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Analysis Of McLaughlin's Style
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John McLaughlin's musical style could be
viewed from the three most prominent aspects of his output:
Furthermore, there could be a fourth aspect
of his artistic style, namely his life-long association with the spiritual
practices of both Western and Eastern religious and spiritual movements.
This aspect, however, is less conspicuous (although we can find many indicators
of McLaughlin's spiritual pursuits in his music, his public relations material,
and also in the personal contacts with him). Overall, I think that this
side of McLaughlin's personality is rather private, and should be therefore
Let us now pay closer attention to the
three prominent aspects of his musical style:
McLaughlin is the forefather of the so-called
"guitar athlete" school of guitar playing (this categorization was originally
proposed by Pat Metheny, in one of his early Down Beat interviews).
This approach has its origin in several areas of ethnic
music: the indigenous flamenco playing, the Middle-Eastern ud
playing, the Indian vina playing, etc. Also, it has a direct connection
to the Django Reinhardt's style, whose mastery was one of the first
things to enrapture McLaughlin during his formative years.
The "guitar athlete" approach is characterized
by a forceful handling of the instrument. Strong staccato picking
at a break-neck tempos is what summarily characterizes both flamenco
and Reinhardt's guitaristic style. On top of that, angular approach
to building melodic lines, with unexpected intervals that can be dizzyingly
wide (inherited from the Middle-Eastern traditions), plus the wild and
almost out of control string bending (inherited from the Indian vina
and sitar styles), contribute to the "over the top" impression that
the proponents of this school project.
But, the athletic style is not exhausted
by this display of sheer strength and stamina. It also involves the extraordinary
harmonic sophistication (inherited from the early twentieth century composers,
like Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky et al.) Not only is
the harmonic climate refined, the actual explorations of the limits of
the guitar are incessantly breaking some new grounds. New voicings are
constantly being added to the already bewildering vocabulary of the modern
guitar by our fellow "athlete guitarists". Some amazing finger stretching
that such harmonic sophistication requires is certainly beyond the reach
of other, "regular" guitarists.
Finally, rhythmic sophistication and forcefulness
is what characterizes guitar athletes. In McLaughlin, this sophistication
has reached the unprecedented heights.
Although the application of the technology
is not a direct display of the physical athleticism, it is nevertheless
a brand of "mental athleticism" which McLaughlin has always exercised to
the fullest. He has always been a pioneer in applying the most advanced
electronic achievements to the guitar vocabulary. In the mid seventies,
he was spearheading the guitar synthesizers into the largely uncharted
territories (c.f. his albums Visions Of
The Emerald Beyond and Inner
Worlds) Then, less than ten years later, he was blazing the trail with
a much more mobile guitar synthesizer technology (the Synclavier
which he inaugurated in 1984 with his Mahavishnu).
Always at the forefront of the digital technology (McLaughlin is also engaged
in programming his own sounds and patterns), he was also one of the first
to incorporate the digital processing into his acoustic playing (c.f. the
Photon synthesizer which he unveiled on his Live
At The Royal Festival Hall, in 1989).
Almost entire musical opus produced by
John McLaughlin consists of outstandingly complex compositions. This fact
may be one of the reasons why he is rarely covered by other musicians.
Many of his compositions are simply too challenging for lots of performers.
What is it that makes his creations so
difficult to handle? There are many factors contributing to the complexity
of his works, some of which we have already mentioned in the discussion
on his guitaristic style. To begin with, his typical harmonic schemes are
bewilderingly elusive. He usually takes some conventional cliché
and distorts it almost beyond recognition, thus producing something with
a unique McLaughlinesque voice.
It's been usually said that Simplicity
reveals the Master. In McLaughlin's case, we could make an exception
and say that Complexity reveals the Master. It is rarely that one
comes across a piece of art that is so complex (as some of McLaughlin's
pieces are), and yet at the same time so accessible to our feelings. Given
the elaborate complexity of the harmonic climate of many of his compositions,
with the added complications of metric and rhythmical complexities on top
of it, it really is surprising that we are able to follow his ideas with
such an ease. He manages to pull it off strictly by the sheer power of
his convictions. It's the conviction of the execution of the musical ideas
that makes everything hang together. That, to me, truly is masterful! And
that is why his compositions have not been covered by other musicians --
almost nobody so far felt that they could have this passionate conviction
to produce such a powerful musical statement.
Mind-boggling versatility is what characterized
McLaughlin's approach to music. This is especially true with regards to
the many facets of his improvisational genius. Not every musician can make
an important improvisational statement on the spot, and among those who
can conjure up interesting ideas out of thin air, only a select few can
approach McLaughlin's intensity and the clarity of his vision.
McLaughlin's improvisational style is not
something we could easily pinpoint as containing certain easily recognizable
elements. During his long career McLaughlin has displayed a bewildering
array of different musical personalities. We'll try and list some of these:
the progressive/free jazz persona (as embodied
in his early works -- Extrapolation,
Where Fortune Smiles, Mountain In The Clouds, etc.)
the raunchy free rocker persona (mostly exploited
by Miles Davis; also, preserved for posterity on the Lifetime
records and on his early solo album Devotion)
the magnanimous visionary composer, blending
the architectural complexities of the classical symphony orchestra with
the freedom and agility of the jazz fusion combo (Apocalypse,
also Visions Of The Emerald Beyond)
the subdued, meditative persona (most perfectly
exemplified by his magical contribution to the world music -- My
Goal's Beyond, as well as by his additional acoustic guitar work throughout
the brave new world of East-meets-West persona
(of course, represented by his trail blazing work with Shakti)
the leading-edge digital avatar, wielding
the latest in modern technology's contribution (i.e. the Synclavier
guitar synthesizer). His groundbreaking work on the Mahavishnu
album (1984) was so surprising, that many listeners couldn't determine
which lines are played by guitar and which are played by the keyboards.
Also, Adventures From The Radioland
(1986) is the album that further refined the digital guitar capabilities.
the subtle world music, low volume acoustic
guitarist, as presented on the Making Music album (by Zakir Hussein,
the grandiose classical-meets-flamenco jazz
composer and performer (his Mediterranean
Concerto is a colossal testimony to McLaughlin's tremendous talents)
the sensitive world music guitarist, blending
jazz, latin, indian, tibetan and other influences into an organic whole
(his Trio with Trilok Gurtu and Kai Eckhart); the
albums that illustrate this side are Live
At The Royal Festival Hall and Que
the solemn, subdued classical-meets-jazz guitarist,
as illustrated on his Time Remembered -- A Tribute To Bill Evans
the fiery post-bop guitarist, forging complex,
serpentine melodies and weaving convoluted straight-ahead and hard-bop
lines (as embodied in his Free Spirits phase; the albums are Tokyo
Live and After The Rain)
the jack-of-all-trades persona, as can be
heard on his album The Promise -- in there he plays blues, straight-ahead
changes, hip-hop street jazz, flamenco, Indian ragas, near chaotic fusion
and fission, raunchy rock, sophisticated late night jazz, subtle lyrical
guitar duo, etc.
the jazz combo leader who builds elaborate
compositions and then participates by interjecting his trademark fast improvisational
lines (The Heart Of Things)
finally, the complete blending of East and
West using an electric guitar to play raga-like improvisations surrounded
by his fellow classical Indian musicians (Remember Shakti)
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