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World Music Features

John McLaughlin

By Robert Kaye
Published August 19, 2008

John McLaughlin has been internationally recognized as one of world jazz fusion’s leading guitarists, often delving deep into Indian music with extraordinary results.

For millions of pop music fans around the world, it was the Beatles’ George Harrison, in songs like “Norwegian Wood,” who brought Indian music to the Western world. In the less commercially popular, but more demanding world of jazz, John McLaughlin has consummated that East/West musical union even further in groups like Shakti and Remember Shakti, both of which include longtime collaborator Zakir Hussain. Mind you, Indian music excursions aren’t McLaughlin’s only calling card: he has rightly assumed legendary status among jazz fans for helping Miles Davis go electric on the landmark album Bitches Brew and heading up fusion supergroup Mahavishnu Orchestra. McLaughlin’s impressive career now spans over 40 years, with nearly an equal number of groundbreaking albums and several instructional and entertainment DVDs.


After leaving Miles Davis the early ’70s, the guitarist began incorporating various Indian music-oriented elements, both melodic and rhythmic, into his pioneering and powerful electric jazz/rock fusion band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Yet over time, the band, which in numerous instances could be ferociously aggressive, began to splinter through somewhat acrimonious differences of creative opinion. McLaughlin reformatted its personnel, but like many good things, the band’s original modis operandi faded and McLaughlin decided to extinguish its inner flame. At least for that decade.


Shakti arrived as McLaughlin’s next step, literally redefining this influential guitarists career once again. The 1976 album begins unassumingly, with McLaughlin saying to his audience, “Good evening, friends thank you for that warm welcome.” Then— BAM!—accompanied by a trio Indian virtuosos, McLaughlin launches into the explosive, 18-minute, pedal-to-the metal, “Joy.” To date, no other Indo-Jazz ensemble had appeared performing with such a fiery, well-honed degree of interplay and verve. Making it all the more amazing was that this ensemble was four guys sitting on a rug playing acoustic. Joining McLaughlin on his custom-made, scallop-fretted/drone-string acoustic guitar was co-leader Zakir Hussain on tablas, T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram on ghatam and L. Shankar on violin.


The group continued on to the end of the decade it wasn’t until1996 that McLaughlin and Hussain reunited for Remember Shakti in honor of India’s impending 50th anniversary. Unlike Shakti’s debut recording, this self-titled double CD (released in 1999) began much more sublimely, following the traditional Indian raga form with its various sections moving from slow to medium to faster tempos. And McLaughlin, in a departure from his original band, now used an electric, sometimes even a synthesized guitar. Remember Shakti’s subsequent recordings have each employed different personnel, but the exploration of Indian classical music remained the prime directive each time.


McLaughlin has partnered with countless musicians over the years between<