectly understandable. But you should see the movie, tune out some of the plot and enjoy the jazz performances.

Another Mahavishnu band mate, Danny Gottlieb, released Aquamarine in 1987. This is an absolutely impressive album, truly a must-have. McLaughlin plays acoustic guitar to Gottlieb's brush and snare in a piece called "Duet" which should have been released on a Mahavishnu album, as it certainly doesn't quite fit here. At any rate, a very interesting McLaughlin composition from his Shakti days, "Peace of Mind," appears as a duet featuring Gottlieb and Bass star Mark Egan. All in all, it is a a pleasing performance worth the effort of the search.

John McLaughlin made a major contribution to the beautiful Zakir Hussain album Making Music. Released in 1987, Making Music set the standard for good "World Music." Making Music also floats on the haunting flute of Hariprasad Chaurasia and deep tenor and soprano saxophones of ECM veteran Jan Garbarek. McLaughlin races with the devil on this outing, blazing an acoustic trail through every planet in the Eastern universe. The ensemble certainly would make a superlative touring band... I actually wonder if they ever got together for a show? Haunting and lyrical, fancy-free and meditative, Making Music is one the highlights of McLaughlin's guest appearances. For listeners familiar with McLaughlin's work in Shakti, this album is to be searched for, found and hoarded.

The 1989 Miles Davis release Aura had actually been recorded in 1984, but a contract dispute kept this two-record set from the public for five long years. Written by Danish bassist Palle Mikkelborg, the music on Aura featured Davis and McLaughlin in a similar format as their groundbreaking recordings of 15 years earlier. Miles lets loose some long sustained notes over orchestral changes, and McLaughlin's electric guitar cuts into the music like a hot knife through butter. Even after its long shelf time, Aura was still nominated for a Grammy. While Aura ended up a less than totally satisfying affair, it does possess moments featuring Davis and McLaughlin that are quite rewarding.

Carnegie Hall Salutes The Jazz Masters was released in 1994, and McLaughlin appears on two cuts. He and Herbie Hancock honor the late Bill Evans with an esoteric electric guitar and acoustic piano duet of "Turn Out The Stars". The two also get together for a raucous cover of Miles' "It's About That Time". It is great to hear these two masters play together again.

In 1995, producer Eddie Kramer asked McLaughlin to get a bassist and a drummer and pick a Jimi Hendrix tune to be included in the Hendrix tribute record After the Storm. McLaughlin picked Sting and Sting's drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta—soon to be a fusion superstar—along with rhythm guitarist Dominic Miller to play "The Wind Cries Mary" in front of a symphony orchestra. Pure and simple, John kicks ass on this record, as he hadn't done in 15 years! Sting and John protested that the orchestral background would damage the final release and so this track appears, unlike every other tune, without it. Sting sings sweetly and carries his own on bass, and Colaiuta must have been in heaven because his playing has a religious power. The tune was eventually nominated for a Grammy.

Jazz to the World was a 1995 Christmas charity record that is enjoyable during the holiday season. McLaughlin's old friend, Jim Beard, arranged and performs on keyboards with an over-dubbed acoustic McLaughlin on "O Come. O Come Emmanuel". It certainly is an enjoyable piece, and the two should be commended for their contribution.

Most recently, an old duet McLaughlin performed in the 1980's with Chick Corea has appeared on record, and a guest starring turn on guitarist Leni Stern's latest release has made its way to the public. This reviewer has not heard those tunes yet so can not pass judgement on their quality.

More times than not, John McLaughlin plays his own music. In several instances, he performs his own compositions with somebody else's band. The truth of it is that his greatest contributions to music have come from his early collaborations with Miles Davis and Tony Williams, and all of his own bands from The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti to The Guitar Trio and the Free Spirits. His legend lives on in his consummate musical knowledge and prowess. And in that arena he is without equal on jazz guitar in the last quarter century. More and more musicians are beginning to acknowledge McLaughlin's influence. And many more musicians are influenced without their knowledge. It is, however, when McLaughlin devotes himself to interpreting "somebody else's" music that we realize how "different" he truly is. His playing is not standard fare. And his non-conformity sticks out, like a jagged rock, to this very day.


Related Link:
John McLaughlin @ All About Jazz



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