EXTENDING BEYOND MAHAVISHNU
By Burt Korall
(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine - June 7,1973)
"My life is blessed," John McLaughlin said, smiling benevolently.
"For this I must thank Sri Chinmoy, my master. Becoming deeply involved in the
spiritual life has changed everything for me."
A virtuoso guitarist, known to jazz fans for his work with Miles
Davis and Tony Williams and widely admired for his solo ability and dynamic
Mahavishnu Orchestra; McLaughlin, unlike some other musicians of his
generation, seems genuinely sure of himself and projects a feeling of inner
tranquility and strength.
For the past three years, McLaughlin has been living within the
orbit of Indian spiritual leader Chinmoy, and with his help, the
transformation has been made. Now it is no longer necessary for him to
fight or meet the excessive demands of a distressed spirit. He can create
as never before, with an attendant feeling of unlimited freedom.
Two Columbia albums, The Inner Mounting Flame and
Birds of Fire,
featuring the guitarist and his four colleagues of the Mahavishnu
Orchestra, and concert dates around the country testify to McLaughlin's
burst of creativity. The decisive sense of liberation and consistent
"quality" of his group: its firm musical and emotional foundation, only
further comment on the extraordinarily positive aspects of its leader's new
view of things.
"It's a matter of determining priorities in life." McLaughlin
explained in his soft-spoken manner, which only occasionally reveals his
British origins. He added:"Because I've determined mine, opting for living
for The Supreme Blessed One, my emotional, spiritual and intellectual
pursuits are in accord. I make music easily and link with my audiences. And
my direction in music is totally in harmony with the manner in which I
conduct my life."
"I know where I'm going, what I want, why I want it and also how
to attain what I need. I feel that as a musician, I'm doing the Lord's
work. A musician, after all, serves a very special function. He's the ears
for other people: a painter who portrays in sound and rhythm what he senses
about the universe, pointing out things that might not be noticed by the
untrained. His mission - all men's mission - to realize his own divinity."
Admittedly, McLaughlin speaks in rather lofty terms, but apparently
his faith works for him. And his music moves within various centers of
reality, making only occasional excursions into mystic realms. It speaks a
basic language and derives inspiration and techniques from a variety of
sources. Essentially electric in sound and character, it is an expression
of today: mingling jazz, rock, basic blues, and elements from Western
classical and Indian music.
That the Mahavishnu Orchestra's music derives from multiple origins
is no accident. McLaughlin declares: "It was inevitable. We have been
inundated with music - from everywhere - for a number of years. Media have
broken down national musical boundaries. There no longer are specific
types of music really, only good and bad. The musician's job is to make the
blend something of his own."
"Dedication and hard work," he added, "are the means to this end.
If you want to play the guitar, or to meditate, you can't do it overnight.
It requires consistent and devoted work through your life. People are
deluded. They think if it looks easy, it takes little or no trouble to
"That's one of the lies with which we have to live. Coming to the
point where you can make the instrument speak for you takes an awfully long
time. When I started on the guitar at 11, I didn't realize this. But I was
thoroughly involved. It was a love thing that occupied all my waking hours,
one way or another."
For the 31-year-old McLaughlin, it all began in a small Yorkshire
village in Britain, within a highly musical family. His mother, a concert
violinist, was a constant source of encouragement. At 8, he began on piano
and violin. Then his interest in guitar reduced the importance of
"My first influences were black blues guitarists, Muddy Waters,
Leadbelly, and Big Bill Broonzy. Then I got into flamenco music," he
explained. "And after that, I began digging jazz, particularly Django
Reinhardt. He was my hero."
"Later I heard Tal Farlow and found what I consider a genius. Tal
was a great source of inspiration to me. I'm grateful to him and continue
to learn from his work. His conception is so contemporary and he has
incredible facility and a highly inventive approach to harmony. He should
be out there playing. He has so much to give."
Unlike the group of players who preceded them on the British music
scene, McLaughlin and his friends in the Brian Auger, Georgie Fame and
Graham Bond groups (including Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker) involved
themselves in various types of music; some outside the realm of jazz.
Moving from the Chicago blues players, into rock-n-roll, folk and Miles
Davis, Mingus, Coltrane and Eric Dolphy; they prepared a basis for the
music to come.
"We all went through several scenes before finding the most
meaningful way to go - musically or otherwise. A lengthy period of
discovery, of the good and bad." McLaughlin recalls. "Most of the time,
though, I didn't think about much more than playing, having a ball and
Though his lifestyle was uncaring and undisciplined in comparison
with today, McLaughlin developed at a consistent pace. As far back the
early 1960's, with the Graham Bond Organization in London, he began
experimenting with volume and its various uses after putting an amplifier
on his instrument. It took awhile, however, before his concept solidified.
By the time drummer Tony Williams heard McLaughlin on a record in
1969 and was motivated to ask him to join his group Lifetime in America,
the guitarist had evolved his own identifiable style and consistently
performed at a high level. A virtuoso equally at home in jazz, pop or
blues; he could shout and whisper, scream and stomp. Not suprisingly, he
found numerous advocates for his thoughtfulness and vigor.
Miles Davis was one of these. McLaughlin recorded several times
with the influential maker and shaker, revealing what he feels is but one
aspect of his playing personality. Sublimating himself to the designs of
the trumpeter, he followed Miles' direction without question.
