String Theory: 25 Years of John McLaughlin at The Montreux Jazz Festival

Walter Kolosky By

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The Free Spirits are finally presented in a way we should have heard the first time.
Weighing in at more than 3 pounds, including a very esoteric 50-page hardcover booklet, the John McLaughlin: The Montreux Concerts box set is one magnificent mess. Hours upon hours of music provide ample evidence that McLaughlin’s guitar playing should be used to gauge the tensile strength of various string types and his compositions need to be analyzed for secret messages. Large and small scale experimentation, diversity and virtuosity rule this collection. Even the failed experiments are glorious. This set is a must hear for any John McLaughlin fan. Anyone interested in what the world’s greatest guitarist can do with his instrument should also check it out.

For John McLaughlin fans the past year has been excitingly dizzying and financially draining. First, based upon reviews that McLaughlin stole the show, they purchased the special Miles Davis 5-CD Box Set The Jack Johnson Sessions. Next, they paid top dollar to go see McLaughlin’s current band, Remember Shakti, as it toured extensively through North America and Europe. During that tour, they had no choice but to notice that John had appeared as a guest on bassist Miroslav Vitous’ latest release, Universal Syncopations. Ring up another purchase at import pricing! Then McLaughlin’s own album, Thieves and Poets, was released. That required even more cash. Finally, the 17-CD The Montreux Concerts was released. At more than $300 in some places, fans had to empty out their bank accounts even further. You add the past year up and it has cost McLaughlin fans a fortune. Of course, as any admirer of McLaughlin knows, they really had no choice...

The liner notes indicate that these Montreux Jazz Festival concerts from 1974 to 1999 cover the broad spectrum of McLaughlin’s musical development. The scary thing is that they actually only represent a piece of McLaughlin's legacy! Missing is all of his groundbreaking pre-Mahavishnu output. The original Mahavishnu Orchestra also appeared at the festival in 1972, but was not recorded. Also failing to show-up is the 1996 appearance of The Guitar Trio. The uncooperative Al DiMeola did not give permission for its inclusion. It is also very disappointing and hard to believe that two of McLaughlin’s most wonderful bands, the Belo Horizonte Band (sometimes known as The Translators) and the John McLaughlin Trio featuring Trilok Gurtu, never appeared at Montreux. Despite the noted absences, this set stands out for the historic document it is.

Claude Nobs, the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival impresario, had been recording the festival’s concerts for years. Only recently, has the world become aware of this as Claude released a similar set of Miles Davis’ appearances two years ago. Word is that he is now working on another set with Herbie Hancock.

Nobs and McLaughlin made a decision to not re-master or clean up the original source tapes. While this is called “brave” of McLaughlin in the liner notes, it was also probably cost effective. Because of this decision, some of the earlier concerts suffer from on-stage mishaps and some sound inadequacies and annoying clicks that either happened at the time of the recording or existed on damaged source tapes. The sound gets better as the concerts get newer, but audiophiles should be made aware of the sound issues. Those who have their hands on new digital technology will probably be cleaning up the affected discs anyway. In a way, the sound flaws of the early shows actually add a bit of a charm and context to the collection. Listening to McLaughlin wrestling with the feedback from his monster double-neck brings us to the time and place. For all intents and purposes, if this collection was not commercially released, we would look upon these never before heard discs as “once in a lifetime” audience recordings. For bootlegs, the sound is darn good.

The set begins with two discs featuring the second Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring McLaughlin on double-neck electric guitar, Jean Luc Ponty on violin, Michael Walden on drums, Ralph Armstrong on bass and Gayle Moran on keyboards. These players were augmented by a string and horn section. The scale of the bombast of this performance is absolutely gargantuan. The incongruous trumpet solos, from either Bobby Knapp or Steve Frankovich, over the ethereal electronics only add to the apocalyptical confusion. The music keeps reaching for the skies and even beyond. The Orchestra can’t always pull it back down to earth. When it does, it is the aural equivalent of seeing those old train wreck films they shot in slow motion. Despite its violence, it is quite beautiful.

