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Happy Birthday John McLaughlin

The legendary jazz guitarist turns 78 today, and what better way to celebrate than listing his 10 best tracks

Narendra Kusnur Jan 04, 2020

John McLaughlin. Photo: Margub Ali

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Age of course has not slowed down John McLaughlin. In less than two weeks, on January 14th, he will perform with a reconstituted Shakti in Kolkata, with a line-up that features Zakir Hussain on tabla, Shankar Mahadevan on vocals, Ganesh Rajagopalan on violin and V. Selvaganesh on kanjira. He’s also got a new album with Mahadevan and Hussain coming out this year called Is That So?

The British musician first gained fame in the late 60s and early 70s for his  work with icons like Tony Williams and Miles Davis. But his Indian love affair started first with the fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra that he set up  in 1971 with Billy Cobham, Rick Laird,  Jan Hammer, and Jerry Goodman whose music was a blend jazz, rock and Indian classical.He followed it up with the Indo-jazz fusion band Shakti in 1974 which he founded with L. Shankar, Zakir HussainRamnad Raghavan and Vikku Vinayakram, and its later avatar Remember Shakti. 

In this listing we have picked a  mix of popular, forgotten and rare gems, starting with six studio versions before getting into live recordings. It adds up to about 71 minutes of scintillating music. Play on.

1) “Meeting Of The Spirits” – Mahavishnu Orchestra

The opening track of the 1971 Mahavishnu Orchestra album The Inner Mounting Flame, this one features elaborate solos by McLaughlin and keyboardist Jan Hammer. Drummer Billy Cobham is on fire, and bassist Rick Laird and violinist Jerry Goodman provide perfect accompaniment.

The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire are considered to be quintessential Mahavishnu albums. They are a true representation of early 1970s jazz-rock, and are even popular among younger fans today.

2) “Flame-Sky” with Santana

Besides being renowned guitarists, McLaughlin and Carlos Santana had another thing in common. They were both followers of Indian spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy, who named them Mshavishnu and Devadip respectively.

Their friendship led to a few interesting collaborations. “Flame-Sky,” from the 1973 Santana album Welcome, involves a dazzling guitar conversation. Santana’s trademark build-up is followed by some dazzling keyboards, before the McLaughlin magic takes over.

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3) “Django” with Jeff Beck

In 1995, McLaughlin invited numerous guest artistes on his solo project The Promise. One of them was guitar great Jeff Beck, who appeared on the track “Django.”

A 1954 composition by pianist John Lewis, “Django” pays tribute to French guitarist Django Reinhardt. McLaughlin and Beck collaborate perfectly, giving the piece a modern jazz flavor. From the same album, fans may also check out “The Wish,” featuring sitar player Nishat Khan and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain.

4) “Stardust On Your Sleeve”

In 1981, McLaughlin teamed up with Warner Music to release the album “Belo Horizonte,” which would showcase his acoustic guitar skills. The stand-out cuts include the title tune and “Waltz For Katia,” which he wrote for his former wife Katia Labeque.

Another beauty is “Stardust On Your Sleeve.” McLaughlin’s guitaring is controlled and brilliant, using shades of flamenco and classical styles. The electric keyboard effects lend a twist.

5) “Face To Face” – Shakti

It’s obviously difficult to select only one Shakti track for a compilation, given the impact and variety of its various tunes. We chose “Face To Face,” from the 1977 album Natural Elements, simply because of the virtuosity of both McLaughlin and violinist L. Shankar.

The most captivating thing about this tune is its melody line. After the guitar intro, Shankar dazzles with a marvelous solo, before McLaughlin takes over again. The ending has some smooth interplay, with Hussain’s tabla and Vikku Vinayakram’s ghatam binding the piece.

6) “Song For My Mother”

Another gem in the acoustic space, “Song For My Mother” was used in the 1971 album My Goal’s Beyond. At that point, McLaughlin was deeply influenced by Indian music and spirituality.

The album’s first half has the two-part “Peace,” and the other side includes straight-ahead jazz guitar pieces. On this one, the guitar is back by the sound of crashing cymbals, played by the great Billy Cobham. The title is self-explanatory. A short, but powerful piece.

7) “Mediterranean Sundance” (live) with Al DiMeola and Paco de Lucia

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Three of the world’s best guitarists get together on this classic. Interestingly, McLaughlin doesn’t appear on the known audio version featured on the album Friday Nights In San Francisco as he comes in on the second piece.

This version, taken from a 1996 concert, features the three of them together. Words are unable to describe this masterpiece. Over to the video to hear three geniuses at their best, matching each other in terms of skill and improvisation.

8) “Pasha’s Love” (live) – John McLaughlin Trio

In the late 1980s, McLaughlin formed a trio with bassist Kai Eckhardt and Indian drummer Trilok Gurtu. They recorded a live concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1989.

McLaughlin uses an acoustic guitar as well as a Photon guitar synthesiser, and his nimble finger movements match the tightness of the bass and percussion. The trio provided a good platform for Gurtu, who became one of the most versatile jazz percussionists of the 1990s.

9) “Call And Answer” (live) – The 4th Dimension

McLaughlin’s current band The 4th Dimension, which plays contemporary electric jazz, also features Gary Husband on keyboards, bassist Etienne MBappe and Mumbai drummer Ranjit Barot. This piece was recorded live in Dresden, Germany, in 2012.

McLaughlin produces some awesome electric solos, but the number’s highlight is when keyboardist Husband suddenly attacks the drum kit, playing against a steady bass line. Barot handles the opening rhythm parts deftly. This is pure live magic.

10) “Lotus Feet” (live) with Jean-Luc Ponty

The track “Lotus Feet” seems to be one of McLaughlin’s favorites. He’s played it with Shakti, Mahavishnu Orchestra, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and Remember Shakti. This 2013 live recording features French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and tabla wizard Zakir Hussain.

This is essentially Ponty’s track here, as he comes up with some soulful passages. McLaughlin is understated, with a short solo appearance at the end. But it works as a perfect finale to this compilation, almost as though Ponty is wishing the guitar genius on his birthday.

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