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John McLaughlin: From Miles and Mahavishnu to The 4th Dimension

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John McLaughlin: From Miles and Mahavishnu to The 4th Dimension
Matt Phillips
287 Pages
ISBN: # 978-1-5381-7094-6
Rowman and Littlefield
2023

In fall 2023 John McLaughlin led a new edition of his band Shakti on a world tour. Reviews and fan videos caught the eighty- one-year-old McLaughlin playing with the same breathtaking technique and abundant creativity as when he debuted atop the jazz world on Miles Davis' In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) and with Tony Williams' Lifetime. From Extrapolation (Polydor 1969) and My Goals Beyond (Douglas, 1971) into the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti, his own music has been marked by an Indian-inspired use of odd meters and by virtuosic freedom within challenging forms. Like his hero John Coltrane, he does not use his extraordinary facility to produce slick performances but continually pushes himself as an improviser.

McLaughlin's work with Davis was largely in the studio and, after Lifetime broke up, he has worked almost entirely as a leader, with only a handful of collaborative projects and guest appearances, and he has lived mainly in Europe. Although his bands have included extraordinary players such as Jan Hammer, Billy Cobham, Narada Michael Walden, Jean-Luc Ponty, Zakir Hussein, Trilok Gurtu, Gary Husband, Jonas Hellborg, Matthew Garrison, and more, he seems to prefer to keep a distance musically and personally from the jazz world.

There are several fine books on McLaughlin's life and work. Despite its subtitle, Paul Stump's Go Ahead John: The Music of John McLaughlin (2000) includes more biography than musicology. Walter Kolosky's Power, Passion and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra (2006) is the definitive account of that band, based on original interviews with every member. Kolosky followed it up with Follow Your Heart: John McLaughlin Song By Song (2010) which did not dig as deeply but does incorporate commentary from McLaughlin himself. Colin Harper's Bathed in Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond (2014)gives a fascinating and detailed portrait of the 1960s London scene, where McLaughlin began working as a studio musician, often playing alongside the young Jimmy Page on pop sessions, then covers his career up to the end of 1975, when he broke up the popular and bombastic Mahavishnu Orchestra to focus on more intimate acoustic music with Shakti. Although Bathed in Lightning was over 500 pages, Harper has since produced the supplemental Echoes From Then: Glimpses of John McLaughlin 1959-75 (2017), another 400 pages of new interviews and freshly unearthed primary sources on this period. All these books were written by fans for fans. Because they were originally published by independent presses or record labels, they escaped the notice of most academic and public libraries, and most are now out of print and command collector prices. Fortunately for readers, most are available affordably as eBooks and Harper was permitted to reprint Bathed in Lightning on his own after his publisher discontinued it.

Matt Phillips' new John McLaughlin: From Miles and Mahavishnu to The 4th Dimension is the latest addition to the McLaughlin bookshelf. It endeavors to combine biography and album guide, and to cover up to 2020. Readers interested in McLaughlin's work before 1975 should seek out the authoritative Power, Passion, and Beauty and Bathed in Lightning. Phillips' book will be useful to those seeking a guide through the almost forty years since.

McLaughlin's first post-Shakti album, Johnny McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist (Columbia, 1978), was a quasi-retrospective, taking its title and cover art from his teen years and featuring reunions with members of Lifetime, Mahavishnu, and with Carlos Santana. While McLaughlin has played at a consistently high level, after Shakti none of his projects have had the massive influence or popularity of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra or his work with Davis and Williams, although the acoustic guitar trio shredfest Friday Night in San Francisco (Columbia, 1981) with John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Paco DeLucia was a substantial hit. Phillips speculates about record company pressure on McLaughlin, following first the unpopularity of Shakti compared to Mahavishnu, then waning interest in fusion with the rise of the Young Lions on one hand and smooth jazz on the other. McLaughlin has moved from Columbia, the largest major label, to Warners, then Verve, and most recently Abstract Logix, an indie focused on fusion and jam bands.

This book will be an aid to McLaughlin fans who may have lost track of his work in the last few decades. However, there are some significant gaps in the research. There are no academic publications in the bibliography. The absence of Kevin Fellez' Birds of Fire: Jazz, Rock, Funk, and the Creation of Fusion (2011) is especially surprising, since it contains chapters on Lifetime and Mahavishnu and is named for a Mahavishnu album. Paul Lavezzoli's The Dawn of Indian Music in the West (2006) also has a McLaughlin chapter, focused on Shakti.

Phillips also chooses to deal only with albums in their original form, which means the Columbia/Legacy Miles Davis box sets featuring unreleased material from the sessions for In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, and most of McLaughlin's other work with Davis are mentioned only in passing. He likewise avoids the abundant archival and bootleg live recordings of McLaughlin performances available through YouTube and other sources. Apart from Bitches Brew, which has been thoroughly analyzed in George Grella's 33 1/3 book (2015), Victor Svorinich's Listen to This: Miles Davis and Bitches Brew (2016), and numerous other books on Davis, the rest of this music awaits more extensive further study.

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