How did we forget this guy?
Yes, it’s been a long time since John McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Heck, younger music fans have trouble remembering Beatles tunes, let alone a progressive rock band that gained limited mainstream acclaim after it formed in 1970.
But we at the Listening Room believe that music – and talent – are ageless. So, give it a chance.
After all, those in the know will tell you that McLaughlin was one of the greatest ever in his genre.
The remarkable thing about the Mahavishnu Orchestra isn’t just McLaughlin’s composing and guitar playing skills. It’s in the chemistry of an amazing all-star lineup, a group that included keyboard legend Jan Hammer, jazz drummer Billy Cobham, bassist Rick Laird, violinist Jerry Goodman and McLaughlin. But the band’s best moments were generally driven by McLaughlin’s guitar.
Born in England, McLaughlin proved a natural musician at a young age, although he didn’t pick up guitar until 11. He played local music circuits in his teen years, eventually backing noted British performer Brian Auger and others. Moving to the U.S., he continued to perform on stage and in the studio, including a gig with Miles Davis, a collaboration with Carlos Santana, and a legendary jam session with Jimi Hendrix in 1969.
McLaughlin, who had trained in classical, flamenco and jazz guitar, had developed an impressive fusion and progressive jazz style. Mahavishnu would take the genre and give it a worldwide audience. The band’s music merged fusion jazz and rock and sprinkled it with Eastern influences. All told, they released 10 albums, starting with the 1971 debut, An Inner Mounting Flame.
The recordings spanned several decades and featured varying lineups, most recently with a collection of tunes released in 1996. But McLaughlin has hardly been idle. Exploring differing styles of music and culture, he has spend periods immersed in Eastern music, acoustic guitar work and more traditional jazz.
One high-profile venture teamed McLaughlin with jazz guitarist Al Di Meola and Spanish classical guitarist Paco De Lucia, a trio that released a couple of albums, including the studio classic “Passion, Grace and Fire.”
Still experimenting, McLaughlin even reunited with former Mahavishnu drummer Billy Cobham in 2010.
In all, there have been dozens of albums and recordings, spanning genres and musical style with dizzying frequency. McLaughlin, however, has always been about the music above the fame. The downside is that it’s kept him out of the mainstream spotlight for the better part of his career.
Still, all these years later, much of his material still has weight. There are still a few Mahavishnu tunes on my iPod.
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