Some musicians stand head and shoulders above the rest as legends of their chosen instrument, and John McLaughlin is undoubtedly in that category, the ‘legend’ tag fitting him like a glove. As the title of Matt Phillips’ enthralling unpackaging of his lengthy and varied career suggests, from Miles Davis’ legendary In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew through the classic Mahavishnu Orchestra albums of the 1970s and more recent work with his current band The 4th Dimension, you can add a slew of solo albums, the astounding acoustic guitar trio with Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia, his continuing fascination of Indian music with Shakti, Remember Shakti and most recent album Is That So, collaborations with Carlos Santana and contributions to albums by Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, Wayne Shorter and many others, he casts a particularly long shadow across the history of jazz fusion.
Having very recently celebrated his 82nd birthday, John is still going strong, regularly touring the world and still in possession of formidable skills. Phillips looks at his entire career and details the many album releases in a highly readable style that draws you back to listen again to music you may not have heard in a long time – if at all.
I’ve been a fan of McLaughlin’s work for a long time, but there are still many areas of his huge discography that I have not explored, and this book has been key to aiding my understanding and appreciation, putting everything in a linear timeline that underlines McLaughlin’s often mercurial shifts in style, set within a biographical overview that keeps the story moving. Key collaborators are introduced with potted histories that quickly get you up to speed, and sources are referenced exhaustively yet unobtrusively at the end for further exploration, should you wish. Alongside the written and audio sources, original interviews with some of those involved help to underline the validity of Phillips’ work.
There’s a wealth of detail and supporting evidence, Phillips unafraid to call out some of the weaker tracks or albums from within the catalogue, and rightly offering praise where it is due. As a result the criticism is well-founded and supported to build a balanced and highly readable volume that should appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in the work of one of the world’s greatest ever guitarists, a pioneer and visionary who continues to inspire and entertain.
Matt Phillips himself possesses the experience of a seasoned musician and writer. There are technical insights, but they are used sparingly so as not to overbalance the readability of the book for non-players. The eye-witness testimony from those involved keeps the reader involved from the start, the Introduction (after a few words of recognition from Robert Fripp) containing a vivid description of John’s first encounter with Miles Davis in a New York recording studio in February 1969. Throughout the book, the influence of Miles Davis looms large over McLaughlin’s career.
From there we go back to McLaughlin’s origins in Yorkshire, his move to London and his early solo albums, work with Miles and Tony Williams’ Lifetime, before his embracing of the teachings of Sri Chinmoy, collaborating with Carlos Santana and forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra, to both critical and popular acclaim. The unexpected steps into Shakti, acoustic trios and the use of Synclavia in a rebooted Mahavishnu and beyond are documented, alongside changes in the popular appeal of his music over the years, throughout which McLaughlin has stuck to a single-minded determination to continue to seek out his own personal musical truth.
In the process, we learn much about the man and what drives him. The text, broken down in handy chapters that cover the distinct decades in an album by album format, some given more detail than others, is comprehensive and well researched. As such, it’s a fine companion piece when listening to some of the astonishing albums that John has been responsible for through the years. There’s a 6-page mid-section of black & white images, but it doesn’t add much.
Those with a love of the guitar and jazz fusion should not hesitate to dive into this volume, but likewise it should appeal to anyone with a yearning need to have music in their life, opening up new pathways for exploration and giving insights into the life of a musical visionary. In his introduction, Robert Fripp notes that as probably the leading player of his generation, McLaughlin “serves music”. You can’t argue with that. Informative and thoroughly enjoyable, it’s easy to recommended this book.
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield
Length: 287 pages
Date of Publication: September 2023