Noted jazz critic Leonard Feather once called the English jazz guitarist John McLaughlin a chameleon. He did not mean it as a compliment. He believed that McLaughlin never developed a real musical identity, because he kept jumping into too many different musical worlds. Indeed, McLaughlin had written and played ragtime, rock, free jazz, modern jazz, fusion, world music, and even classical music. What the jazz traditionalist in Feather couldn't see at the time, however, was that McLaughlin was actually on a musical quest that would eventually garner him a place in the music pantheon.
In a career that has spanned over 40 years, McLaughlin has been part of or led some of the most important movements in jazz and music. In the 1960's he cut his teeth playing with Graham Bond and was a main cog in the revolutionary Tony Williams Lifetime. He met Miles Davis, recorded historic music with him, and earned stardom. In the 1970's he founded fusion's first super group, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and created music that still has a unique influence today. McLaughlin then took a lower profile with Shakti, an Indo-Jazz ensemble that helped lead the way to the World Music movement. In the 1980's he got together with acoustic guitarists Al DiMeola and Paco DeLucia and produced a series of recordings that helped thousands of fans and players rediscover the beautiful sounds of the acoustic guitar. At the same time, McLaughlin was also at the forefront of technology, using the first guitar synthesizers. He wrote a guitar concerto, which he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. In the 1990's McLaughlin borrowed from all of these musical experiences to produce several outstanding albums and tour the world to packed houses.
What of John McLaughlin's actual guitar playing? Pat Metheny says McLaughlin has changed the evolution of the guitar at least three times, making him "one of the most significant figures in the modern history of the guitar." What of his jazz compositions? They are now being treated with the reverence of classical music pieces and being interpreted the world over by jazz, rock and classical musicians.
In his later years, Leonard Feather finally started to come around and gave McLaughlin some begrudging praise. With the bustle of reissue activity in the last few years, we are lucky to have almost all of John McLaughlin's recorded music available. And that allows us to see a big picture that may have eluded Feather.
Note: dates listed correspond to the original releases; catalog numbers represent currently available editions.
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