John McLaughlin (born 4 January 1942 in Doncaster camelbak water bottle glass, West Riding of Yorkshire, England), also known as Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, is an English guitarist, bandleader and composer. His music includes many genres of jazz which he coupled with elements of rock, Indian classical music, Western classical music, flamenco and blues to become one of the pioneering figures in fusion.
After contributing to several key British groups of the early 1960s McLaughlin made Extrapolation, his first album as a bandleader, in 1969. He then moved to the U.S., where he played with Tony Williams’s group Lifetime and then with Miles Davis on his electric jazz-fusion albums In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, and On the Corner.
His 1970s electric band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, performed a technically virtuosic and complex style of music that fused electric jazz and rock with Indian influences.
McLaughlin has been cited as an influence by a number of prominent musicians. He is a Grammy award winner and has been awarded multiple “Guitarist of the year” and “Best Jazz Guitarist” awards from magazines such as Down Beat and Guitar Player based on reader polls. In 2003, he was ranked 49th in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. In 2010, guitarist Jeff Beck called him “the best guitarist alive”.
John McLaughlin is a leading guitarist in jazz and jazz fusion. His style has been described as one that incorporates aggressive speed, technical precision, and harmonic sophistication. He is known for using exotic scales and unconventional time signatures. Indian music has had a profound influence on his style, and, it has been written, he is one of the first westerners to play Indian music to Indian audiences. He was influential in bringing jazz fusion to popularity with Miles Davis, playing with Davis on five of his studio albums, including Davis’ first gold-certified Bitches Brew, and one live album, Live-Evil. Speaking of himself, McLaughlin has stated that the guitar is simply “part of his body,” and he feels more comfortable when a guitar is present.
From a family of musicians (his mother being a concert violinist), McLaughlin studied violin and piano as a child and took up the guitar at the age of 11, exploring styles from flamenco to the jazz of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. He moved to London from Yorkshire in the early 1960s, playing with Alexis Korner and the Marzipan Twisters before moving on to Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, the Graham Bond Organisation (in 1963) and Brian Auger. During the 1960s he often had to support himself with session work which he often found unsatisfying but which enhanced his playing and sight-reading. Also, he gave guitar lessons to Jimmy Page. In 1963, Jack Bruce formed the Graham Bond Quartet with Bond, Ginger Baker and John McLaughlin. They played an eclectic range of music genres, including bebop, blues and rhythm and blues.
In January 1969 McLaughlin recorded his debut album Extrapolation in London. It prominently features John Surman on saxophone and Tony Oxley on drums. The album’s Post-bop style is quite different than McLaughlin’s later fusion works, though it gradually developed a strong reputation among critics by the mid-1970s.
McLaughlin moved to the U.S. in 1969 to join Tony Williams’ group Lifetime. A recording from the Record Plant, NYC, dated 25 March 1969, exists of McLaughlin jamming with Jimi Hendrix. McLaughlin recollects “we played one night running belt hydration, just a jam session. And we played from 2 until 8, in the morning. I thought it was a wonderful experience! I was playing an acoustic guitar with a pick-up. Um, flat-top guitar, and Jimi was playing an electric. Yeah, what a lovely time! Had he lived today, you’d find that he would be employing everything he could get his hands on, and I mean acoustic guitar, synthesizers, orchestras, voices, anything he could get his hands on he’d use!”
He played on Miles Davis’ albums In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew (which has a track named after him), Live-Evil, On the Corner, Big Fun (where he is featured soloist on “Go Ahead John”) and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. In the liner notes to Jack Johnson, Davis called McLaughlin’s playing “far in”. McLaughlin returned to the Davis band for one night of a week-long club date, recorded and released as part of the album Live-Evil and of the Cellar Door boxed set. His reputation as a “first-call” session player grew, resulting in recordings as a sideman with Miroslav Vitous, Larry Coryell, Joe Farrell, Wayne Shorter, Carla Bley, The Rolling Stones, and others.
He recorded Devotion in early 1970 on Douglas Records (run by Alan Douglas), a high-energy, psychedelic fusion album that featured Larry Young on organ (who had been part of Lifetime), Billy Rich on bass and the R&B drummer Buddy Miles. Devotion was the first of two albums he released on Douglas. In 1971 he released My Goal’s Beyond in the US, a collection of unamplified acoustic works best waterproof wallet for swimming. Side A (“Peace One” and “Peace Two”) offers a fusion blend of jazz and Indian classical forms, while side B features melodic acoustic playing McLaughlin on such standards as “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, by Charles Mingus whom McLaughlin considered an important influence. My Goal’s Beyond was inspired by McLaughlin’s decision to follow the Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, to whom he had been introduced in 1970 by Larry Coryell’s manager. The album was dedicated to Chinmoy, with one of the Guru’s poems printed on the liner notes. It was on this album that McLaughlin took the name “Mahavishnu”.