The next two discs showcase the original Shakti band. Acoustic and far more Eastern than Mahavishnu, Shakti must have shocked the fans at Montreux. This was not one of Shakti’s better performances, however. These two discs also suffer from the worst sound in the collection. Yet, despite the occasional arid patches and sound problems, the electricity of the performance will stay with you for days. It is often true that a recording does not do justice to a performance. It can not contain such intangibles as atmosphere or anticipation. Such variables literally wash away minor flaws you may not hear at a live event. In listening to the crowd enthusiasm on these discs, we must assume that those variables were high and that the sound in the room was better than what we now hear in our ears.

Disc #5 from the very next year, 1977, unleashes a classic Shakti performance that surpasses even the previously unparalleled heights of the band’s first eponymous live release. The sound quality is very good and allows the full power of Zakir Hussain’s and T.H. Vinayakram’s percussion skills to come forward. L.Shankar’s violin playing seems to have made a quantum leap from the previous performance. His playing is loose and more interactive during call and response sections with McLaughlin’s amazing bended notes and alien chords. It is not easy to capture a band at its best at an annual event such as Montreux. But this is one recording that does it.

The One Truth Band takes up Disc #6. You will wish it took up Disc #7 as well. One Truth was a much more rhythmic electric band than The Mahavishnu Orchestra had been. Yet, it could catch melodic fire in a second’s notice. McLaughlin used his scalloped fret board guitar to bend the hell out of his notes. In unison with L. Shankar’s now-amplified violin, McLaughlin fused Eastern sounds with Latin rhythms. The charming and naïve spoken and shouted vocals gave this band its own brand of corniness. Back then maybe it wasn’t quite so corny. Now it is CORNY. Also of note is that this band was never recorded. Drummer Sonship (Reggie Theus) and Bassist T.M. Stevens (referred to on the CD as “Tom”) would not be with the band the next year when it released Electric Dreams. McLaughlin fans will love hearing them. Also of utmost importance is keyboardist Stu Goldberg. Goldberg was a favorite of McLaughlin during this time appearing with the last Mahavishnu, One Truth and on a short tour with Billy Cobham and Jack Bruce. Goldberg had the unfortunate opportunity to follow Jan Hammer in McLaughlin’s pantheon of keyboard players. He never really had a chance to win over Hammer’s old fans. His playing here, and on other records, should shed a new light on his contributions. He was, and is a very skilled player of the highest order and has been unfairly overlooked.

The next disc is a true find. Chick Corea and John McLaughlin perform in duet several McLaughlin and Corea compositions to an appreciative crowd. Rarely do you hear acoustic guitar and piano duets. In that context, the sheer number of choices of piano keys tends to overwhelm a guitarist. But, alas, John McLaughlin is playing guitar and that makes his instrument an equal partner. There are sound issues with this disc. (At least on the disc I listened to.) The first tune “La Baleine” is over modulated. Sad to say there is also a persistent click in the background throughout the whole concert. It sounds as if it is damage from the source tape. You will have to work hard to ignore it. But, it is small price to pay to be able to hear this concert at all.

Another incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra appeared in 1984 with a name shortened to Mahavishnu and appears on Discs #8 and 9. This was the band in which McLaughlin used his Synclavier guitar synthesizer. There are mixed feelings all the way around on this one. This band had to be seen live to fully enjoy. Why? That Synclavier took the edge off of John’s playing. Unless you were there to see him play it live and marvel at his control over the strings and the electronics, you couldn’t get full enjoyment from the performance. Such is the case from this concert. This band had very strong compositions that helped alleviate the synthesizer issue and is worth listening to for its skill and humor. At one point, Mahavishnu does a few choruses from the Stevie Wonder songbook. But, again, and I think McLaughlin knows this; the sharp drama of the music is missing without the cutting of his electric guitar swathes. He does pull out his axe several times, to the relief of his audience, making for the highlights. Keyboardist Mitchel Forman is a wonder.

