Make fusion magic with John McLaughlin

By  Will Romano

Return To Forever was a revolutionary fusion band in the 1970s led by Chick Corea, who played with John McLaughlin on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew album. Publicity photo; no additional photo credit available.

Return To Forever was a revolutionary fusion band in the 1970s led by Chick Corea, who played with John McLaughlin on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew album. Publicity photo; no additional photo credit available.
John McLaughlin belongs to India — mind, body and spirit. Unquestionably, the legendary leader of fusion’s first bona fide supergroup — Mahavishnu Orchestra — has traveled longer and farther than any other guitarist in modern history to achieve a true visionary blending of Eastern modalities and Western music sensibility.

When Goldmine recently caught up with McLaughlin, he and his family had just returned from a seven-month stay in the subcontinent, which culminated in performances with Shakti (McLaughlin’s acoustic Indo-jazz hybrid band that came to prominence in the 1970s).

“India is a thrill,” says McLaughlin, 66, who also visited Malaysia during his trip. “It’s more like another planet, as opposed to another culture. What I can say about India is like trying to describe the most incredible meal I’ve had. It is impossible to put into words.”

Though McLaughlin had made the trek to India many times (each of the last 30-plus years), he found the country to be especially inspirational this time around.

“I began writing music like there was no tomorrow,” says McLaughlin. “I just kept writing, and my wife said to me, ‘Maybe you should do a CD while you are over here.’ We did. I invited the new young lions in India [who were] playing the bamboo flute, electric sitar and slide guitar. It was a meeting of the minds, and we even filmed this daily meeting with different players.”

McLaughlin also shot an educational DVD with Indian percussionist Selvaganesh Vinayakram (son of Shakti member T.H. Vinayakram), “The Gateway to Rhythm,” which demonstrates Konokol — a universal system of mastering rhythm without using drums.

“The DVD is about how to master drums without buying a kit and without getting blisters on your hands,” says McLaughlin. “It is the India system, although, for me, it is truly global.”

“Global” is also an accurate (if not completely adequate) description of McLaughlin’s musical scope over the last four decades. A memorable, fiery performance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas (in June 2004) with funky drummer Dennis Chambers and Indian classical music percussionist Zakir Hussain (on tabla set) illustrates just how global McLaughlin’s music can be. The instrumental “Tones for Elvin Jones,” dedicated to the late jazz drummer who’d died two weeks prior, was classic McLaughlin: musical styles collided, subdivided and meshed in unexpected ways, as if the musicians had magically created a hyper interactive playing zone for themselves. Burning beats and outside notes soared from the bandstand into the sweltering Texas summer air.

Like India herself, words pale when attempting to describe this performance, except to say that McLaughlin gave shape to the ineffable, while marrying Indian and Western musical concepts.

“One of the most intriguing things about Indian music is the integration of all the different aspects of the human psyche and human heart and soul,” McLaughlin says.

Throughout his career, McLaughlin’s musical explorations coincided with a kind of spiritual awakening and/or blossoming (a process he began in 1963). Though McLaughlin admits he initially experimented with drugs to achieve altered states of consciousness (“I was dropping acid like everybody else,” McLaughlin says, “it was the ’60s, after all”), a substance-free spirituality became his true guide.

“When I came to the U.S., which was January 1969, I’d already began practicing Hatha yoga, spiritual yoga,” says McLaughlin. “But by 1970, I had become more and more involved in my own spiritual dimension… I was living in New York then and I took a guru, or he took me — Sri Chinmoy — for the principle reason of learning meditation and learning how to do it. It was Sri Chinmoy who gave me Mahavishnu as a spiritual name… Mahavishnu, which is Sanskrit, can be broken down as, Maha which means ‘great’ and Vishnu, which is part of the Hindu pantheon of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu is the sustainer.”

Mahavishnu John

Before McLaughlin was dubbed “Mahavishnu” and before he’d draped himself in priestly white garb, strapped on a double-necked guitar and fronted the groundbreaking Mahavishnu Orchestra (McLaughlin playing a double axe is a bit like Godzilla using a blow torch), the visionary musician was something akin to a traditional jazzer. He’d been listening to Tal Farlow, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Raney.

