Matt Phillips

ISBN 9781538170946 (e-book also available)

288 pages

Rowan & Littlefield (2023)

John McLaughlin is a guitarist whose jazz, rock, fusion and world music explorations have wowed music fans and critics, and inspired countless bands and musicians. Miles Davis and Jeff Beck both loved McLaughlin’s playing.

Trying to describe, distil and deconstruct McLaughlin’s musical career is a challenging prospect, because as author Matt Phillips notes, McLaughlin is a ‘moving target,’ a man who straddles many musical genres and is constantly looking for new ways of expressing himself through his guitar. One of the most striking things that hits you when reading this book is McLaughlin’s refusal to stand still, even when achieving great success; he has a restless – and relentless – musical curiosity.

One time, he’s playing in a classical guitar trio; in another, he’s leading a jazz-rock combo whose volume makes your ears bleed. He’s played in jazz duos and trios, scored and performed orchestral works, fused Western music with Eastern music, formed various acoustic and electric jazz line-ups, and also embraced guitar synthesisers and MIDI technology.

Phillips sets out in his stall in the book’s introduction, noting that, ‘While possessing a phenomenal technique and seemingly endless ability to develop new ideas and maximise his raw talent, John’s music has never depended on mere technical excellence at the expense of emotion.’

McLaughlin is probably best known for the music he made in the late 60s/70s with Miles Davis (playing on albums such as In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson and Live Evil)) and the groundbreaking Mahavishnu Orchestra, but Phillips argues that, ‘You could be forgiven for thinking that John’s musical potency ended in 1975; this writer begs to differ, and indeed would put the best of his 1980s and 1990s output on a par with anything from the 1970s.’

Phillips has crammed a vast amount of information into a book with fewer than 300 pages and the result is a comprehensive study of McLaughlin and his music. The author uses primary sources (those who cooperated with him include John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Dennis Chambers, Danny Gottlieb, Stu Goldberg and Gary Husband – guitarist Robert Fripp has written an introductory note), as well as hundreds of secondary sources from print, audio, video and online. The book includes notes, bibliography and index, and there are six pages of photographs from jazz photographer Will Ellis and the personal archives of various musicians.

The book is divided into eight sections covering The Early Years (1942-1968); 1969-70; 1970-1973; 1974-1979; and the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s. The main meat of the book covers 1980-2020, which discusses McLaughlin’s entire musical output during this period. Phillips is both a musician and a writer, and while this book is written for the general reader (making it a very readable book), most song descriptions include some musical information, such as the key, time signature, chord structure, scale or tuning. Phillips is especially good at describing how McLaughlin combines Western harmonies with Eastern rhythms and song forms. And for tech-heads, there’s plenty of information on the guitars McLaughlin uses, as well various software and electronic add-ons. Another nice touch is that every musician who plays with McLaughlin is introduced with a short biography.

Each chapter covers every album release during a specific period, listing the musicians; date and location of recording; producer’s name, and release date. There is also a track-by-track description – this varies in length from a few lines to a sizeable paragraph. What’s also good is that the music isn’t examined in isolation; Phillips provides plenty of context, both in terms of what was happening in McLaughlin’s personal and professional life at the time, and the current climate of the music industry (such as the explosion of studio technology in the 1980s). If all that wasn’t enough, we are also provided with details of McLaughlin’s numerous concerts, live dates, sessions and guest appearances.

Phillips is at pains to explain that this book is not a biography or a history of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but I think he undersells his achievements. The chapter on McLaughlin’s early years, for example, is a fascinating story of how an eleven-year old boy living in the north east of England received a hand-me-down guitar from two of his elder brothers, and who at the age of eighteen, moved down to London (by now married with a child), trying to make a living as a musician, and working in a music equipment store to make ends meet.

Phillips paints a vivid picture of London in the swinging 60s, and how McLaughlin entered both the session scene and the jazz scene. The chapter is awash with famous names and places – Ronnie Scott’s, The Flamingo, Bag O’ Nails, Decca Studios, Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames, Brian Auger, Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Rick Laird, John Stevens, Mike Carr, Tony Oxley, John Surman, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Tom Jones, Donovan, David Bowie – McLaughlin had a musical association with all of them (he also gave guitar lessons to Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and sold The Who’s Pete Townsend his first guitar amplifier). He also met Miles Davis for the first time at Ronnie Scott’s in 1968.

Likewise, Phillips provides a superb narrative of McLaughlin’s thrilling entry into the New York music scene in February 1969, primarily to join Tony Williams’ Lifetime band (with Larry Young on organ), but soon becoming Miles Davis’s session man of choice – in the first six months of 1970, McLaughlin played on 13 of the 14 sessions Miles had in that period – as well as making a name on the Big Apple music scene. In between all this, McLaughlin jammed with Jimi Hendrix (although the results were disappointing).