Fans should rejoice that a live duet with Paco DeLucia fills discs# 10 and 11. To be frank, this performance more than covers for the Guitar Trio’s absence. McLaughlin and DeLucia are simpatico. Despite this, they seem to get off to a rough start handling Corea’s “Spain”. That is a rare occurrence, but again, every show can’t be perfect. Where would the drama come from? The two eventually find a sync and turn in a brilliant performance. Have two musicians ever complimented each other so well?

The next 3 CDs feature McLaughlin’s Free Spirits with Joey DeFrancesco on B-3 organ and Dennis Chambers on drums. Disc #12 is from 1993 and discs #13 and 14 are from 1995. Many McLaughlin fans had a problem with this band. McLaughlin’s guitar tone seemed to be too warm and processed. While the band produced aggressive and impressive convoluted music, the guitar sound would often be lost to the ears inside a whirlwind of B-3 pyrotechnics. I am very happy to report that these shows contain a guitar which is clearly heard to an advantage previously unavailable on the band’s recordings. I must also say that the mix is superior to the several times I caught the band in person. This is great news because it raises this band up a notch or two on the list. The Free Spirits’ performances are perhaps the surprise of this collection. There are two versions of McLaughlin’s “Mattinale” that will bring listeners inner peace. The Free Spirits are finally presented in a way we should have heard the first time.

Disc # 15 is filled with the music from The Heart of Things band. This is another of McLaughlin’s groups that is much better in a live context than in the studio. This night at Montreux doesn’t quite capture the all-out brilliance of the band’s CD Live in Paris, but it comes close. HOT was a dark band that reached into the recesses of the music to pull out omens of electric doom. There is not much of the McLaughlin trademark humor here. In spirit, this music comes much closer to the Mahavishnu Orchestra than any of McLaughlin’s other outings. The power of Dennis Chamber’s drums is combined with the low register high speed runs of Matt Garrison on bass to provide the basement. I have used this comparison before, but HOT sounds like a truck engine to me. There is a mechanical thrust to the music which makes you feel you are hauling ass down the highway in an eighteen wheeler. (And I mean that in a good way).

The penultimate disc features Remember Shakti, the rebirth of Shakti. It is evident that McLaughlin and Hussain, original members of Shakti, are better musicians than they were in Shakti. It is a strange phenomenon, really. Remember Shakti is a better band than Shakti. Yet, Shakti was more exciting. But so is everything the first time you hear it. Isn’t it? If you were to hear Remember Shakti first, you might even dismiss Shakti as being too rough. But that is the beauty of difference.

A bonus disc (#17) offers a duet with Paco which seems to have been culled from the concert that DiMeola wants released as a separate event. Also included is a McLaughlin guest appearance with Santana’s band back in 1993 that is quite loose and pleasing.

Years ago Keith Jarrett released the multi-vinyl Sun Bear Concerts to some great applause and much criticism. There was so much music on so many records that it was too expensive for many of his fans! In today’s world of the CD, it is almost expected that box sets will be released. They are getting larger and larger and, yes, more expensive. But more importantly, especially in the world of jazz and related music forms, these sets need to find their way out into the public. Otherwise, a great history is at risk. A box-set such as John McLaughlin: The Montreux Concerts offers us a document, complete with some flaws and much genius, that keeps the music alive. Those able to spend considerable time listening will be rewarded with so much more than just their money's worth.

Related Links
John McLaughlin @ All About Jazz
Liner Notes from John McLaughlin: The Montreux Concerts

This 17-CD set is available from Abstract Logix Store for $230.