“They were all great players who had a ‘cool jazz’ style that became a part of me,” says McLaughlin.

McLaughlin soon won gigs with Graham Bond Organisation (which featured future Cream-ers Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker), Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, and Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. By the mid 1960s, the fleet-fingered, Yorkshire-born guitarist became one of England’s most talked about artists.

“By 1965 and 1966, saxophonist John Coltrane was distorting his notes,” McLaughlin says. “It was almost as if he was trying to play chords. So, I began experimenting with the amp and distortion.”

“Basically, I thought John was our best English guitar player,” says keyboardist Brian Auger (The Trinity, Oblivion Express, The Steampacket, which featured a then-unknown Rod Stewart), who has vivid memories of an 18-year-old McLaughlin playing the British club circuit.

After hearing a tape of the guitarist (reportedly played to him by drummer Jack DeJohnette), former Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams thought McLaughlin would be perfect for his new band — The Tony Williams Lifetime. Despite Williams’ solid jazz credentials (he had begun playing with Miles at the tender age of 17), Williams openly admitted that he was influenced by The Beatles, Cream, Hendrix and even the MC5, and was looking to inject more aggression (read: rock) into his jazz style. McLaughlin accepted the invitation to join The Lifetime but barely had time to take settle in when the Dark Prince himself, Miles Davis, had invited the 27-year-old guitarist to an upcoming recording session.

“I had just met [Davis] the night before, and he said [imitates Miles’ soft, gruff voice], ‘Bring your guitar to the studio’,” says McLaughlin.

With Miles, McLaughlin cut the two-track 1969 LP In A Silent Way. McLaughlin’s playing was notably restrained; he lets out only electro-acoustic grunts here and there. “Sweat was pouring off me in that session, believe me,” says McLaughlin. “Boy, was I nervous.”

Just over a month later, McLaughlin and The Lifetime cut the appropriately titled Emergency! — a declaration of Williams’ independence from Miles’ band and arguably ground zero for the entire jazz-rock fusion movement.

“The guitar was being radically transformed at that time, and I was influenced by Jimi [Hendrix],” says McLaughlin. “Even though I had played acoustic-electric guitar for In A Silent Way, this exploratory sense I was feeling was basically inevitable.”

McLaughlin’s star was rising: he contributed to Miles’ sprawling two-record set Bitches Brew, a serious contender for the most artistically successful jazz-rock album ever made. Miles became enamored of the young guitarist (he even named a song after McLaughlin on Bitches Brew).

“I remember the first gig we played together at Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan,” says McLaughlin. “We finished the first set, and [Miles] came over to me, and he said, ‘I played shit tonight.’ I was baffled. I thought he played like a god. I saw this kind of brutal honesty he had with himself and everybody. He’d tell you when you didn’t have it together, but he’d tell the other musicians when he didn’t have it together. But, he was never mean. He was constantly, every night and recording session, looking for that elusive, magical moment.”

By the end of 1970, McLaughlin was steeped in Hindu mysticism and had recorded (among other projects) his final record with The Lifetime (the revolutionary/political Turn It Over), featuring Jack Bruce, and his solo record, Devotion, with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, both of whom had played with Hendrix. “When I heard [Devotion] I said, ‘What’s going on here?’” says Auger. “I was bowled over. This was a different John McLaughlin all of a sudden.”

Orchestral movements

Indian spiritualism now permeated every aspect of McLaughlin’s life (he’d even open an Indian/American restaurant in Queens, N.Y.), and in 1971, he’d recorded My Goal’s Beyond — a grand overture toward melding Indian music with jazz, foreshadowing bigger things to come.

“One day… we were sitting in the bandroom in this little club called Lenny’s On the Turnpike in Boston, and Miles said to me, ‘John, it is time you formed your own band’,” McLaughlin says. “From a man who was as brutally honest as Miles, I took it seriously. In fact, without that kind of kick in the backside, I don’t know when I would have done it.”

