The Essential John McLaughlin
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2007, Volume 14, #7
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Mon July 30, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
A thoughtful and carefully compiled overview of British guitarist John McLaughlin’s music has been a long time coming. Turning The Essential John McLaughlin into a representative two-disc sampling of his 45-year body of work, however, couldn’t have been an easy task. Indeed, the process must have been prickly. McLaughlin’s muse and tastes have pulled him in many different directions, and the diverse shades and tones of his compositions are often at odds with each other. Consequently, the idea of making two discs that flow effortlessly without jarring the listener is a rather formidable undertaking. Thankfully, the many labels for which he has worked fully cooperated with the producers of The Essential John McLaughlin, which means the compilation pulls tracks from a wide variety of sources.
Like Miles Davis, one of his early mentors and employers, McLaughlin created a canon that is so varied in its focus that listeners who love his music from certain eras inevitably have no tolerance for projects he undertook during other phases of his career. For some, the early exploratory material that he recorded with Graham Bond and Tony Williams in the mid-’60s is more to their taste, and they will be happy with the first quarter of the collection. For others, McLaughlin never really took off until he started to work with Miles Davis on his seminal albums: A Tribute to Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew. There is a contingent of progressive rock fans who feel that McLaughlin peaked while playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Carlos Santana; for them, a very intense rendition of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme from Santana’s Love, Devotion, Surrender is presented in all of its screeching, atonal glory. Still others favor his acoustic work, such as the beautiful 1971 album My Goal’s Beyond, and the definitive version of Charles Mingus’ Pork Pie Hat that was plucked from the endeavor shows off McLaughlin’s melodic side. In addition, The Essential John McLaughlin also features his early, world-fusion explorations with the Indian supergroup Shakti. Collaborations in a trio guitar format with Al DiMeola and Paco de Lucia and brief forays into new age music with Zakir Hussain make the restless McLaughlin even more difficult to classify and pin down.
To contemporary ears, many of McLaughlin’s compositions sound dated. There are so many notes and ideas packed into each phrase that his songs sometimes can be difficult to grasp. His no-holds-barred sonic attacks often assault the ears while boggling the intellect. As a result, many people admire McLaughlin’s work more than they like it. For someone encountering his music for the first time, it initially may be a good idea to devour his canon in small portions. This is particularly true of his recordings with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The albums he made with the group — which was composed of Western musicians who played Eastern-influenced music with modern instruments — represent McLaughlin’s only brush with superstardom. When listening to The Dance of Maya and Wings of Karma — the two cuts on The Essential John McLaughlin that were created by the first incarnation of the ensemble — it may be hard to believe, given the sorry state of today’s pop scene, that the outfit had a trio of hit albums and sold-out stadium-sized concerts during its 2 ˝-year run.
John McLaughlin can be a contentious artist, and his continual quest to find new areas of sound to explore has made it a struggle for even open-minded listeners to appreciate his compositions. When I asked him in 1989 to try and define his work, he said, after pondering the question for a minute, "Well, it’s not easy listening music." Sensing I was unsatisfied with this response, he added with a beaming smile, "I guess I could call it country-and-Eastern."
By combining his background in classical music with jazz improvisation, acid rock, and Indian phrasing, McLaughlin showed, early in his career, that there was virtually nothing he couldn’t play. Like others of his caliber — Miles Davis, Yehudi Menuhin, and Pablo Picasso come to mind — he has spent the last few decades refining and plumbing the depths of his inspiration, well beyond the point where most lesser artists would have become content simply to rest upon their laurels.
Hardcore fans may quibble with what is included in The Essential John McLaughlin and what was left on the cutting room floor. Where, for example, are the samples from his late ’80s trio work with Trilok Gurtu and Kai Eckhardt? In the end, however, The Essential John McLaughlin is a wonderful collection, and it provides a terrific introduction to McLaughlin’s restless, 45-year journey through the heart of most of the great music styles of the 20th Century. Hopefully, it will act as a catalyst for interested listeners to take the plunge and explore his catalogue more fully. With insightful liner notes and a generous sampling of songs, The Essential John McLaughlin contains material that should be savored and taken in gradually, like a rich and complex single malt. This is challenging and contentious music from a maverick artist. Although it demands the listener’s full attention, the rewards for persevering are more than worth it.
The Essential John McLaughlin is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box