Tracks & Personnel

CD 1 - Power Of Love; Wings Of Karma ; Smile Of The Beyond
CD 2 - Vision Is A Naked Sword; Hymn To Him; Sanctuary

July 7, 1974 – Convention Center Montreux
John McLaughlin (guitar), Bob Knapp (flute, percussions), Steve Frankovich (horns), Gayle Moran (organ, voc), Jean-Luc Ponty (violin), Steve Kindler (violin), Carol Shive (violin), Marsha Westbrook (alto), Phillip Hirschi (cello), Ralphe Armstrong (bass), Michael Walden (drums)

CD 3 - Joy ; India
CD 4 - Nata ; Kriti

July 6, 1976 – Montreux Casino
John McLaughlin (guitar), L. Shankar (violin), T.H. Vinayakram (ghatam, mridangam), Zakir Hussain (tabla)

CD 5 - La Danse Du Bonheur ; India; Get Down And Sruti ; Joy

July 8, 1977 – Montreux Casino
John McLaughlin (guitar), L. Shankar (violin), T.H. Vinayakram (ghatam, mridangam), Zakir Hussain (tabla)

CD 6 - Meeting Of The Spirits; Friendship; Two Sisters ; Mind Ecology & Do You Hear The Voices We Left Behind; Phenomenon Compulsion & Hope

July 19, 1978 – Montreux Casino
John McLaughlin (guitar), Stu Goldberg (keyboards), L. Shankar (violin), T.M. Stevens (bass), W. "Sonship" Theus (drums)

CD 7 - La Baleine; Waltze; Romance; Sketches; Turn Around; Thelonius Melodius; Beautiful Love

July 15, 1981 – Montreux Casino Chick Corea (piano), John McLaughlin (guitar)

CD 8 - Radio Activity; Nostalgia; East Side West Side; Clarendon Hills;Blues For L.W.; It's The Pits & Living On The Crest Of A Wave
CD 9 - Jozy; Pacific Express; Mitch Match; Mitch Match (reprise)

July 18, 1984 – Montreux Casino
John McLaughlin (guitar), Bill Evans (saxophone), Mitchell Forman (keyboards), Jonas Hellborg (bass), Danny Gottlieb (drums)

CD 10 - One Melody & My Foolish Heart; El Panuelo; Spain; Chiquito; Florianapolis
CD 11 – Frevo; David; Sichia; Guardian Angels

July 15, 1987 – Montreux Casino
John McLaughlin (guitar), Paco de Lucia (guitar)

CD 12 - Thelonius Melodius; Matinale; When Love Is Far Away; Nostalgia; Mother Tongues; 1 Nite Stand

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN & THE FREE SPIRITS July 4, 1993 – Stravinski Auditorium John McLaughlin (guitar), Joey DeFrancesco (organ, trumpet on "When Love Is Far Away"), Dennis Chambers (drums)

CD 13 - Tones For Elvin Jones; Matinale; Sing Me Softly Of The Blues; The Wall Will Fall
CD 14 - After The Rain; Mother Tongues; Old Folks

July 18, 1995 – Stravinski Auditorium
John McLaughlin (guitar), Joey DeFrancesco (organ, trumpet), Dennis Chambers (drums)

CD 15 - Seven Sisters; Social Climate; Mr. D.C.; Tony; Acid Jazz; Jazz Jungle

July 11, 1998 – Stravinski Auditorium
John McLaughlin (guitar), Gary Thomas (saxophone, flute), Jim Beard (keyboards), Matthew Garrison (bass), Dennis Chambers (drums)

CD 16 - 5 In The Morning, 6 In The Afternoon; Ma No Pa; Anna; Finding The Way; La Danse Du Bonheur

July 8, 1999 – Miles Davis Hall
John McLaughlin (guitar), Zakir Hussain (tabla), Uppalapu Shrinivas (mandolin), V. Selvaganesh (Indian percussions)

BONUS CD - Canto de Xango; Frevo

July 4, 1993 – Stravinski Auditorium
With: Carlos Santana (guitar), Alex Ligertwood (vocals), Chester Thompson (keyboards), Myron Dove (bass), Walfredo Reyes (drums), Armando Peraza (percussions), Raul Rekow (congas), Karl Perrazzo (timbales). Guest artist: John McLaughlin (guitar)

July 8, 1996 – Stravinski Auditorium
John McLaughlin (guitar), Paco de Lucia (guitar)


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