In 1973 McLaughlin collaborated with Carlos Santana, also a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, on an album of devotional songs, Love Devotion Surrender, which featured recordings of Coltrane compositions including a movement of A Love Supreme. McLaughlin has also worked with the jazz composers Carla Bley and Gil Evans.
In 1979 he formed a short-lived funk fusion power trio named the Trio of Doom with Tony Williams on drums and Jaco Pastorius on bass. Their only live performance was on 3 March 1979 at the Havana Jam Festival (2–4 March 1979) in Cuba, part of a US State Department sponsored visit to Cuba. Later on 8 March 1979 the group recorded the songs they had written for the festival at Columbia Studios, New York, on 52nd Street. Recollections from this performance are captured on Ernesto Juan Castellanos’s documentary Havana Jam ’79.
McLaughlin’s 1970s electric band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, included violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Billy Cobham. They performed a technically difficult and complex style of music that fused electric jazz and rock with Eastern and Indian influences. This band helped establish fusion as a new and growing style. McLaughlin’s playing at this time was distinguished by fast solos and exotic musical scales.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s personality clashes were as explosive as their performances, and consequently the first incarnation of the group split in late 1973 after two years and three albums, including a live recording entitled Between Nothingness and Eternity. In 2001 the Lost Trident Sessions album was released; recorded in 1973 but shelved when the group disbanded. McLaughlin then reformed the group with Narada Michael Walden (drums), Jean-Luc Ponty (violin), Ralphe Armstrong (bass), and Gayle Moran (keyboards and vocals), and a string and horn section (McLaughlin referred to this as “the real Mahavishnu Orchestra”). This incarnation of the group recorded two more albums, Apocalypse with the London Symphony Orchestra and Visions of the Emerald Beyond. A scaled-down quartet was formed with McLaughlin, Walden on drums, Armstrong on bass and Stu Goldberg on keyboards and synthesiser, which generated a third “Mahavishnu 2” recording in 1976 largely due to contractual obligations, Inner Worlds.
McLaughlin then became absorbed in his acoustic playing with his Indian classical music based group Shakti (energy). McLaughlin had already been studying Indian classical music and playing the veena for several years. The group featured Lakshminarayanan L. Shankar (violin), Zakir Hussain (tabla), Thetakudi Harihara Vinayakram (ghatam) and earlier Ramnad Raghavan (mridangam). The group recorded three albums: Shakti (1975) A Handful of Beauty (1976), and Natural Elements (1977). Based on both Carnatic and Hindustani styles, along with extended use of konnakol, the band introduced ragas and Indian percussion to many jazz aficionados.
In this group McLaughlin played a custom-made steel-string acoustic guitar made by Abe Wechter and the Gibson guitar company that featured two tiers of strings over the soundhole: a conventional six-string configuration and seven strings strung underneath at a 45-degree angle – these were independently tuneable “sympathetic strings” much like those on a sitar or veena. The instrument’s vina-like scalloped fretboard enabled McLaughlin to bend strings far beyond the reach of a conventional fretboard. McLaughlin grew so accustomed to the freedom it provided him that he had the fretboard scalloped on his Gibson Byrdland electric guitar.
McLaughlin also appeared on Stanley Clarke’s School Days and numerous other fusion albums. They later recorded three tracks at CBS Studios in New York, 8 March 1979. The same year he teamed up with flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía and jazz guitarist Larry Coryell (replaced by Al Di Meola in the early 1980s) as the Guitar Trio. For the tour of fall 1983 they were joined by Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse who opened the show as a soloist and participated with The Trio in the closing numbers. The Trio reunited in 1996 for a second recording session and a world tour. Also in 1979 McLaughlin recorded the album Johnny McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist, the title on McLaughlin’s first business cards as a teenager in Yorkshire. This was a return to more mainstream jazz/rock fusion and to the electric instrument after three years of playing acoustic guitars.
