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John McLaughlin: His Goals Beyond

By Published: September 20, 2007
John McLaughlinFusion these days is a dirty word and fans of the genre are treated with the same smirking disdain as Trekkies or role-playing gamers. Some might posit that fusion's initial burst of energy—sometime between 1967 and 1969 depending on who you talk to—was soon co-opted by hyper-masculine "virtuosos and then, even worse, by commercial interests in the name of smooth jazz. But at its peak, the form was the most exciting thing going and helped introduce players like Miles Davis to a generation that would have blithely gone on without him.

So it is telling that guitarist John McLaughlin, one of fusion's high priests, is happy still to be thought of as a fusion musician. But even if he trademarked an approach fueled by lightning, his view is a bit more nuanced. "'Fusion' began many, many years ago, where you have composers from Italy influencing composers from Austria influencing the players in Germany influencing the composers in England, he says. "Just look at the beginning of the early 20th century when you have this unbelievable powerful Hispanic influence that came into the French school, which became known subsequently as the Impressionist School, people like Ravel and Debussy and Scriabin and Satie, especially Ravel and Debussy, the amazing Hispanic influence on them which they integrated into their music. There is only fusion music.

At sixty-five years old, McLaughlin is among a small group of players who have a unique perspective on fusion, on jazz, on music in the last forty years. Alongside players like Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Larry Coryell, McLaughlin existed before fusion, though few seem to remember it. And like those players, regardless of what directions they might have taken subsequently, it still defines them. In today's music industry—the Age of Reissue—the relief is stark.

The McLaughlin of today released his last album, Industrial Zen, in 2006 on Verve. But in the stores McLaughlin competes with doppelgangers from 1979 (the 2007 release of a 1979 performance, Trio of Doom, with Jaco Pastorius and Tony Williams on Legacy) and 1969 (the slew of Complete Sessions box sets from the Electric Miles period). Still he is remarkably positive: "I've been playing and writing music all of my life but I couldn't be the way I am today and write and play the music I do today without the experience I had with the Mahavishnu Orchestra or the One Truth Band or with the Three Guitars or with Shakti, because all of these disparate elements have contributed to where I am at this moment.

"I'm like a painter who sees the paintings he did thirty-five years ago and I love them, I love all my paintings, some I have very, very deep affection for, some specific albums that for me really became good recordings, ones that I'm very happy about and very happy to listen to but they're all my babies.

The topic of the Trio of Doom, a short-lived group that was previously only fragmentally documented on a festival compilation LP, reminds us that McLaughlin is the only surviving member, Pastorius dying in 1987 and Williams a decade later. Pastorius in some ways was a new version of McLaughlin—brash, precocious, unbelievably talented—but without his spiritual grounding. "I loved Jaco, like everybody did who knew him, he recalled. "He was completely bonkers, of course, but was a wonderful musical talent. He was wonderful, beautiful. ...I, along with everybody else, began to see Jaco, not deteriorating, but beginning to slip away. And it was terribly sad. I ran into him on a number of occasions in the dark period...


"But what can you do? When people, they want to go their way and no matter what you do, they're going to go their way anyway. When he passed away, I felt a terrible sense of loss. On Industrial Zen, the first track is entitled "For Jaco, a feature for McLaughlin's newest bassist, Hadrien Feraud: "I began to write this piece and I could hear Jaco in it. And I don't even know why. I started looking for a bassist that would play like Jaco and that's when I found Hadrien Feraud, who did the bass part on that tune. And in fact Hadrien will be with me because you can hear Jaco is his hero. It's wonderful to hear; Jaco's alive like Trane is alive, Miles is alive, the great players or the great composers, they're timeless and Jaco has got that timeless thing about him.

Much of McLaughlin's career is defined by these kinds of associations. Ones early on in England were brief but would have included saxophonist John Surman and bassist Dave Holland. In the 1970s, the relationships were based on synchronous rhythms with his fleet lines, with players like Billy Cobham or Zakir Hussain. But any conversation with McLaughlin makes it quite clear who he feels has been his most important guide—Miles Davis.