McLaughlin is a master musician, but on reading this book, you discover that like all humans, he has his frailties and his faults. Relationships – both personal and professional – breakdown, and McLaughlin himself undergoes a series of crises – when he was in London in the 1960s, he went back up north to live with his mother for a while, in order to escape the music scene. Another time, when driving to a pop session at Decca Studios, McLaughlin turned his car around, literally unable to face the music, and deciding to focus on jazz. During the mid-70s, exhausted by all the pressures on him, he spent ten days in a monastery.

Some musicians fall out with him over compositional credits, and his treatment of Billy Cobham in 1984 (when the drummer learns from a third party that he has been dropped from a forthcoming tour after turning down alternative offers of work) is unedifying. But on the plus side, numerous musicians speak about McLaughlin’s humanity, inspiration, guidance and dedication to the music, ‘He would never go onstage stoned or drunk,’ recalls bassist Kai Eckhardt, who played with McLaughlin in the 90s, ‘the stage was his sacred space.’

Phillips also explores McLaughlin’s interest in spirituality, which began in his teens and was influenced by the music of John Coltrane and figures such as the mystic Hazrat Inyat Khan and guru Sri Chinmoy. Naturally, there’s a lot on the Mahavishnu Orchestra, including its formation, album releases, impact and influence, as well as the breakup of the band’s first incarnation, and the formation of the second.

In 1973, McLaughlin formed Shakti, which included Zakir Hussain on tabla and L.Shankar on violin. It was a world away from McLaughlin’s previous music, with him playing acoustic guitar and fusing jazz harmony with North-Indian and South-Indian music. The band’s first album was released in 1976, and Phillips concludes that the tunes are, ‘Remarkable onslaughts and in their own way as kinetic and striking as the original Mahavishnu Orchestra.’ Two more Shakti albums quickly followed in succession, with the third, ‘Natural Elements,’ described as their finest by Phillips.

The end of the 70s saw McLaughlin release Johnny McLaughlin Electric Guitarist, an album teeming with top musicians (including Tony Williams, Jack Bruce, Carlos Santana, Billy Cobham, Chick Corea, David Sanborn and Stanley Clarke) and described by Phillips as: ‘an unabashed attempt to win back John’s old fans who weren’t enamoured with Shakti.’ The decade ended on a low note for McLaughlin, with the infamous Trio of Doom project, featuring McLaughlin, Tony Williams on drums and Jaco Pastorius on bass. The band played at the Havana Jam music event in Cuba, but it was a disastrous gig. Pastorius was bipolar, had alcohol and drug issues, and his personal life was disintegrating (he was separating from his wife and children.) As a result, he sabotaged the gig, turning his bass amp up to the max and playing against his fellow band members.

But the 1980s began on a brighter note, with the unexpected international success of the album Friday Night in San Francisco, released in 1981 and featuring the acoustic guitar trio of McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucía. McLaughlin’s record label, Columbia Records, was underwhelmed by the concept, and the guitarist had to beg them to record the concert. The album went on to sell more than two million copies. In the early 80s, McLaughlin released two albums featuring his then partner, the pianist Katia Labèque, Belo Horizonte and Music Spoken Here. Phillips only discovered Belo Horizonte by chance in 1990 (by then, he was a huge McLaughlin fan) and says that this period, ‘Represents the beginning of one of the least-appreciated, least-documented periods of John’s career.’

A second album featuring the guitar trio (Passion, Fire & Grace) was followed by one of his most controversial career moves, when McLaughlin revived the Mahavishnu name for his next band. The album, Mahavishnu was released in 1984 and included Billy Cobham and Miles Davis’s ex-saxophonist Bill Evans. McLaughlin played a Synclavier guitar synthesiser and began employing studio technologies like click tracks and sequencers. A second album, Adventures in Radioland was released two years later, with Cobham replaced by Danny Gottlieb. Although there was some fine music created, the band’s increasing reliance on electronic instrumentation, like syn-drums, means that not all of the music has dated well. And while the touring band gained an enthusiastic audience, it couldn’t shake off comparisons with earlier incarnations of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The 1990s opened with what Phillips describes as ‘A landmark piece…an extraordinary statement from a ‘jazz musician’ and one of the most timeless artefacts in his catalogue.’ The Mediterranean Concerto – released in 1990 – featured McLaughlin playing a concerto composed by him with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and orchestrated by Mike Gibbs. McLaughlin played acoustic guitar. Phillips notes that the three movements bring to mind the music of Ravel, Stravinsky, Bizet, Debussy and Khachaturian.

In the same year, Live at the Royal Festival Hall was released, with McLaughlin (on acoustic guitar and guitar synthesiser) playing in a trio with Kai Eckhardt on bass and Trilok Gurtu on percussion and voice. The album contains some sensational music (such as the tune ‘Mother Tongues’) and it’s hard to believe that McLaughlin had to pay for the recording himself and then hunt around for a record label to release it. The trio’s follow-up studio album, Qué Alegría (with Dominique Di Piazza now on bass) was a critical and commercial success.

