A very prolific composer and performer, McLaughlin has created many outstanding albums throughout his career that spans more than thirty years. Some of his albums are true masterpieces that will forever shine as the milestones in the history of the twentieth century music.
For reasons difficult to pinpoint, McLaughlin's opus falls rather neatly into the phases that coincide with the calendar decades. Thus, we have his pre-seventies body of work (quite sporadic because he was still trying to make it, to get the recording contracts and so on), his clearly defined seventies phase, followed by a clear-cut transition to the eighties body of work, and finally, his work that appeared in the nineties.
Here, we will list his opus divided in categories (i.e. 'as a leader', 'with his groups', 'as a sideman'), and in chronological order:
As a leader
My Goal's Beyond (1971)
Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist (1978)
Belo Horizonte (1982)
Music Spoken Here (1983)
Mediterranean Concerto (1988)
Time Remembered, A tribute To Bill Evans (1993)
The Promise (1995)
With Mahavishnu Orchestra
The Inner Mounting Flame (1972)
Birds Of Fire (1973)
Between Nothingness And Eternity (1973)
Visions Of The Emerald Beyond (1974)
Inner Worlds (1975)
Adventures In Radioland (1986)
A Handful Of Beauty (1977)
Natural Elements (1978)
Remember Shakti (1998)
With One Truth Band
Electric Dreams, Electric Sighs (1979)
With John McLaughlin Trio
Live At The Royal Festival Hall (1989)
Que Alegria (1992)
With The Free Spirits
Tokyo Live (1993)
After The Rain (1994)
With Carlos Santana
Love Devotion Surrender (1973)
With Miles Davis
In A Silent Way (1969)
Bitches Brew (1970)
Jack Johnson (1970)
On The Corner (1971)
You Are Under Arrest (1985)
With Zakir Hussein
Making music (1988)
There is only one masterpiece cut by McLaughlin in the sixties -- Extrapolation (1969). While there are numerous other quality sessions dating from that period, nothing comes even close to the outstanding clarity of Extrapolation.
That same year John was invited to travel to the US to join Tony Williams in his new group Lifetime. Soon after McLaughlin landed in New York, he met his idol and one of the most important jazz musicians Miles Davis, and joined him in recording the seminal "In A Silent Way" (1969), which was heralded as the birth event of the fusion of jazz and rock.
In parallel with his work on the Lifetime
material, John was making contributions left, right and center in the bustling
New York jazz circles. He played with the bassist Miroslav Vitous
("Mountain In The Clouds", 1969), with the legendary saxophonist Wayne
Shorter ("Super Nova", 1969), with somewhat less famous sax player
Joe Farrel ("Joe Farrel Quartet", 1970), etc. But his most prominent
contributions were still tied to his work with Miles. The next groundbreaking
projects led by Miles were "Bitches Brew" (1970) and "Jack Johnson"
Arguably, McLaughlin's most inspired period. He made his name in the early seventies, working with Miles Davis and Tony Williams (Lifetime) and then moved on to make a couple of solo albums (Devotion and My Goal's Beyond). Finally, in 1972, he launched a wildly successful Mahavishnu Orchestra. Their first album, The Inner Mounting Flame was such a radical departure from anything ever heard in the history that it set the whole musical world on its ear. The very rough-at-the-edges cut of their collective improvisation (warts and all) brought forward a brutally honest expression of the five highly aspiring musicians. This has left the rest of the music scene light years behind.
Following the phenomenal success of The Inner Mounting Flame, Mahavishnu Orchestra prepared a much more coherent and polished album Birds Of Fire (1973). This could very well be the pinnacle of their, as well as McLaughlin's own career.
By all accounts, as intense as Mahavishnu Orchestra was on their studio albums, the intensity was meager compared to the mayhem of their numerous live performances. To satisfy the cravings for their live stuff, they've released their only live album Between Nothingness And Eternity recorded in August 1973. This album features a memorable performance, although the sound quality does not match the quality of musicianship.