To help elucidate his musical vision, McLaughlin tapped drummer (and Panama native) Billy Cobham and violinist Jerry Goodman (both of whom appeared on My Goal’s Beyond), bassist Rick Laird (formerly of Auger’s The Trinity), and Czech keyboardist Jan Hammer. The Mahavishnu Orchestra was born. After performing original material live, Mahavishnu headed into the studio to record what would be hailed by many as an instrumental masterpiece, The Inner Mounting Flame.

From the very first track, “Meeting Of the Spirits,” the listener’s comfort zone is threatened: the music combined classical aspirations, art music’s tension and dissonance, jazz’s sensitivity, exotic Indian tonalities and rock’s electrified distortion. Often times, Goodman’s violin chases and locks into the lead melody stated by McLaughlin, while Cobham underscores rhythmic complexities without sacrificing the integrity of the groove.

McLaughlin’s spiritual bent was evident on the funky, supercharged “Vital Transformation,” the country-jazzy, Hendrix-esque steamer “Noonward Race,” the jubilant-spooky “The Dance Of Maya,” and “Awakening.” Though McLaughlin credits his experience with Miles as the foundation of Mahavishnu’s musical direction, no band could compare with (or follow) Mahavishnu.

Miles (while influenced by Sly Stone and Hendrix) may have expertly created groove-based sonic washes of funky jazz-rock, but McLaughlin’s Indo-inclined vibe (almost heavy metal in its intensity) was light years ahead of the competition — in both musical sophistication and finger speed. For a band with roots in ancient Indian music, Mahavishnu was progressive, coming from nowhere. 

“I cannot begin to express the places in my mind where the music, especially from the first record, took me,” says Dixie Dregs drummer and confirmed Mahavishnu fan Rod Morgenstein. “It changed my life.”

“If you just listen to the drummer, Billy Cobham,” explains drummer Paul Wertico, who had held the drum chair with the Pat Metheny Group for nearly two decades, “he possessed this immense power… He just blew everybody’s minds by playing in odd time signatures. Couple that with these amazing Indian-influenced chords, and I said, ‘That’s it. There is nothing else to do.’”

“When I first heard Mahavishnu Orchestra, when I was 12 years old, it was the speed I picked up on, and you think that that is what is good about the music,” says bassist Michael Manring. “But it takes a while to realize the depth of rhythmic complexity going on and what that means.”

Indeed. The record’s very title had spiritual depth, having been taken from a Sri Chinmoy poem called “Aspiration.”

“In India, they talk about the soul being a flame the size of your thumb,” says McLaughlin. “Fire, itself, is very mysterious. But I think [the flame] also refers to aspiration, and perhaps passion is a closer word to describe it.”

Passionate and unbridled, riding a wave of popularity, Mahavishu went back into the studio in August 1972 to cut the follow up, Birds of Fire. As with The Inner Mounting Flame, the title of the record was inspired by a Sri Chinmoy poem (entitled “Revelation”), which partly read: “No more my heart shall sob or grieve. My days and nights dissolve in God’s own Light. Above the toil of life my soul is a Bird of Fire winging the Infinite…”

The title track juxtaposed totally opposite feels, from dreamlike passages to ferocious, interlocking melodic and rhythmic patterns. Nonetheless, it all fit together perfectly, as if making a statement about all things being “one.”
“We can all pretend we are just human beings, but in terms of reality we are intimately connected with the supreme reality,” says McLaughlin.

Many artists were inspired by Mahavishnu’s ability to defy categorization. Guitar master Steve Morse, leader of The Dixie Dregs (a band capable of sidestepping trends by moving through country, blues, hard rock and Baroque, sometimes within the framework of a single song), once told this writer that he chose Ken Scott to produce the Dregs’ What If precisely because he’d engineered Birds of Fire.

“The concept with the Dregs from the beginning was to perform esoteric music that would appeal to musicians as much as non-musicians,” says Morgenstein.