Other albums released in this period included McLaughlin’s homage to pianist Bill Evans, Time Remembered, and Free Spirits – Tokyo Live, a trio recording with Dennis Chambers on drums (who would become a long-term musical associate) and the late Joey DeFrancesco on organ and trumpet, which Phillips describes as ‘overlong [but] …generally upbeat, energetic and exciting.’ Another trio album featuring DeFrancesco and Elvin Jones on drums, After The Rain (1995), is disappointing, ‘It seldom works up any real stream…and lacks memorable moments,’ says Phillips.

But the following album, The Promise, finds McLaughlin with a new trademark guitar sound and firing on all cylinders. Featuring a huge cast of stellar players (amongst the many are Jeff Beck, Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, Trilok Gurtu, Zakir Hussain and Al Di Meola), it offered a diverse range of music, with Phillips describing the album as a ‘return to form.’ It was also his biggest-selling album of the 90s by a long chalk.

An album by the reformed guitar trio (The Guitar Trio in 1996) was followed by The Heart of Things in 1997, which included Gary Thomas on saxophones and Dennis Chambers on drums, but the album was a curate’s egg, says Phillips, with a number of outstanding compositions combined with several overcomplicated and unmemorable pieces. The decade ended with a return to jazz/Indian music and the album Remember Shakti.

McLaughlin’s first release of the new millennium was The Heart of Things: Live in Paris (2000), which Phillips describes as, ‘arguably the greatest live record of his career, a seriously underrated collection ripe for reappraisal.’ The band included Gary Thomas, Dennis Chambers and Omaro Ruiz on keyboards, forming what Phillips describes as a ‘juggernaut of a live unit.’ Remember Shakti: The Believer was released in 2001, with the music energised by the addition of new and younger players, including U.Srinivas on electronic mandolin. The band also released a live album (recorded in Bombay), in the same year.

In 2003, McLaughlin released Thieves and Poets, playing acoustic guitar with a symphony orchestra that included violinist Viktoria Mullova. The project is described as an: ‘interesting career detour.’ Industrial Zen(2006) saw McLaughlin return to jazz-rock and an album featuring five drummers, including Gary Husband. It was a time when McLaughlin had voiced criticism of the conservative nature of jazz and the ubiquitous sound of smooth jazz guitar, epitomised by the likes of Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton. Phillips notes the influence of Jeff Beck in McLaughlin’s playing, using techniques and effects more associated with rock than jazz. Even so, the album is described as offering, ‘little light and shade…few memorable compositions and… has not dated well.’

In 2007, McLaughlin formed The 4th Dimension Band, a jazz-rock combo, which included Gary Husband on keyboards (and occasionally drums), Mark Mondesir on drums and Hadrien Feraud, bass. Husband described what it was like playing with McLaughlin, ‘He demands interaction; he doesn’t want to hear the same solo every night, he wants to be kicked in the ass; he wants some friction.’

The first decade of the 2000s ended on the high with the release of Five Piece Band Live in 2009, with a band that featured Chick Corea, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride and Vinnie Colaiuta. Herbie Hancock was a guest musician and the album won a Grammy Award. As McLaughlin approached his 70th birthday, he was as active as ever, and he released To The One in 2010, which Phillips describes as ‘his best solo release for seven years.’ It featured the  4th Dimension band (with Etienne Mbappé on bass), and the band released a string of albums that decade: Now Here This (2012); The Boston Record (2014 – from now on, the drummer was Ranjit Barot), Black Light (2015) and Live at Ronnie Scott’s (2017).

The following year, The 4th Dimension band toured with guitarist Jimmy Herring. Herring’s band was the opening act, followed by The 4th Dimension, and then both bands combined for the third set, playing some Mahavishnu classics. The result was Live in San Francisco, which was a critical success. McLaughlin ended the decade with Is That So? (2020), a collaboration with vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and Zakir Hussain. McLaughlin used a guitar synthesiser to create aural textures and moods on half a dozen meditative pieces, which Phillips describes as the guitarist’s ‘most affecting/effective’ project for years.’ An informative epilogue provides details of McLaughlin’s post-2020 projects, including his album Liberation Time, recorded during the Covid pandemic, and plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Shakti in 2023.

Now in his ninth decade, McLaughlin shows no signs of slowing down, and as Phillips concludes, ‘He…remains a very potent symbol of freedom and independence in a world – at the time of writing – blighted by division. He’s also a hero to many and a link to the 1960s ideals of peace, love and understanding – not to mention multiculturalism.’ This book is a compelling study of the man, his music and his marvellous creative legacy.


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