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Happy Birthday John McLaughlin!

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John McLaughlin - Jazz Guitar Today Cover Interview - July 2021

Jazz Guitar Today would like to wish John McLaughlin a very Happy Birthday (January 4)! In this tribute, guitarists offer some of their thoughts.

John McLaughlin is considered to be one of the greatest guitarists of all time.  He changed the way the guitar is played in jazz, opening it up to the blending of Rock, Blues, Indian and other expressions of World Music.  His beginnings were with various British-based jazz groups as well as one of London’s first call studio guitarists. His big break came when drummer Tony Williams brought him to the United States to join his group Lifetime, then later Miles Davis heard him and invited him to play on a number of his ground-breaking fusion albums In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, On the Corner, Big Fun, Live-Evil, and the Jack Johnson record. In 1971 McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra which went on to be very influential in the development of jazz-fusion music.  He pushed forward acoustic guitar playing with his early recording My Goals Beyond, later with his group Shakti and also with the guitar trio with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia.  In more recent years he continues to push the art form forward with The One Truth Band, The Five Piece Band, and other ensembles he has put together.

In my twenty-five years of interviewing jazz guitarists, the topic of John McLaughlin has come up many times.  For this article, I have compiled and brought together many of the things that these great guitarists have said about John’s playing.

His Sound

Jimmy Bruno: I like a lot of McLaughlin’s music.  I remember when guys were playing like that and going in that whole direction.  When I was younger, I played in some bands where guys were playing that way.  He and Larry (Coryell) were the first fusion players that were more jazz orientated.  But John was always a more 1/8 note kind of player. More of a rock player getting into jazz than a jazz player getting into rock.  He did some really amazing stuff.  The thing I like about John is that every record was always completely different.  Each one was a 180-degree turn.  You could never guess what he would do next.  His audiences would expect it too.  He is still doing different things.  

Paul Bollenback: John is special in that he is a true creative genius.  I admire how he can find a way to put his voice in just about every setting.  John was nice enough to write some introduction liner notes for my very first album Original Vision.  Joey (DeFrancesco)  was working with him at the time and I was also working with Joey.  I was able to hang with him with Joey.  He is a brilliant player.

His Influence

Paul Bollenback: When I was a teenager I was influenced by the intensity of his playing.  He is the only guitarist who has translated the energy of John Coltrane to the guitar and makes some kind of sense of it.  His music is responsible for getting me into jazz.  First, I listened to Mahavishnu Orchestra and which led me to Miles Davis and that led me to John Coltrane.  That’s how I got into jazz.  It wasn’t Charlie Parker or even George Benson or Wes Montgomery.  For me, those guys came much later.

Royce Campbell: John was a major influence on my development.  Before him, I was into Clapton and Hendrix and through John’s Inner Mounting Flame I discovered jazz.  Another album of his that influenced me, even more, was My Goals Beyond, especially the second side of the album.  He is a tremendous player.  As I mentioned, I was making the transition from rock to jazz and what I liked about John is that he is both and he encompassed all that I was into at the time.  

I saw the Mahavishnu Orchestra with Jan Hammer, Billy Cobham, and the other guys. It was the freshest, most innovative thing I had seen. Of all the guitarists, John captures the fire and energy of John Coltrane. 

Bill Frisell: He’s another one right about that time in my life that was so impacting.  I first heard John in Miles’ In a Silent Way. And soon after that, I got this Joe Farrell record with Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Chick Corea, and John.  Then I wore out the album Spaces with both Larry Coryell and John. Another album I wore out was one John did with Miroslav Vitous called Infinite Search with Joe Henderson on it.  Then there was the stuff with Miles and later the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  I don’t know what to say about him.  

Soren Lee: The album Jack Johnson was a definitive showcase for John McLaughlin. I loved McLaughlin’s bluesy, outgoing expression and his combination of jazz and rock. I should also say Jimi Hendrix still influences my playing today.  The way he phrased his lines, using distortion as a means of orchestrating his lines is what I hear when I am improvising.

