Although considered a pioneer of the jazz-fusion genre, guitarist John Mclaughlin and his diverse catalogue of music has covered post-bop, rock, classical, flamenco and blues. In this article, we’ll look at 10 essential albums covering his almost 60-year career.
British guitarist John McLaughlin is best known for his work with the trailblazing Mahavishnu Orchestra and the 1970s jazz fusion movement.
He was born on 4 January 1942 to a family of musicians in Doncaster, West Yorkshire, England and initially studying violin and piano, before taking up the guitar at the age of 11.
Following the release of his first album as bandleader, Extrapolation in 1969, McLaughlin moved to the US and went on to work with Miles Davis on several of his electric jazz-fusion albums – notably Bitches Brew – before forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and later, Shakti.
McLaughlin’s work diversified from the 1980s onwards, further cementing his reputation for technical and harmonic precision, sophisticated harmony, and use of non-western scales and time signatures.
In this article, we’ll look at ten essential John McLaughlin albums, giving an overview of the iconic jazz guitarists long and broad-ranging career.
During his teens, John McLaughlin began exploring various musical styles from flamenco to jazz, taking a particular interest in the music of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli.
He later moved to London in the early 1960s, playing in several influential British groups including Alexis Korner and the Marzipan Twisters, and with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in the Graham Bond Quartet.
1969 saw the release of Extrapolation, his first album as a bandleader. Featuring John Surman on saxophone, Brian Odges on bass and Tony Oxley on drums, the album differs from McLaughlin’s later fusion works in its nod to post-bop.
The album’s first release in the US wasn’t until 1972, following the successes of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It would be much later before the world realised how truly timeless this album is.
Upon hearing Extrapolation, jazz guitarist Joe Pass – who was disparaging of jazz fusion and Mahavishnu-era McLaughlin – commented that “at least [McLaughlin] knew how to play jazz.”
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1970)
After a move to the US in 1969 to join Tony Williams’ group Lifetime, McLaughlin became a key player in the recording of Miles Davis’ electric jazz-fusion albums, most prominently on Bitches Brew and On the Corner and also played on the album A Tribute To Jack Johnson. In the album’s liner notes Davis famously referred to McLaughlin’s sound as “far in”.
Bitches Brew, which McLaughlin described as “Picasso in sound”, was released in 1970, during Miles Davis’ continuing experimentation with electric instruments such as electric piano, electric bass and guitar.
From the late 1960s, Davis abandoned traditional jazz rhythms and developed a new funk and rock-influenced style that would forever alter the course of jazz.
In Jim Farber’s piece in The Guardian, McLaughlin recalled Miles’ instructions were “play like you don’t know how to play guitar”.
He remembers, “I just closed the score and started playing: no rhythm, no harmony, just playing the melody and casting my fate to the wind. He loved it.”
Bitches Brew is now considered one of the greatest albums of all time, influencing not only the course of jazz but also rock and other crossover genres.
Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire (1973)
Following his work with Miles Davis, John McLaughlin formed what would arguably become his most successful project, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
The music was technically challenging and complex and fused the electric jazz and rock of Bitches Brew with Eastern and Indian rhythms and scales.
Mahavishnu Orchestra was instrumental in the development of the new and growing fusion style of the 1970s. McLaughlin’s sound in this period was littered with fast solos and featured non-western scales, many of which were derived from Indian music.
Birds of Fire is one of just two albums released by the original band. McLaughlin brought the Mahavishnu Orchestra back in 1984 with a new lineup of musicians and the addition of new instruments.
This stellar ensemble of musicians was accompanied by additional string and horn sections, which McLaughlin referred to as “the real Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Two albums, Apocalypse with the London Symphony Orchestra and Visions of the Emerald Beyond, followed, but arguably, it was Birds of Fire that defined the group, receiving Gold certification from the RIAA (The Recording Industry Association of America).
Shakti – A Handful Of Beauty (1976)
Shakti (meaning ‘energy’) saw McLaughlin focus on a more acoustic sound fused with Indian classical music.
With the group, he released three albums including this exceptional record, which features a number of incredible Indian musicians such as Lakshminarayanan L. Shankar, Thetakudi Harihara Vinayakram and Ramnad Raghavan.
These albums were among the first to introduce ragas and Indian percussion to jazz music.
Handful of Beauty showed a darker, more sombre side to McLaughlin’s work.
While the opener “La Danse Du Bonheur” is lighter-hearted, the rest of the album features mostly introspective and thought-provoking compositions.
John McLaughlin and his One Truth Band – Electric Dreams (1979)
Electric Dreams, released in 1979, saw McLaughlin playing with his short-lived One Truth Band.