McLaughlin continued to inspire. In October ’72, he cut Love Devotion Surrender with fellow Sri Chinmoy devotee and Coltrane fanatic Carlos Santana for a Latin/classical/psychedelia/jazz-rock fusion tour de force. (Cobham, Hammer, Lifetime’s Larry Young, and Santana drummer Michael Shrieve also appear). Songs such as “Naima” and “A Love Supreme” (a loose interpretation of Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement,” the first section of the four-part A Love Supreme suite), throb with intensity, heat and light.

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate musical project for two Coltrane fans both on personal and spiritual searches.

“Carlos is a beautiful person, and he has a thing for Miles and Coltrane that is, in a way, as strong as I do,” says McLaughlin. “We have a lot of shared inspirational sources.”

Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (dedicated to the almighty) and atonal/experimental records such as Ascension and Transition, represent evolutionary steps in the iconic sax player’s musical growth, all of which resonated with McLaughlin and Santana.

“Coltrane epitomized the ideal jazz man,” says McLaughlin. “He almost single-handedly added a spiritual dimension into jazz. I was myself a seeker for the mysteries of it all, and the fact that he brought this dimension into the music had a powerful impact on me.”

But, the deeper McLaughlin dove into the spiritual aspect of his music, the more he alienated his Mahavishnu bandmates. By the time work on a third Mahavishnu studio record began and the live Between Nothingness & Eternity hit the racks, the band had all but broken up. (Note: The sessions for the planned, third Mahavishnu Orchestra studio record were released in 1999 as The Lost Trident Sessions). Within two years, Mahavishnu’s flame had been extinguished.  

“My particular disposition with regard to my own interior search became apparent in that group,” McLaughlin says. “You know, I am out front dressed in white garb, and it was like another hippie looking for ‘the way,’ and it kind of caused friction in the band. It might have been responsible even for the breakup. I hope not, because for me it is only a positive thing when you start to discover your own spiritual dimension.”

Mahavishnu Mach II

McLaughlin took leave of the Orchestra for a few months, but, feeling he had more to say within the context of the band, he took the helm once again, for Mahavishnu Orchestra Mach II.

Behind the strength of French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty (Frank Zappa, Elton John), keyboardist/singer Gayle Moran (Chick Corea’s wife), bassist Ralphe Armstrong, and drummer “Narada” Michael Walden, soon to be disciple of Sri Chinmoy (and future producer success story), the group banged out the 1974 George Martin-produced effort, Apocalypse.

The album paired savage jazz-rock with the lushness of the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas). Once again, McLaughlin took conceptual cues from a Sri Chinmoy poem, the contents of which resonate with today’s headlines perhaps more than it did in 1974.

“Human nature needs an apocalyptical transformation,” says McLaughlin, “because we have these cosmic weapons, but we have no cosmic consciousness or no cosmic responsibility from the part of our leaders.”
Sonically, the Orchestra and the Symphony exchange roles as musical antagonists and benevolent counterparts, as if the ensemble was wrapped in an internal struggle.

“Sometimes you go onstage, and it is a battle,” says McLaughlin, “and what are we battling, after all? I mean, the battle is with your own ignorance and your own incapacity to articulate what you truly feel inside. But the battle is great. You see people play, and they are not struggling with their instruments but with themselves. They are struggling with this overpowering desire to express something that they are not able to get out… It has happened to me with the Orchestra… It was extremely demanding, not only to play these tricky arrangements but to improvise and play something meaningful. That is a tall order.”

Breaking away

Following Apocalypse was 1975’s Visions of the Emerald Beyond — a collection of the band’s most stylistically diverse compositions to date, encompassing styles ranging from the utterly serene (“Pastoral,” “Faith”), dirty/funky (Walden’s greasy Oakland funk-esque “Cosmic Strut”), mystical/gospel-esque (“Eternity’s Breath Part 1” and “ … Part 2”), and new-age heavy metal (“Lila’s Dance”).

McLaughlin trimmed Mahavishnu to a quartet for the record Inner Worlds (Ponty was gone to pursue a successful solo career, and the brash strings and brass were replaced by intricately, interwoven musical patterns.)

