Featuring in our segment ‘Jazz by the Best‘, this week, is one of fusion jazz music’s pioneering guitarists, John McLaughlin who was attracted to swing and blues when he first picked up the guitar at the age of 11. He formed his band in 1968 and released his first album ‘Extrapolation’ in the following year. The same year he shifted base to New York to work with the legendary jazz drummer Tony Williams’ fusion jazz band ‘Lifetime’. After listening to John’s work on William’s album ‘Emergency’, Miles Davies invited him to join his band. Thus began John’s ride in the world of fusion jazz music. A journey which would see him being named as one of the greatest guitarists ever.
John, a bandleader and composer, has dabbled in many genres of jazz music which he coupled with elements of rock, Indian classical music, Western classical music, flamenco and blues.
Musically, there is a common ground between jazz and Indian classical music which John explored first through his electric fusion band ‘Mahavishnu Orchestra’.
“Composing music is a mysterious process and quite impossible to calculate how much ’help’ my studies of Indian music give to this process,” explains John.
He further adds “Musical ideas arrive in the mind from beyond the mind itself, and as they arrive in the consciousness. They take what they need to be realized from what they find in the mind: the depth of musical knowledge and the experiences the mind has had in all musical domains.”
The first supergroup ‘Mahavishnu Orchestra’
Mahavishnu Orchestra’s sound was a mixture of John’s earlier experiences of playing electrified fusion jazz music with Miles Davis and drummer Tony Williams and the teachings of his then spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy who nicknamed him ‘Mahavishnu’. Their explosive sound drew as much on Indian music and psychedelic rock but it was panned by the music purists.
Just like every musician, John also wishes that the audience identifies with at least certain elements of his composition. Playing or writing music with an intention of pleasing the audience is not what John believes in. As an artist one can never underestimate the people to understand and know the music they perform.
“They know when the emotions of the musicians are authentic or contrived. It is therefore critically important for the musician to accept criticism of his or her work, while at the same time maintaining belief and faith that their work is original and real,” stressed John.
Though not favoured by the purists, the Orchestra was almost an explosion with the masses. Their complex style of music that fused electric jazz and rock with Eastern and Indian influences along with fast solos and non-western musical scales, was a roaring success even with the American masses. This band helped establish fusion as a new and growing style.
The ‘Shakti Ensemble’
John would later collaborate with another disciple of Sri Chinmoy, Carlos Santana for a devotional album before co-founding ‘Shakti’. The ensemble, which included violinist L. Shankar, Tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, Ramnad Raghavan on the Mridangam, and T. H. “Vikku” Vinayakram on Ghatam, was an innovative ensemble that blended jazz and Indian music.
‘Shakti’ not only fused Indo-Western music but also Hindustani classical and Carnatic music. They would include an extended use of ‘konnakol’, thereby introducing the fusion jazz music aficionados to Indian ragas and percussion. John had already been studying Indian classical music and playing the veena for several years, absorbed his acoustic style for this group.
“Once you begin a serious study of the music of India, it is inevitable that you will discover the vast majority of Indian instruments,” says John, as he reflects back on ‘Shakti’.
John has been involved with a number of band/ensembles as a guitarist, composer or a band leader. The versatility of the man has been instrumental in ensuring none of the band’s music was similar.
“I never tried to make my bands sound differently from one another. I should remind you that if you change just one member of a band, the band will sound already different to how it sounded before,” asserted John.
Evolution of Jazz Music
Change is a constant with all aspects in the world and so is with music. jazz music and it’s expression either on guitar or any other instrument is no exception to these changes. The fusion of jazz music with other cultures has been going on for more than 50 years.
“The great Miles Davis was way ahead of us, and we followed in his footsteps. Within 10 to 15 years, jazz music had become classified into several distinct categories: Traditional, jazz-rock, jazz funk and smooth jazz which is itself a watered-down derivative of jazz Funk,” opined John.
Today, most young jazz guitarists are performing fusion jazz music which means the influences of India, Spain and the Middle East are heard in their playing. John who has been the president of quite a number of Guitar Competitions feels that the level of guitar playing in young musicians is excellent and a delight to hear.
“The real problem is that there is no more record industry and as a consequence, they will never get a record deal, and of course, this makes it very difficult to become known not only nationally, but also internationally. It’s a hard time for instrumentalists,” feels John.
After being on the road touring since he was 16 years old, John has quit performing live in the USA and is working on his upcoming tour of Europe with his band ‘The 4th Dimension’. John is currently writing music for an upcoming movie while also working with his ‘Remember Shakti’ band mate, Shankar Mahadevan on a new album.
“We are both very excited about this recording as it expresses a completely new form integrating the music of East and West,” smiled John.
At 77 years young, this septuagenarian is clearly not in a mood to rest and we fans have no reason to complain about that.