Julian Lage: When I was eleven or twelve I saw Shakti in Oakland.  I had never seen anything like them.  They changed my world.  I came from a Jim Hall, Jimmy Raney school of playing.  What I appreciated about what John was doing was that it was more abstract motif-type development rather than traditional bebop phrasing.  What comes with that is an appreciation of nuances and that you don’t need to play so fast even though he certainly can.  At that stage of my development, I began to think that the speed thing and a huge technique weren’t for me.  Then I saw John, a notably technically proficient guitar player, do it with such grace and impact.  He didn’t have to play all the time but when he did, he did so like a blade cutting through. John taught me it is not one or the other, a fast player or a delicate player.  Do both and be a complete player.  I then went through a huge Skakti thing.  The stuff he does on acoustic guitar is my favorite.  It is so buoyant and unique to him. How he blends jazz with other music is very influential to me.  I am trying to blend jazz with bluegrass and world music and John paved the way for me.

Leni Stern: John is another one of those guitarists that is very gracious to younger guitar players. When I was living in Germany, I would go to hear John play and after the show, all of us young guitar players would be backstage waiting for him. He would always come out and usually spend an hour or so answering our questions about things like fingerings and the odd time signatures he was playing in.  Ralph Towner is the same way with young players.   

So, I knew John a bit from hanging out backstage in Germany. Then years later we played at the same jazz festival and we got reacquainted.  Later our bands toured together in Canada and a few other places and we became even better friends. His wife is German and she and I have become great friends.  I was studying in India and John came there to perform.  It was there that he agreed to play on one of my songs based upon a raga. He did the recording session as a birthday present to me a few years ago. The song is on my Finally the Rain has Come album.


His Vision

Steve Khan: John McLaughlin had a very clear vision as to where he wanted the Mahavishnu Orchestra to go. What he did with that band was so powerful that it simply vaulted him right past Larry (Coryell). Mahavishnu was so big, and became so popular, that it eclipsed everything in jazz and jazz-rock fusion at the time.

Jonathan Kreisberg: I think John McLaughlin is at his best in Shakti.  I feel he was born in the wrong country or something and he found his place in another culture, which is a beautiful and modern concept.  He was born to play Indian-influenced music.  My favorite Shakti album is the live one from the later 1970s.  I love John on the acoustic guitar.  It is so stripped down. Sometimes the electric guitar almost covers up how incredibly good he is as a guitar player.  He is a master in playing in this Indian time feel. He just locks into it.

I also dug the Mahavishnu Orchestra and really liked Visions of the Emerald Beyond with Jon Luc Ponty. It was more beautiful than the earlier albums which were more raw.

His Technique

Joe Negri: Of all the modern jazz-rock players, he is the other one that I like.  He has very good technique.  He is amazing.  He is an absolute virtuoso of his instrument.  Whenever you hear him, you know that something special is going on.  Listen to what he is doing.  Even though he is using effects, he is so musical.  He has such command of his hands.  I love the rhythmic qualities of fusion.  What Billy Cobham is doing here is just astounding.  

How he conceives his lines

Bobby Broom: He is such a singular player in terms of his approach melodically.  There isn’t anybody like him.  I didn’t really understand everything that he played in terms of his language.  He is almost like listening to a foreign language but there is something captivating and compelling about it.  I don’t really know what this is but it sure sounds good.  I also appreciated his ability as a bandleader.  

Bill Frisell: He is just another one of those guys who just blew my mind.  He still amazes me when I go and hear him today.  Nobody plays like him.  His architecture and structure are so absolutely unique.  His speed and technique is mind-blowing.  But if you take all that away, it is his choice of notes and rhythmic concepts.  He is still so advanced, so revolutionary. 


On his trio with Al DiMeola and Paco de Lucia

Al DiMeola: …it was kind of my idea.  I was the one who kind of found Paco.  Paco appeared on my  Elegant Gypsy in 1977.  I discovered him in Europe and was the one who introduced him to the U.S. audience.  He was highly revered in Spain and known a little in Europe but I introduced him on this side of the Atlantic through Elegant Gypsy which sold a million records.  So, John and Larry (Coryell) heard him on my hit record and became familiar with his playing.  I wanted to do this trio thing but with my records selling so well, I was very busy touring with my band.

A promoter in Europe asked John and Larry to put a guitar trio together for some dates and that was how they teamed up with Paco. At that time Larry had some personal problems and that trio kind of fizzled out.  Some time had passed and a promoter asked me to put a trio together with Paco and that’s how the one with John, Paco, and me came together.  With the popularity of all three of us, I knew it would do well.  In 1980 we did a two-month tour with the last night in San Francisco and we recorded that concert which became the live album and it sold 4 million records.  How could that happen today?  If we sell 40,000 albums today, we are happy.


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