“By the middle of 1975 I knew that Shakti was really going to be a major vehicle for me for the next coming years,” says McLaughlin. “I had abandoned the electric form. I was running stale at that time. With Shakti, I’d do little acoustic concerts in churches and schools, which ran parallel to the big concerts I was doing with Mahavishnu.”

Once McLaughlin unplugged, he was capable of brewing greater musical richness and subtlety. A song like “India” from Shakti’s A Handful of Beauty achieved a more authentic fusion of Indian and jazz styles than any of McLaughlin’s other artistic vehicles to date.

“I am a jazz musician. I am a western musician, but I love Indian music,” says McLaughlin. “If I know the rules and regulations of the music, then I am in a much better position to sit down and play with Indian musicians.”

The Fusion Field

As McLaughlin was moving further away from electric jazz-rock fusion, he was also reevaluating his devotion to Sri Chinmoy.

“Despite the five years I’d stayed with [Sri Chinmoy], he never ever spoke about meditation and the techniques of meditation, just the fact to sit down and discipline yourself,” says McLaughlin. “Still, I was floundering around in the darkness, not having the faintest idea of what meditation was or coming any closer to who I was.”

While McLaughlin continued his personal search, a musical field he helped pioneer was experiencing its golden age, growing into a legitimate artistic force. (Birds of Fire, itself, had sold well in the 1970s and by 1991 was certified gold according to the Recording Industry Association of America’s Web site www.riaa.com.)

Electric fretless bassist Jaco Pastorius revolutionized the bass while injecting the African/Latin-slanted Weather Report with a highly articulated bottom end; Chick Corea and Return to Forever (which reunited for a reunion tour in summer 2008) wowed prog rock fans with the Medieval-tinged Romantic Warrior; the classically trained pianist Herbie Hancock was hurled into superstardom behind the power of his funk-jazz gem Head Hunters; and guitar hero Jeff Beck pumped out two mid-’70s classics, Blow by Blow and Wired.
The fusion “movement” (despite the fact that McLaughlin no longer played electric music and Miles Davis was conspicuously absent from the scene) was in full bloom and (in some cases) churning out timeless music.

“Whatever mystery, and you’d like to think it is a mystery, that makes music more than its notes and construction, this style of fusion music, played by those musicians, had a certain quality,” explains Paul Wertico. “Miles was brilliant. McLaughlin was brilliant, and he seemed to be on a spiritual quest. I don’t know if many musicians play with that kind of concept in mind anymore.”

Mahavishnu, slight return

McLaughlin eventually returned to the electric guitar and, by the mid-1980s, had resurrected (once again) the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This new-look Mahavishnu produced two studio records (’84’s Mahavishnu and ’87’s Adventures in Radioland) and featured bassist Jonas Hellborg, saxophonist and Miles Davis alumnus Bill Evans, keyboardist Mitchell Forman, original drummer Cobham (on Mahavishnu), drummer Danny Gottlieb (on Adventures), and McLaughlin on a custom Synclavier II Digital Guitar, with which he could obtain liquid, synth- and horn-like tones. (The 1984 version of this shrieking and groovin’ beast is captured in action, with the capable Gottlieb behind the kit, in the recently released DVD, “Mahavishnu Orchestra Live at Montreux 1984/1974.”)

Through the late ’80s and early 1990s, McLaughlin had abandoned Mahavishnu once again and tackled a number of projects, including Aura (with Miles Davis) and Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra, which saw McLaughlin renew his collaborative relationship with Michael Tilson Thomas. In recent years, McLaughlin has continued to explore an acoustic-orchestral theme (Thieves and Poets) and a slightly Indo-jazz bent (2006’s Industrial Zen).

McLaughlin continues to create some of the most daring music in jazz-rock, forever searching for that elusive magical music moment.

“Sometimes, not often, you enter this state of grace where the playing becomes effortless,” says McLaughlin. “I think all musicians live for that moment, because it is a very profound experience. [It may be] better than meditation, because there is no more interior and no more exterior. You experience this sense of real freedom. But it comes once or twice a year, if you are lucky. That’s why we work and why we practice, so that when that moment comes, we can be ready for it.”  

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