Meanwhile, McLaughlin has embarked upon a side project with an equally famous fellow guitarist Carlos Santana. The resulting album Love Devotion Surrender (1973) is an amazing achievement for both guitarists. The playing is ferocious and totally inspired, and the prolonged jams are very conducive to expressing the height of spiritual longing and the bliss of catching a glimpse of the divine. The tour that ensued offered some equally blissful playing (as can be heard on some of the bootlegs that are widely in circulation).
Unfortunately, by the end of 1973 Mahavishnu Orchestra had suffered irreparable damage caused by the inner discord between its members, and had to be disbanded. McLaughlin quickly formed the new orchestra, Mahavishnu Orchestra Mark II. This extended orchestra included, besides the front lineup of guitar, bass, violin, keyboard and drums, also a string quartet and a brass section. Their first project was the ambitious Apocalypse (1974) -- a jazz/rock fusion in the context of a full blown symphony orchestra. The resulting sound was staggering.
Moving on to a tour in support of the new orchestra, McLaughlin soon had to cut down on the size of his band, and was left with the core orchestra embellished with strings and brass. They produced the second Mark II album, Visions Of The Emerald Beyond (1974).This recording is very popular among his fans, and McLaughlin himself told me that this is his favorite album, but the fact remains that it only loosely hangs together. There are many other recordings under his name that show much higher standards of musical and poetic coherence and expressiveness.
Although McLaughlin was hailed throughout the world as the greatest high-power electric guitar god, in his private life he was busily engaged studying Indian traditional music, and especially focusing on vina, an ancient Indian stringed instrument. This study has led to his discovery of the living Indian music that was being practised throughout North America. After jamming with some of those musicians, he experienced unprecedented empathy and rapport with these masters of odd meters and quirky melodic phrases. In parallel, McLaughlin was working with luthiers with the aim to develop a customized guitar that would enable him to combine the versatility of the vina with the harmonic capabilities of the guitar. Once his custom guitar was ready, he formed a new combo Shakti, which consisted of Indian musicians. John was playing his custom acoustic guitar while the other front man was L. Shankar, a famous Indian violin virtuoso. Accompanied by the two percussionist (tabla player Zakir Hussain and mridangam player Vikku) they started playing small clubs and universities. Soon, John felt that they are ready for recording a live event, which they did, and released their first album Shakti (1975). This record pulsated with palpable excitement and raw energy, sometimes to the point of being too high strung. The success of this album was the precedent that made it easier for many musicians to land recording contracts for their brand of acoustic music.
However, still under contractual obligation toward Columbia to produce a high-octane electric Mahavishnu album, John took what's been left of Mahavishnu Orchestra Mark II and formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra Mark III, with Narada Michael Walden on drums, Ralphe Armstrong on bass and Stu Golberg on keyboards, and recorded Inner Worlds. That album is one of McLaughlin's most controversial creations. While it is obviously a quick patch job cobbled up in order to set him free and let him explore the Shakti concept, it boasts some amazingly compact playing and some of his best compositions (the perennial "Lotus Feet", for example). The thing that makes it appear overly commercial is Narada's too sweet vocals and an overt preaching of the religious contents of their personal pursuits. Today, this album withstands the test of time, and its overall sonic quality is quite impressive.
Once that was under his belt, McLaughlin had plunged into the Shakti project with abandon. After touring extensively, they've spent some time writing new material and then decided to cut an album in London, England. The resulting record (A Handful Of Beauty, 1977) is a stunning collection of otherworldly beauty and grace. The pristine sound quality of John's fragile and versatile guitar, coupled with L. Shankar's high-pitched violin playing, contribute to the breathtaking beauty of this unique recording. Highly recommended.
After achieving such lofty heights of artistic expression, the Shakti combo had started to evolve their music into a much more intricate and elaborate ensemble playing. Their next album (Natural Elements, 1978) featured totally different soundscape. The elaborate compositions were executed via extensive overdubbing, with less improvisation and more structure. More of the western harmonies and melodic structures started to creep in. Overall, the album offers crystal clear sounds and visions of a fable and fairy-tale like worlds. But it became obvious that John is once again charging ahead in a different direction.