The short-lived One Truth Band recorded one studio album, Electric Dreams, with L. Shankar on violins, Stu Goldberg on keyboards, Fernando Saunders on electric bass and Tony Smith on drums. After the dissolution of the One Truth Band, McLaughlin toured in a guitar duo with Christian Escoudé.
With the group Fuse One, he released two albums in 1980 and 1982.
In 1981 and 1982, McLaughlin recorded two albums, Belo Horizonte and Music Spoken Here with The Translators, a band of French and American musicians who combined acoustic guitar, bass, drums, sax, and violin with synthesizers. The Translators included McGlaughlin’s future wife, classical keyboardist, Katia LaBeque.
From 1984 through to (circa) 1987, an electric five-piece operated under the name “Mahavishnu” (omitting the “Orchestra”). Two LPs were released, Mahavishnu and Adventures in Radioland. The former featured McLaughlin making extensive use of the Synclavier synthesizer, allied with a Roland guitar/controller. The first of the two albums was recorded with a line-up of McLaughlin, Bill Evans (saxophones), Jonas Hellborg (bass), Mitchel Forman (keyboards) and both Danny Gottlieb and Billy Cobham on drums. Initial advertising for concert dates in support of the album included Cobham’s name, but by the time the tour started in earnest, Gottlieb was in the band. Forman left at some point between the albums, to be replaced on keyboards by Jim Beard.
In tandem with Mahavishnu, McLaughlin worked in duo format (c. 1985–87) with bassist Jonas Hellborg, playing a number of concert dates, some of which were broadcast on radio and TV, but no commercial recordings were made.
In 1986 he appeared with Dexter Gordon in Bertrand Tavernier’s film Round Midnight. He also composed The Mediterranean Concerto, orchestrated by Michael Gibbs. The world premier featured McLaughlin and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was recorded in 1988 with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Unlike what is typical practice in classical music, the concerto includes sections where McLaughlin improvises. Also included on the recording were five duets between McLaughlin and his then-girlfriend Katia Labèque.
In the late ’80s McLaughlin began performing live and recording with a trio including percussionist Trilok Gurtu, and three bassists at various times; firstly Jeff Berlin, then Kai Eckhardt and finally Dominique DiPiazza. Berlin contributed to the trio’s live work only in 1988/89, and didn’t record with McLaughlin. The group recorded two albums: Live at The Royal Festival Hall and Que Alegria, the former with Eckhardt, and the latter with di Piazza for all but two tracks. These recordings saw a return to acoustic instruments for McLaughlin, performing on nylon-string guitar. On Live at the Royal Festival Hall McLaughlin utilised a unique guitar synth which enabled him to effectively “loop” guitar parts and play over them live. The synth also featured a pedal which provided sustain when pressed. McLaughlin played parts which sound overdubbed and creating lush soundscapes, aided by Gurtu’s unique percussive sounds. This approach is used to great effect in the track “Florianapolis”, among others.
In the early 1990s he toured with his trio on the Que Alegria album. By this time, Eckhardt had left, with McLaughlin and Gurtu joined by bass player Dominique Di Piazza. In the latter stages of this trio’s life, they were joined on tour by Katia Labeque alone, or by Katia and her sister Marielle, with footage of the latter configuration forming part of a documentary on the Labeque Sisters. Following this period he recorded and toured with The Heart of Things featuring Gary Thomas, Dennis Chambers, Matt Garrison, Jim Beard and Otmaro Ruíz. In 1993 he released a Bill Evans tribute album entitled Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans, with McLaughlin’s acoustic guitar backed by the acoustic guitars of the Aighetta Quartet and the acoustic bass of Yan Maresz. In recent times McLaughlin has toured with Remember Shakti.
In addition to original Shakti member Zakir Hussain, this group has also featured eminent Indian musicians U. Srinivas, V. Selvaganesh, Shankar Mahadevan, Shivkumar Sharma, and Hariprasad Chaurasia. In 1996, John McLaughlin, Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola (known collectively as “The Guitar Trio”) reunited for a world tour and recorded an album of the same name. They also released an album entitled Passion, Grace, & Fire. In that same year he recorded The Promise. Also notable during the period were his performances with Elvin Jones and Joey DeFrancesco.
In 2003 he recorded a ballet score, Thieves and Poets, along with arrangements for classical guitar ensemble of favourite jazz standards and a three-DVD instructional video on improvisation entitled “This is the Way I Do It” (which contributed to the development of video lessons.) In June 2006 he released the post-bop/jazz fusion album Industrial Zen, on which he experimented with the Godin Glissentar as well as continuing to expand his guitar-synth repertoire.
