John McLaughlin – Still shaping the future

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Purists loathe him, and the feeling, it seems, is mutual. John McLaughlin calls purists “the bane of the world”, and has variously upset the jazz ones by being too rocky, the fusion ones by being too Indian and the Indian ones by being too western. Meanwhile he has left a trail of era-defining albums and projects.

Indeed few musicians have such a rich past shaping their present. In the 1960s McLaughlin was a London studio “shark”, churning out backing tracks for hits by the likes of Tom Jones, Donovan, Petula Clark and Herman’s Hermits. He gave guitar lessons to Jimmy Page, worked with a young David Bowie, and, when he finally released an album under his own name, 1969’s Extrapolation was widely considered a masterpiece.

In fact ’69 was a big year. A fabled jam brought together Jimi Hendrix, the revolutionary who exploded the guitar’s sonic potential, and McLaughlin, who shattered ideas of what was technically possible on the instrument.

It was also the year McLaughlin was lured to New York to join Lifetime, led by the volcanic ex-Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams. He also met Miles, himself, and swiftly became his erstwhile hero’s favourite new musician. McLaughlin, in turn, exposed Davis to Hendrix, and Miles never made a record without a double shot of rock again.

Despite playing on several pivotal Davis albums McLaughlin never accepted Miles’s offer to officially join the band because of his commitment to Lifetime, where he developed the composing skills he brought to bear on his own game-changing project, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, in the early 1970s. Meanwhile he had an open invitation to play with Davis whenever he could. “What a perfect situation to be in,” says McLaughlin on the telephone from his Monaco home. “Playing with Tony, and then playing with Miles whenever I was free. You can’t get better than that.”

Among their collaborations was the great trumpeter’s most visceral album of all, 1970’s A Tribute To Jack Johnson. Miles, a boxing fanatic, was very fit at the time, but 21 years later he was visibly frail. Weeks after their final concert together and only months before the trumpeter’s death, McLaughlin asked Miles how he was. “He said, ‘John, you expect me to take all those drugs, score all those girls, play all those notes and live?!'”

After the Mahavishnu Orchestra had set a new benchmark for jazz-rock virtuosity, McLaughlin formed the all-acoustic Shakti, daringly combining North and South Indian classical traditions, his main teacher having been none other than Ravi Shankar. Now his current band, the 4th Dimension, pulls together Indian and fusion strands, boasting as it does the brilliant Indian drummer Ranjit Barot.

“I basically need the drummer pushing me to find something a little out of the ordinary inside myself,” says McLaughlin, with Barot reminding him of Williams. “But he’s got his own thing going, because he grew up with the Indian classical traditions as well as jazz.”

As well as keyboards Gary Husband plays a second kit, and McLaughlin describes the two-drummer impact as “dynamite”. Completing the line-up is Cameroon-born bassist Etienne Mbappe. “I think it’s maybe the best band I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some great ones,” enthuses McLaughlin.

Purists be warned.