The group recorded just one studio album and was comprised of Lakshminarayanan L. Shankar (violin), Fernando Saunders (bass), Stu Goldberg (keyboards) and Tony Smith (drums). Though credited to McLaughlin and the One Truth Band, this is essentially a solo record, where the other members participate as sidemen.
McLaughlin’s tribute to Miles Davis, aptly named ‘Miles Davis‘, echoes the loose experimental jam style of those same Bitches Brew sessions, however the album, in general, is largely a more controlled effort in line with the funk and electronic music of that era.
The Guitar Trio (with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucía) (1996)
In 1979 McLaughlin formed the Guitar Trio Paco de Lucía and Larry Coryell.
For the group’s second album, released in 1996, The Trio reunited after 13 years apart and embarked on an accompanying world tour.
During the early 1980s, Larry Coryell had been replaced by Al Di Meola, who joins McLaughlin and de Lucía on this recording.
The Heart Of Things (1997)
Released in 1997, McLaughlin recorded The Heart Of Things with a new lineup of musicians that included Otmaro Ruíz, Dennis Chambers, Matt Garrison, Gary Thomas and Jim Beard.
Ostensibly a mid-’90s incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the quintet saw McLaughlin returning to his highly technical and virtuosic electric guitar playing and jazz-fusion style.
Despite the similarities to the fiery antics of the old Mahavishnu Orchestra days, this album – composed and produced by McLaughlin – sees the new quintet in a softer light, with more complex textures and lower-key pieces.
McLaughlin’s flare is ever-present but with a more mellow and rounded tone, supported by Jim Beard’s textural keyboard and Gary Thomas’ fluid tenor, soprano and flute playing.
This resulting album contains some of McLaughlin’s warmest music since his recordings with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Trio of Doom (with Jaco Pastorius & Tony Williams) (2007)
They were brought together by Columbia Records in 1979, sponsored by the U.S State Department, who organised a trip for prominent American musicians to play in Havana along with Cuba’s finest.
The artists came together for a musical summit event formally called “Havana Jam,” and nicknamed the “Bay of Gigs”.
The Trio of Doom was named after Pastorius’ old Fender Bass which he lovingly called the ‘Bass of Doom’ due to its growling sound.
The band performed live just once but thankfully the show was documented in the 1979 film Havana Jam. The group cam together again later that year to record the songs in a studio setting.
Sadly, disagreements between Pastorius and Williams meant the trio would never record together again.
Remaining unreleased for decades, the album was finally released Legacy Records in 2007, consisting of five live tracks and five studio recordings.
In total, it contains less than forty minutes of music with only four distinct songs. Despite the short period of time they were together, Trio of Doom stands as a document for what might have been if the protagonists were able to settle their differences.
Five Peace Band Live (with Chick Corea) (2009)
In late 2008, McLaughlin was asked by Chick Corea to join his jazz-fusion supergroup, Five Peace Band.
The all-star lineup which also included Vinnie Colaiuta, Kenny Garrett and Christian McBride toured the world in 2009 which resulted in this wonderful live album.
Following the culmination of the tour in Asia in early 2009, with Brian Blade on drums, the resulting album was released in early 2009.
Five Peace Band is a fusion of post-bop and jazz fusion styles. Adored by the critics, the album went on to win Best Jazz Instrumental Album at the 2010 Grammys.
Reviewing on AllAboutJazz, John Kelman said “Running the gamut from straight-ahead to balls-out fusion, Five Peace Band Live is a rare opportunity to hear two masters create something that references both of their careers but combines to create something with its own distinct personality.”
Black Light (with The 4th Dimension) (2015)
Black Light is the third studio album with the 4th Dimension, which is described on Mclaughlin’s website as “a group we can all safely think of as a Mahavishnu Orchestra for this century”.
McLaughlin has stated that several pieces on the album pay homage to former collaborators and teachers, including Indian musicians Mandolin Shrinivas and Pandit Ravi Shankar, and the late flamenco musician Paco de Lucia.
John Fordham in The Guardian describes it as “4th Dimension’s best work yet”, continuing “[McLaughlin’s] nine years with the 4th Dimension quartet… have also had plenty of flying guitar breaks, anthemic themes, chattery Indo-scat and pin-sharp unison licks, but Black Light’s emergence in October heralded a new maturity and even a rare spaciousness…”
McLaughlin is undoubtedly one of great jazz guitarists, with his genre-bending sensibilities allowing him to bring together once disparate styles of music into one cohesive and singular sound.
If you’re looking for more great music from John McLaughlin, check out the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut The Inner Mounting Flame or McLaughlin’s early album, My Goal’s Beyond where he introduces elements of Indian music to his sound for the first time.