"Miles told us what he wanted," he affirmed, "I love him so much.
I tried to make him happy, doing whatever he felt was right."
As it turned out, McLaughlin made several admirable jazz-based
recordings with Davis. Perhaps most memorable was an item bearing his name
that unwinds in a fascinating, pulsating manner on Davis' Bitches Brew
However, it wasn't until he discovered the deeper, more meaningful
aspects of life, under the guiding hand of Sri Chinmoy, that John
McLaughlin became the man and musician we know today. Thinking clearly and
with a sense of vision, he came to the realization, after leaving Lifetime,
that rather than joining Miles Davis on a full-time basis he had to go his
own way as an artist.
The results: the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the mirror of his increasing
maturity and inner peace. Also: several other projects and endeavors that
allow McLaughlin to reveal all facets of his creative personality.
His most immediate interest is the group. The idea for it was
conceived a little over two years ago. (The name, in case you're curious,
derives directly from McLaughlin - its what he was tabbed by his mentor.)
McLaughlin is at the very center of the Mahavishnu Orchestra's
music. Its chief creator, the composer of most of the band's music, he is
also the group's major soloist - playing a doublenecked, 18 string
instrument - and a central source of energy. In addition, he is primarily
responsible for setting the organization's course.
What about the Mahavishnu Orchestra? You say it's loud. Admittedly
so. Loud and often quite intense, the band also functions in more lyrical
terms, leading the listener to realize that contemporary pop music also can
be soft, even yielding, and feeling in a less than bludgeoning manner.
More than most, McLaughlin has come to grips with the central
factors and truths concerning volume. The band is not afraid to scream or
to bring its voice down into more mellifluous registers: whatever level of
sound will project the emotion in question is brought into play.
"I now understand that volume is as natural in music as in life,"
he said. "Most people are afraid of it, preferring the more comforting
softer sounds. But you must not be intimidated by volume. In order to play
a complete music, or to appreciate music in all its colors as a listener,
you have to be open."
At the start, the band was too small to cause too much of a ruckus.
It was a duo, comprised of McLaughlin and super drummer Billy Cobham. "
Billy was the first man I talked to about coming into my new band,"
McLaughlin explained. "I had met him several times with Miles and on dates
with other people. He impressed me so much. I was very happy when he said
he would join me."
"With Billy as my foundation - and you must have a great drummer
if a band is to make it - I went out and scouted around for other players
who would be right for what I had in mind. The violin was part of the sound
I wanted. First I thought of getting Jean Luc Ponty, but immigration
problems made me give up that idea. I ended up listening to all the albums
I could find featuring violin players."
"When I heard Jerry Goodman with the Flock I knew the search was
over," he said. "After a little detective work, I found out he was living
on a farm in Wisconsin. I contacted him about doing my last album under a
contract with Alan Douglas, My Goal's Beyond, then talked to him about a
permanent thing. Miroslav Vitous, the bass player, suggested pianist Jan
Hammer. Our bassist, Rick Laird, I knew in England."
"All of us were excited about playing music beyond category. From
the beginning, we wanted the band to be a vehicle for all kinds of
emotions, not a particular kind of music."
In the summer of 1971, the group made its debut at New York's
Gaslight at the Au-Go-Go and was held over for a few weeks. A hit album, The
Inner Mounting Flame, followed.
Both rock and jazz critics expressed admiration for the Mahavishnu
Orchestra. Why? A number of reasons. The amazing rapport among the unit's
members. Their energy, dexterity and clear-cut ability. McLaughlin's
amazing virtuosity and Cobham's singular rhythmic thrust and simmering
creativity. The band's compositional strength, solo power and sense of
sweeping freedom could not be ignored.
The depth of communication among the musicians further
distinguishes the band. From the outset, it has been McLaughlin's goal to
make the performances increasingly intuitive, ultimately getting to the
point where each man can sense the other's next move and translate feelings
into techniques without thinking.
"This way," he indicated with a wave of the arm, "we can bring
our audience to us. We want to remove all barriers between us. In that way
we are fulfilled, they are fulfilled."
This is a deeply dedicated band. The love apparent within it
certainly is primary to its increasing success. All the men, via words and
action, display devotion to their form of instrumental music, its multiple
derivations, and to McLaughlin who thinks of their perfomances as offerings
As for the future, it is McLaughlin's contention that if you take
care of NOW, the future automatically falls into place. For him, there's
only one time. He says if we live the moment properly, then there is no
past, present, future. Just a continuous flow, balanced and in harmony.
McLaughlin explains his way of living the moment properly: "All we
can do is give ourselves to our work unstintingly, open ourselves to
experience and allow it to find its way into our music."
"For me," McLaughlin commented further, "it is important that my
musical situations extend beyond the band. I want to write for other's, to
learn - I'm finding out about Indian vocal music and studying an Indian
Instrument. I also want to play in various contexts. I've been appearing as
an acoustic guitarist with my wife, who sings and plays the autoharp."
John McLaughlin, Mahahvishnu, is happy just being here, creating
his own way. He feels it is but the beginning for him, the start of a long,
fruitful trip. "Direction lies within," he says. From every indication,
McLaughlin has found the path to the inner regions. The music can only
benefit from his future discoveries.