In 2007 he left Universal Records and joined Abstract Logix. Recording sessions for his first album on that label took place in April. That summer, he began touring with a new jazz fusion quartet, the 4th Dimension, consisting of keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband, bassist Hadrian Feraud, and drummer Mark Mondesir. During the 4th Dimension’s tour, an “instant CD” entitled Live USA 2007: Official Bootleg was made available comprising soundboard recordings of six pieces from the group’s first performance. Following completion of the tour, McLaughlin sorted through recordings from each night to release a second MP3 download-only collection entitled, Official Pirate: Best of the American Tour 2007. During this time, McLaughlin also released another instructional DVD, The Gateway to Rhythm, featuring Indian percussionist and Remember Shakti bandmate Selva Ganesh Vinayakram (or V. Selvaganesh), focusing on the Indian rhythmic system of konnakol. McLaughlin also remastered and released a shelved 1980 project called The Trio of Doom, featuring jazz/fusion luminaries Jaco Pastorius and Tony Williams. The project had been aborted due to conflicts between Williams and Pastorius as well as what was at the time a mutual dissatisfaction with the results of their performance.
On 28 July 2007, McLaughlin performed at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Bridgeview, Illinois.
On 28 April 2008 the recording sessions from the previous year surfaced on the album Floating Point, featuring the rhythm section of keyboardist Louis Banks, bassist Hadrien Feraud, percussionist Sivamani and drummer Ranjit Barot bolstered on each track by a different Indian musician. Coinciding with the release of the album was another DVD, Meeting of the Minds, which offered behind the scenes studio footage of the Floating Point sessions as well as interviews with all of the musicians. He engaged in a late summer/fall 2008 tour with Chick Corea, Vinnie Colaiuta, Kenny Garrett and Christian McBride under the name Five Peace Band, from which came an eponymous double-CD live album in early 2009.
McLaughlin performed with Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham at the 44th Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland, on 2 July 2010, for the first time since the band split up. In November 2010, a new book was released by Abstract Logix Books entitled Follow Your Heart- John McLaughlin Song by Song by Walter Kolosky, who also wrote the book Power, Passion and Beauty – The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra. The book discussed each song McLaughlin wrote and contained photographs never seen before.
McLaughlin has been cited as a major influence on many 1970s and 1980s guitarists. Examples are prominent players such as Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, Mike Stern homemade meat tenderizer, Al Di Meola, Shawn Lane, and Scott Henderson. His influence did not stop in the 80’s, though; hardcore punk guitarist Greg Ginn of Black Flag cited Birds of Fire by The Mahavishnu Orchestra which inspired him to record more progressive guitar work and even record instrumental songs. Current players still hold him as highly influential, including Omar Rodríguez-López of The Mars Volta. According to Pat Metheny, McLaughlin has changed the evolution of the guitar during several of his periods of playing. McLaughlin is also considered a major influence on composers in the fusion genre. In an interview with Downbeat, Chick Corea remarked that “what John McLaughlin did with the electric guitar set the world on its ear. No one ever heard an electric guitar played like that before, and it certainly inspired me. John’s band, more than my experience with Miles, led me to want to turn the volume up and write music that was more dramatic and made your hair stand on end”. Frank Zappa said of McLaughlin: “A person would be a moron not to appreciate McLaughlin’s technique. The guy has certainly found out how to operate a guitar as if it were a machine gun. But I’m not always enthusiastic about the lines I hear or the ways in which they’re used. I don’t think you can fault him, though, for the amount of time and effort it must have taken to play an instrument that fast. I think anybody who can play that fast is just wonderful. And I’m sure 90% of teenage America would agree, since the whole trend in the business has been ‘faster is better’.”
Perhaps the most unusual tribute to McLaughlin’s influence came in the 1970s from the musician and comedian Darryl Rhoades. In the 1970s, he led the “Hahavishnu Orchestra,” which did parodies of the funk, rock and jazz musical styles of the era.
McLaughlin’s wife is named Ina. They had a son named Luke in 1998. He has lived in Monaco since the late 1980s. He was formerly married to the French pianist Katia Labèque, who was also a member of his band in the early 1980s. Before that he was married to Eve when he was a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. He was first married to Sue, with whom he had a son Julian in 1966.