String theorist: an audience with jazz guitar great John McLaughlin

British guitarist John McLaughlin has proven himself one of music's most curious and versatile talents for more than 50 years, writes Richard James Havis

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 10:42pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 11:05pm

UNLESS YOU'RE A FAN of jazz fusion, or are a guitar player, John McLaughlin is probably the greatest guitarist you've never heard of. In fact, in some circles he's known as the greatest guitar player ever.

McLaughlin's history supports that claim. The British-born guitarist began his career during the British blues boom of the 1960s, the era in which musicians such as Eric Clapton and John Mayall discovered and reinvented American blues for the nascent rock generation.

McLaughlin first played with popular pianist and jazz singer Georgie Fame before joining innovative R & B band the Graham Bond Organisation alongside Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who later both played in supergroup Cream. A move to the US resulted in McLaughlin being invited to join jazz genius Miles Davis' band.

He recorded five studio albums with the jazz great, including Bitches Brew, Davis' controversial first electric album. That disc even included a track named John McLaughlin, a rare honour.

After that, McLaughlin formed one of the first jazz-rock fusion bands, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, in 1971. The Mahavishnu part of the name resulted from his serious studies in Indian philosophy; he also studied Indian music, a very different system to that of the West.

Mahavishnu's blend of jazz and rock, with a touch of the East, made McLaughlin popular with rock fans, and a series of fiery albums including The Inner Mounting Flame and Visions of the Emerald Beyond vaunted him into the public eye and made him a star.

The story doesn't end there. After Mahavishnu disintegrated in 1976, McLaughlin formed Shakti with Indian violinist L. Shankar. The band fused Western and Indian styles, as well as different Indian regional styles. His guitar, which had extra strings and scalloped frets like a sitar, won almost as much public attention as the music.

Since Shakti's demise in 1977, McLaughlin has been involved in many different projects, as well as reformations of Shakti and Mahavishnu and a flamenco guitar trio with jazz luminary Al Di Meola and flamenco master Paco de Lucia, who died late last month. McLaughlin comes to Hong Kong to perform in the Hong Kong Arts Festival on March 14 with his group John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension, an outfit which adds modern sounds to the jazz-fusion style of the 1970s.

McLaughlin has traversed a huge number of complex musical styles but has never forgotten that the blues was his initial inspiration. "In the 1950s, I'd become very influenced by the Mississippi Delta bluesmen, so the blues influence was there," he says in an interview from Monaco, where he now lives.

"You should remember that even the music of the great jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus was an evolution of blues. If you take the blues out of jazz, you'll take the soul out of jazz."

Davis himself was a major influence, too, he says. "I learnt more from Miles than I can put into words. When I began playing with him in early 1969, it was literally a dream come true. For a young musician from Europe to find himself playing with Miles was like a super-accelerated four-year university programme condensed into six months."

His work with Davis, especially Bitches Brew, in which Davis - to the disgust of jazz purists - ordered his band to use electric instruments rather than acoustic, naturally segued into the Mahavishnu Orchestra experiment, he says.

"After Miles, we were one of the first bands to fuse jazz and rock. The fusion was not a concept before the fact. The reality is that I and the other musicians grew up in a different musical environment from our predecessors. We were strongly influenced by the music of the 1960s and the music of Mahavishnu grew out of that."

Mahavishnu's music has a transcendental element to it, and McLaughlin says that Indian philosophy, not just Indian music, played an important part in its conception. "I was looking for answers to the existential questions of life," he says. "Asia has been addressing these questions for millennia."

McLaughlin's flamenco work with Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola, as the Guitar Trio, is equally innovative but more accessible.

"As a teenager I loved flamenco music, of which the guitar is the most important instrument," he says, noting that the trio came about when he heard de Lucia playing on the radio. "Everyone [in the trio] was different from everyone else, but the mutual affection for each other's music, and the admiration we shared as guitarists, was enough to make a very popular trio."

Guitar players, of course, are never happier than when talking about guitars, and McLaughlin still hasn't tired of discussing the unusual guitar he used in Shakti, which was custom made for him by Gibson. Mahavishnu fans will also remember McLaughlin's' penchant for double-neck Gibson SGs, similar to those used by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.

Any chance we'll be seeing one of them on stage in Hong Kong? "Unfortunately, the double necks have all gone, given away over the years," he says. "But if you are at the Hong Kong concert you will hear my Paul Reed Smith guitar, and it sounds great."


John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension, March 14, 8pm, Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 10 Salisbury Road, TST, HK$160-HK$560, Urbtix. Inquiries: 2824 2430