In the summer of 1978 John had felt the need to plunge back into his western roots (meaning, jazz harmonies and such). He started to feel that while in Shakti, he cannot indulge in his lush harmonies and ambiguous tonal landscapes. Nudged by the push from the Columbia, he gather some of his fellow musicians, mainly from the New York jazz scene, and recorded Johhny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist. Each composition was in a different genre, but all of them were typically McLaughlin's bags. This project spelled the end of Shakti. The next move was to form the new band which he christened The One Truth Band.
This band toured for a while before releasing their only album (Electric Dreams, 1979). The band and the album were quite controversial -- the instrumental lineup was identical to the original Mahavishnu Orchestra (guitar, violin played by L. Shankar, keyboards by Stu Goldberg, bass by Fernando Saunders and drums by a guy whose name unfortunately escapes me now), but with different musicians, of course. Nevertheless, the music was very different. A lot more rhythm and blues and soul, plus some disco grooves (yes, disco!) made it sound rather incoherent. Still, some excellent playing by McLaughlin to be found in there.
In parallel to The One Truth project,
John was getting involved with the solo, duo and trio acoustic guitar projects.
This happened when John heard Paco De Lucia, phenomenal Spanish
flamenco guitarist, and decided that he must play with him. When the third
well known guitarist, Larry Coryell joined them, they went on a
tour (in February 1979). The initial tour was a phenomenal success, which
made them repeat it in March of the same year. Soon afterwards, Coryell
was replaced by Al Dimeola, and the trio toured the globe playing
to the chock-full theaters and stadiums. Finally, at the turn of the decade,
they've released a live recording (Friday Night In
San Francisco, 1980), which was a chart topper. This album, although
being very vibrant and displaying some amazing feats of guitar virtuosity,
is somehow shallow and dry and does not show the trio in their best light.
McLaughlin's career at the turn of the decade was in a bit of a disarray. His breach of contract with Columbia had opened up the possibility of further exploring the acoustic approach to his music, which was good. However, this had apparently put some financial pressure on his projects due to the fact that the low volume acoustic performances weren't as marketable as the electric and the electronic creations (or, that was at least the perception of the executives at the big recording companies).
Having just disbanded his One Truth Band and after a non-eventful European tour with Jack Bruce, Billy Cobham and Stu Goldberg, McLaughlin was searching for a venue to explore his newly found fascination with the nylon string acoustic guitar. His work with the Guitar Trio brought him some financial success, but was threatening to turn into a "day at the races", with each player trying to outpace the other two, while the crowd cheered as always. Their studio album (Passion, Grace And Fire, 1982), which followed their wildly successful live album, was a much higher quality creation, embellished by an excellent aural quality of the recording. The compositions, too, were of the highest caliber.
After some experimenting on the side, McLaughlin managed to assemble a tightly knit band that released the seminal Belo Horizonte album (in 1982). Probably his best work in all of the eighties, this album defies, to this day, any categorizations. The follow-up (Music Spoken Here, 1983) was equally good, but suffered from the "already been heard" syndrome.
Soon after that, the Belo Horizonte group was disbanded, as the music was once again demanding the higher sonic levels. McLaughlin has rediscovered his love affair with synthesizers (thanks to the groundbreaking work in the field of electronics resulting in the first feasible guitar synth -- the Synclavier). This technological achievement has pushed McLaughlin into trying to re-establish (after more than 10 years) the much loved Mahavishnu Orchestra (in this reincarnation, it was dubbed simply Mahavishnu, and the album was released under the same name). The only original member from the first Mahavishnu Orchestra (besides McLaughlin, of course) was the drummer Billy Cobham, who delivered a rather underwhelming performance. McLaughlin himself contributed most of the material and was obviously basking in the novelty of his Synclavier, delivering many inspired solos.
Soon afterwards, Cobham was replaced by Pat Metheny's drummer, Danny Gotlieb. After touring intensively, the band produced the second Mahavishnu album Adventures In Radioland (1986). This time, other members contributed their material, leaving McLaughlin to pitch in with only about half of the songs, which gave this album a more uneven feel.
In the second half of the eighties McLaughlin was busy finishing the scores for the Concerto for Guitar and Symphony Orchestra (The Mediterranean Concerto). When it was released, it received a lukewarm response, mainly due to the prevailing hodge-podge of various styles and a lack of the crystallized artistic statement.
