"Johnny" McLaughlin - aka Mahavishnu, or just noble, forthright John - is one of the few electric guitarists who really matter.

As the electric guitar has come to dominate Western popular music, especially since the 1960s, players and listeners look back to the late '30s when sweet, swinging Charlie Christian, and the Belgian gypsy, Django Reinhardt, first proposed its fluent, infinitely variable language. In their wake, jazz and blues guitarists, open-minded conservatory types, genuine folk artists, and inspired rock'n'rollers have contributed to the evolving ideas, techniques, and legacy of sounds that say something essential about human life during the plugged-in 20th century.

Janus-like, John McLaughlin stands at a point where his instrument's history meets its future. He consciously unites elite and egalitarian cultures, embraces the highest professional standards and most advanced technology, comprehensively grasps tradition and personifies a global perspective.

Even beyond the guitar McLaughlin stretches music with timely and original thinking, ambitious and accomplished writing, fiery improvisations and well formed orchestral conceptions - overall virtuosity. But in 1978, 36-year-old Johnny was clearly at the head of the guitar world's massed forces. After several years advancing a one-world musical movement with the exotic acoustic ensemble Shakti, he recorded Electric Guitarist with trusted colleagues in New York and Hollywood studios to reaffirm the roots of his international success.

Shakti, featuring violinist L.Shankar and percussionist Zakir Hussain, demonstrated McLaughlin's love of classical Indian raga as well as the sensitivity of his unamplified touch. These aspects of his talent had been evident from the release of his second U.S. album, My Goal's Beyond. His first, Devotion, was an exercise in psychedelic flamboyance on the level of Jimi Hendrix.

Shakti was also McLaughlin's reaction to the bigger-is-better pressures that came to bear on his Mahavishnu Orchestra. Through live performances and its CBS recordings, The Inner Mounting Flame, Birds Of Fire, and Between Nothingness And Eternity, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a quintet comprising violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboard innovator Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Billy Cobham, shaped fusion and effected subsequent highly-charged instrumental efforts in every genre. The initial band's focus was diffused through personnel changes, the addition of a string trio and horns (on Visions Of The Emerald Beyond), and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony (Apocalypse).

So Mahavishnu went from overblown to understated - he got small, returning to roots he'd not been raised on but instead adopted. Yorkshire-born, mostly self-taught, McLaughlin, impressed by his violin-playing mother, apprenticed with British rockers Georgie Fame and Graham Bond and Brian Auger's Trinity. He's always claimed Mississippi delta bluesmen such as Muddy Waters as his influences; and, indeed, his blues always ring true, though strict 12- or 16-bar forms and vocally related phrasing seldom echo loudly in the outbound lines and complex structures of his work.

Conversely, McLaughlin's mid-'60s English releases, Where Fortune Smiles and Extrapolation, reveal his early affinities for communal interplay and the drama of modally embedded melodic development. His bandmates back then - including bassist Dave Holland, reedman John Surman, and drummer Tony Oxley - were prominent figures in London's progressive jazz scene.

When McLaughlin came to New York to join Tony Williams' Lifetime with organist Larry Young and, later, bassist Jack Bruce, he was already a distinguished stylist, his every lick weighted with the authority of fundamental precepts absorbed. His fierce momentum, propensity for bending, hammering, and sustaining climatic notes, and his knowledge of jazz repertoire were about the only obvious evidence of African-American music's impact on him. Yet he resourcefully applied deep principles of black music and indian classicism to every situation he encountered.

"When you play music, it's your life that's expressing itself", McLaughlin said in a 1985 down beat cover story. "That's why music is very rich, because it comes from the lives of people. And there are things spoken of in music that cannot be said vocally, or any other way."

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 of God."

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 messages.

For instance, the sweet-and-sour tone with which McLaughlin, in unison with violinist Goodman, 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 Peraza.

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.

by Howard Mandel
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