With karma and kalei­do­scopic vir­tu­os­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John McBeath

Bathed In Light­ning: John McLaugh­lin, The 60s & The Emer­ald Be­yond By Colin Harper Jaw­bone Press, 512pp, $25 WEL­COME to psychedelia, hal­lu­cino­gen­ics, tran­scen­den­tal spir­i­tu­al­ism, In­dian gu­rus, jaz­zrock fu­sion, and many more rec­ol­lec­tions of the mu­sic and un­re­peat­able, trippy times of the 1960s and 70s. Among the best of that era’s mu­sic was gui­tarist John McLaugh­lin’s Ma­hav­ishnu Orches­tra, where mu­si­cal karma and kalei­do­scopic vir­tu­os­ity burst out in 1971.

Ir­ish au­thor, mu­sic jour­nal­ist, and com­poser Colin Harper has pro­duced a work of metic­u­lous, al­most over­whelm­ingly de­tailed re­search, based around McLaugh­lin’s ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­reer. Born in 1942 in York­shire, McLaugh­lin be­came a ma­jor cat­a­lyst of the jazz-rock move­ment. The book’s ti­tle is taken from a quote by writer Charles Mur­ray de­scrib­ing McLaugh­lin on­stage as “like a man serenely bathing in light­ning”.

The youngest of five chil­dren, McLaugh­lin’s fa­ther was an en­gi­neer, his mother an am­a­teur violinist, and ”there was a lot of mu­sic hap­pen­ing in the house”. At nine he started piano les-

June 14-15, 2014 sons but at 11 he took up the gui­tar, re­call­ing that he reg­u­larly took the gui­tar to bed with him. Around 12, his he­roes were acous­tic blues play­ers Muddy Wa­ters and Lead­belly. By the age of 13 he’d dis­cov­ered fla­menco and clas­si­cal gui­tar and soon found gypsy jazz ex­po­nent Django Rein­hardt; later he ad­mired Char­lie Parker, but his two great­est in­spi­ra­tions were jazz gi­ants Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

By 1960, McLaugh­lin was work­ing in a Lon­don mu­si­cal in­stru­ment shop, play­ing with var­i­ous mu­si­cians and “pay­ing his dues” by tour­ing with a top list of Lon­don’s jazz, R&B and rock mu­si­cians. He joined Ge­orgie Fame and The Blue Flames and backed nu­mer­ous pop vo­cal­ists on record­ings, in­clud­ing Tom Jones and Pe­tula Clarke. In 1963, McLaugh­lin played R&B in Gra­ham Bond’s quar­tet, where he made vol­ume a key el­e­ment and started us­ing feed­back. Af­ter ac­com­pa­ny­ing US soul sen­sa­tion Wil­son Pick­ett in 1965, he be­gan his most cre­ative pe­riod to date, cul­mi­nat­ing in the 1969 un­der­ground clas­sic al­bum Ex­trap­o­la­tion with John Sur­man on reeds.

McLaugh­lin ar­rived in New York in Fe­bru­ary 1969, in­vited to join drum­mer Tony Wil­liams’s group Life­time. Wil­liams in­tro­duced him to Miles Davis. McLaugh­lin later an­nounced: “Two days af­ter I ar­rived, I was in the stu­dio with Miles.” They pro­duced the al­bum In a Silent Way and McLaugh­lin re­called be­ing ner­vous. Davis was an enigma, a com­plex in­di­vid­ual, sur­rounded by mys­tique. His cryptic in­struc­tion to the gui­tarist: “Play it like you don’t know how to play the gui­tar.” Mys­ti­fied, McLaugh­lin started play­ing the melody to Davis’s en­cour­age­ment, and was later sur­prised at how good it sounded. Six months af­ter­wards, Davis rang McLaugh­lin to in­vite him to record what be­came the large en­sem­ble, iconic jazz rock al­bum Bitches Brew, Davis’s first gold al­bum with sales of more than half a mil­lion.

By now firmly es­tab­lished in New York, McLaugh­lin con­tin­ued record­ing with Davis and play­ing in Life­time. He also played with just about ev­ery­one of note, and was in­tro­duced to Sri Chin­moy, an In­dian guru whose dis­ci­plines and philoso­phies he fol­lowed strictly for the next five years

McLaugh­lin formed the five-mem­ber Ma­hav­ishnu Orches­tra in 1971 and in 2½ years they re­leased three records, played about 500 con­certs and man­aged to as­tound the world. The gui­tar’s light­ning-fast play­ing, the es­o­teric modes and mind-bog­gling time sig­na­tures im­bued a sense of awe. The mu­sic erupted at a spine-shak­ing 130 deci­bels and Down­beat mag­a­zine asked: “Why turn the damned sound up so bloody loud?” Their de­but al­bum sold 20,000 units in three weeks.

The orches­tra folded at the end of 1973, pos­si­bly due to McLaugh­lin’s highly dis­ci­plined “en­light­en­ment”. By early 1974, how­ever, McLaugh­lin had as­sem­bled an­other four play­ers, in­clud­ing Euro­pean vi­o­lin vir­tu­oso Jon LucPonty, and to­gether they formed the nu­cleus of Ma­hav­ishnu II. Their launch­ing con­cert was with the Buf­falo Phil­har­monic Orches­tra, their first al­bum, Apoca­lypse, was recorded with the Lon­don Sym­phony Orches­tra. Ma­hav­ishnu II’s sec­ond al­bum, Vi­sions of The Emer­ald Be­yond, is McLaugh­lin’s favourite al­bum of the era. Mean­while, pur­su­ing his in­ter­est in In­dian mu­sic he formed Shakti, a quar­tet of In­dian mu­si­cians.

When Luc-Ponty and one other mem­ber left the Orches­tra, things changed as McLaugh­lin be­gan to drift away from Sri Chin­moy — the fi­nal in­car­na­tion of Ma­hav­ishnu also faded away in late 1975.

Harper has writ­ten this amaz­ingly de­tailed, eas­ily read ref­er­ence book about a fas­ci­nat­ing mu­si­cian, an era and its mu­sic. It pro­vides a huge quan­tity of con­tem­po­rary con­ver­sa­tions, opin­ions, re­views, analy­ses and de­scrip­tions. The book has a discography plus many mono­chrome im­ages, and the eBook edi­tion con­tains bonus chap­ters in­clud­ing de­tails of Ma­hav­ishnu’s 1974 tour of Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

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