Guest Appearances: John McLaughlin as a Sideman

Walter Kolosky By

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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.


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