ONE still remembers that moment at the Talkatora Indoor Stadium in New Delhi, when John McLaughlin announced that the next piece was inspired by a bridge in Venice. “It’s called ‘Bridge Of Sighs’,” he said, and pockets of the audience clapped in delight. It was some time in 1983 or ’84, and many of us were hearing Indo-jazz group Shakti for the first time. McLaughlin on guitar, Zakir Hussain on tabla, L Shankar on violin and Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam. What a combination!
Shakti was a miracle that came and went, only to be transformed years later into Remember Shakti. And while many of us may identify McLaughlin primarily with this Indian sound, the truth is that he’s dabbled in various other forms of jazz and fusion, right from flamenco to gypsy to jazz-rock. Both electric and acoustic. Today, as he celebrates his 70th birthday, it’s an apt moment to salute one of the world’s most imaginative, innovative and inspired guitarists.
The Shakti show wasn’t actually the first time this blogger was exposed to McLaughlin. A few months earlier, I had tried out ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’, the first studio album of McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. Honestly, that wasn’t love on first hearing. As a 20-year-old, I was more into Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Doors and Santana those days, and Mahavishnu seemed maha-heavy. I had also heard his piece ‘Flame Sky’ on the Santana album ‘Welcome’, but that wasn’t one of my favourite albums at that time.
Things changed after watching McLaughlin, Zakir, Shankar and Vikku unleash their magic on stage. From my limited budget, I bought LPs of Shakti’s album ‘Natural Elements’ and McLaughlin’s solo ‘Belo Horizonte’. The former was a sheer masterpiece featuring gems like ‘Face To Face’, ‘Mind Ecology’, ‘The Daffodil and The Eagle’, ‘Peace Of Mind’ and ‘Bridge Of Sighs’. In contrast, the much mellower ‘Belo Horizonte’ took time to grow, but the nylon string acoustic guitar did wonders on tracks like ‘Waltz For Katia’ and ‘Stardust On Your Sleeve’.
Those days, a shop called Pyramid at Delhi’s Palika Bazaar recorded some great albums on blank cassettes. From their McLaughlin catalogue, I chose Mahavishnu’s ‘Birds Of Fire’ and the classic ‘Friday Nights In San Francisco’, which also featured guitar greats Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia. ‘Birds’ was just brilliant, and the guitar-playing and Billy Cobham’s drumming made me revisit ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’, and appreciate it truly this time.
The brilliantly-constructed ‘Mediterranean Sundance’ was my favourite track from ‘Friday Nights’, and it was only later, when I did a full-length interview with McLaughlin in 1997, that I discovered he did not play on that tune, as it only featured the other two. “Don’t worry. If you want to still believe I played on it, you’re most welcome,” he had quipped.
The interview took place just before the first avatar of Remember Shakti was to perform at the Rang Bhavan, when flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia was part of the group, and mandolin wizard U Srinivas, kanjira king Selva Ganesh and super-vocalist Shankar Mahadevan were yet to join. In the 45-minute chat, the guitarist came up as a very pleasant speaker, who displayed a profound knowledge of Indian culture while speaking of his spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy or Swami Vivekananda or sitar maestro Ravi Shankar or veena great S. Balachander .
Over the years, there have been numerous McLaughlin favourites, besides the ones I was earlier exposed to. Examples are his work with Miles Davis on ‘Bitches Brew’, with Cream’s bassist Jack Bruce on ‘Things We Like’, with Zakir, Chaurasia and saxophonist Jan Garbarek on ‘Making Music’, with various artistes in ‘The Promise’ and with the other groups he formed, like ‘Electric Dreams’ with One Truth Band or ‘To The One’ with 4th Dimension .
Still, if one looks at his discography, there’s so much more I haven’t heard, like some of his recordings with Weather Report’s saxophonist Wayne Shorter or ace of bass Stanley Clarke. Another regret is that much as I’ve seen Shakti once and Remember Shakti four times, I am yet to watch an out-and-out jazz-rock show featuring McLaughlin. Hopefully, one of the Indian concert organisers will think on those lines.
Clearly, McLaughlin has been one of God’s gifts to jazz guitar. There have been many other great players in the post-’70s phase when jazz-rock and jazz guitar became huge —names like Al Di Meola, Paco de Lucia, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Lee Ritenour, Larry Coryell, Larry Carlton, Mike Stern, Bill Frisell, Frank Gambale, Earl Klugh, Wayne Krantz and Allan Holdsworth come to mind.
But what’s unique about McLaughlin is the way he has explored various cultures from Indian to European to Latin American to North American. Once again, Happy Birthday, John!