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John McLaughlin: His Goals Beyond

Andrey Henkin By

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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.


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