Though he seldom gives it many words, McLaughlin's music speaks of a life of discipline,
curiosity, and continual growth. In '69 and '70, McLaughlin summoned the brave creativity
to meet challenges poised by Miles Davis. Their sessions resulted in
Bitches Brew, In A Silent Way, Jack Johnson, and long jams on Big Fun
and Directions. The guitarist's earnest passion countered the trumpeter's cool
commentary with a heft no single soloist had offered since Coltrane left Miles' ken.
Still, there was little precedent for the slashing front line, rampaging support,
devotional fervor, Olympian polyrhythms, and frankly transcendent intent of McLaughlin's
original Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Sri Chinmoy had given McLaughlin his Hindu name, recalling the diety who sustains all.
"For me, all great musicians are spiritual people", the guitarist asserted in down
beat. "In fact, everybody's spiritual, really, and music is the language of the
spirit. Because music speaks from the heart of the player to the heart of the listener.
We don't know if there's a God, but if there is a God, I think music is the face
Some of those listeners and promoters who basked in the radiance of the first Mahavishnu
Orchestra proved insatiable, demanding more glory, always more. If the pressures of
arenasized venues exhausted the breakthrough quintet, Shakti - however esthetically
refreshing - was far too delicate for the business temper of its time. In
Electric Guitarist McLaughlin returned to collaborators who dealt with power, and settings
that showed off his surface strengths. He never suppressed his subtler, more serious
For instance, the sweet-and-sour tone with which McLaughlin, in unison with violinist
opens "New York On My Mind" is an aural critique of an intensely secular city.
Surrounding himself with a Cobham's churning beat, Goodman's furious swipes, and Stu
Goldberg's Rhodes soul chords, McLaughlin cuts through like a prophet making his jeremiad
heard over the din of Times Square. Is that McLaughlin, employing a prototype guitar
synthesizer, soloing with pliant nostalgia, an idealistic gleam? Fearsome reality
returns, and lingers through the fade-out.
With fellow Chinmoy devotee Devadip Carlos Santana, McLaughlin lauds "Friendship" by
quoting Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" (the choral movement which makes a surprise ending to
his Ninth Symphony). Santana and McLaughlin's collaborative album Love, Devotion And
Surrender had brought street-smarts and religiosity together. Here, McLaughlin
follows Santana's San Francisco salsa with laser-beat meat. Righteous Narada Michael
Walden drums, with elaborate detail from Latin percussionists Alyrio Lima and Armando
The ballad "Every Tear From Every Eye" aligns McLaughlin with pop-jazz alto saxist David
Sanborn, pianist Patrice Rushen, and bassist Alphonso Johnson. The guitarist's alternating
full and spare passages, humbled plucks, and protesting cries relate his empathetic ache.
On "Do You Hear the Voices That You Left Behind?" an all-star quartet - hear Stanley
Clarke's deft stand-up bass, Jack DeJohnette's implacable hi-hat, Chick Corea's propulsive
piano - take on the rapid changes of Coltrane's test piece "Giant Steps".
There are light moments on Electric Guitarist: McLaughlin's wah-wah makes loose
fun when ex-Lifetimers Bruce and Williams ask: "Are You The One?" And the goof-boogie
shuffle that stars "Phenomenon: Compulsion", McLaughlin's impromptu duet with Cobham,
quickly explodes into a monstrously processed raveup.
Still, no track seems more connected to McLaughlin, the fresh-faced, sandy-haired
schoolboy in the photo on the cover of Electric Guitarist, than the older, wiser
rendition of "My Foolish Heart". Every note is distinct, every chord carefully shaded,
every pause fraught with memories, reconsidered. The guitar is as transparent as the
young McLaughlin's gaze is cheery and vulnerable.
Yet the casually frisky McLaughlin keeps laying his foolish heart on the line.
"I'm a guitar player - that's what I am primarily, that's what I'll always be", McLaughlin
told his down beat interviewer. "I believe if you listen to Shakti or the Belo
Horizonte album or the guitar trio Lps (with Pace De Lucia and Al Di Meola) or
Music Spoken Here - that's just guitar. I like to write music, but a guitar player's
all I ever want to be.
"I want to be better and better, just as I want to be a better person. I want to be more
articulate, I want to be able to utilize space better, to play silence more profoundly.
There are many things left for me to do; there is much work to be done."
John McLaughlin has persisted since Electric Guitarist. Despite fads and fashions,
he's pursuedhis own muse, encouraged a widening circle of musicians, purged himself of
pretensions and mannerisms, examined equipment which promises him a greater range of sound
and more control.
He ran the One Truth Band, which spotlit Shakti's L.Shankar over a fusion rhythm, and
reformed Mahavishnu with younger players. In 1984, he recorded Palle Mikkelborg's
orchestral score Aura, a tribute to and with his one-time mentor, Miles.
Many musicians, having made their youthful marks, wouldn't bother to keep trying so
relentlessly, or dare expose themselves to the chance of failure on ever grander scales.
John McLaughlin, however, is a contemporary master. Having confronted great risks
throughout his career, his achievements are secure. So harmonically and rhythmically
sophisticated he credibly engages both Western and Eastern traditions, dips into
the funk and approaches the most sublime heights of art, McLaughlin produces a
music of mind, spirit and heart that will surely resonate for decades.