"What I learned from him, either in the studio or on stage, was simply amazing. He was Picasso in jazz music. If you want to go into painting, I would go so far as to say that Kind of Blue would be the Gioconda [Mona Lisa] of jazz, he intones. "I will never be able to pay my debt to Miles, honestly speaking; he did so much for me. I know he did so much for many people. But for me personally, not just brought me to the public eye, the public ear, he actually physically allowed me to survive in the early days in New York.

The history of McLaughlin with Miles Davis is well known by now: introduced to Miles by Tony Williams and then appearances on some of the most important jazz documents of the late 1960s and early 1970s, albums like In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969), Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969), A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970) and On The Corner (Columbia, 1972), itself soon to receive the box set treatment.

"He'd always find me, I don't know how he did it...the same thing happened with On The Corner. I was in New York and he found where I was, and I still don't know how he found out, found out what hotel I was in, what room I was in and he called me. And on the particular recording, it was the evening but he wanted to record then. I didn't even have a guitar with me. He said, 'Don't worry, I've got a guitar.' [laughs]. Some cockamamie guitar he had, weird electric. But I didn't care. Miles would call, I'd go. It was like that with Miles. I loved him so much I would have played bass for him and I don't play bass. And he was doing this jazz-rock kind of thing but he invented the genre didn't he? I mean Bitches Brew? Before Mahavishnu by a long time. Emergency (Polydor, 1969) with Tony. We came after that. Miles he was the real innovator in terms of form and conception.

John Heady days indeed. So exhilarating in fact that, to return to an earlier topic, McLaughlin is unsurprised about living in the Age of Reissue, though his perspective is two-sided. "It's kind of strange but it's very understandable from two points of view. One: the general public has this nostalgia of the world that was in the end of '60s and the beginning of the '70s. And second, the record companies are going the way of the Dodo. So what are they going to do? Are they going to hire new musicians, produce innovative new records? Of course they're not. They don't have the money anymore. Well, they have the money but they don't want to spend it because they're losing money, they've been losing money for a long time because of the internet, piracy, CD copying, you name it, these are all elements that are causing the downfall of record companies. So what do they do? They capitalize on the nostalgia that the people are feeling and bring out new releases that allows them to recycle, make more money without any kind of overhead. So the two go together. So for the time being, that's the way it is.

After Industrial Zen was released, McLaughlin did not renew his contract with Universal, ending a fifteen-year relationship. "I wanted out ... I make a record but they're not able to promote it. They'll only promote something that they know will make money... But I understand. They're under the heel of the accountants, the lawyers, the bottom-liners: how much money did you bring in? It's not like how much good music did you make? ... You cannot count on record sales anymore, I cannot anyway. So I don't, you just gotta go with the flow.

When he plays New York in September, 2007, he will feature a new band, the 4th Dimension, with keyboardist Gary Husband, bassist Feraud and drummer Mark Mondesir, a gig touted as "his first fusion band tour in ten years. Since disbanding his Heart of Things Band in the late 1990s, McLaughlin has been his usual peripatetic self, working with a reformed Shakti, recording an acoustic album with a symphony orchestra and chamber quartet (2003's Thieves and Poets, on Universal) and creating instructional DVDs that make use of his love of technology (available from Abstract Logix).

When asked why he has returned to "fusion, or if he even thinks of it as a return, McLaughlin states, in his impish way, "I'm most definitely into the electric mode I can tell you. I'm very excited because it's time. I just know it's time for me to do this now. It's like Thieves and Poets. In the middle of doing Shakti and other things, I suddenly said I have to do this acoustic album and I don't know why but it was just the right time and it was and I'm very happy with that recording. I don't know why things change like that; I guess it's just part of my makeup.

Selected Discography

John McLaughlin, Live at the Royal Festival Hall (JMT, 1989)

John McLaughlin, Shakti with John McLaughlin (Columbia, 1975)

Mahavishnu Orchestra (with John McLaughlin), The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971)

Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, My Goals Beyond (Ryko, 1970)

John McLaughlin, Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969)

Miles Davis, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Columbia-Legacy, 1969)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of John McLaughlin and Abstract Logix

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