But by that time, McLaughlin was firmly
entrenched in his new Trio, with Trilok Gurtu on percussions
and Kai Eckhart on electric bass. They played a number of concerts
and finally released Live At The Royal Festival
Hall (in 1989). Surprisingly enough, this was only McLaughlin's fourth
live recording (after Between Nothingness And Eternity,
Shakti and Friday Night
In San Francisco). The musicianship is consistently outstanding throughout
the record, but the overall impression is a bit watered down.
McLaughlin sailed into the nineties without any obvious change of the course. Throughout the eighties, he was giving interviews repeating how important acoustic guitar was to him. With one considerable detour in the mid-eighties (with Mahavishnu), where he got inundated with guitar synthesizers, his output mostly consisted in playing the nylon string acoustic guitar. The electric guitar appeared to him now to have "much narrower emotional bandwidth" (this is paraphrasing one of his interviews).
The John McLaughlin Trio was touring successfully and in 1992 released a top-notch album Que Alegria. This gem is one of the best McLaughlin's recordings ever, and is a must have.
Even greater commitment to the nylon string acoustic guitar was displayed in 1993 when McLaughlin released his tribute to Bill Evans ("Time Remembered", 1993). The entire album consists of nothing but an orchestra of acoustic guitars helped by an acoustic bass guitar. The results are enchanting, haunting, with some of McLaughlin's most thoughtful playing.
However, McLaughlin prove his reputation for being Mr. Unpredictable by abruptly switching gears and plugging in the electric guitar to unleash his new jazz combo The Free Spirits. Backed by the hurricane drummer Dennis Chambers (whom McLaughlin was fond of introducing as "the greatest drummer in the world!") and the rising star on the B3 Hammond Joey De Francesco, McLaughlin delivered his rendition of the straight-ahead, post bop jazz. Their first album "Tokyo Live" (1993) caught everybody by surprise with its variety of post bop genres peppered with some R & B and some McLaughlinesque landscapes (listen to "Vukovar" and "Mattinale"). The poor sound quality of the recording contributed to the poorer-than-deserved reception of this excellent album.
The follow-up album ("After The Rain", 1994) was a studio recording with legendary Elvin Jones replacing Chambers on drums. The very tight performances have been tarred by some of the over-the-top bravados by De Francesco. In addition, Jones sounds as if simply doing a good job at his trap, not really loosening up and playing the way only he can play. McLaughlin again plays his heart out, but is marred by a dismal sound of his hollow body electric guitar. He was obviously striving for a vocal-like phrasing on his guitar, in an attempt to steer clear from his trademark staccato phrasing, but the results are half-baked at best.
By 1995, McLaughlin had plainly overplayed
the Free Spirits material and was ready for something new. Similar
to his 1978 outing -- Electric Guitarist,
he again gathered many of his close friends and fellow musicians. The resulting
album, "The Promise" (1995), was a surprisingly successful mosaic of many
of the styles and idioms McLaughlin has played over the years.
One of the compositions on "The Promise" ("El Ciego") reunited John, Paco de Lucia and Al Dimeola, which had galvanized a new tour and a new album. Fifteen years after their last recording (Passion, Grace And Fire), the Guitar Trio was doing it again. In 1997, the CD was released, but it didn't meet such an overwhelming approval as their original efforts did. Nevertheless, the musicianship was consummate, with unparalleled mastery. The only problem were those curiously uneventful compositions.
Soon after the world tour with the Guitar Trio was finished, and after some discord experienced along the way (reportedly with Dimeola), John felt the need to put his own group together. This time, he was finally going for a full blown contemporary jazz group. The new group was named The Heart Of Things and made a rather surprising mistake of first getting in the studio to cut the new material, and only then went on the road to polish it. This resulted in a very uneven image of the group. Those who heard them on their tour were glowing with satisfaction, while those who only had a chance to hear them through their studio effort were very disappointed (to the point that some have even accused him of playing muzak!) The announced live CD will undoubtedly go a long way towards reconciling these differences.
John also managed to revive the glorious
days of Shakti. His "Remember Shakti" tour and a double CD that
followed (1998) were a complete success. The playing was thoroughly beautiful,
and it was obvious that the music had matured like a fine wine.