John McLaughlin: Guitarist who set World on its Ear

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Andrea Palmucci.

Talk to legendary guitarist, bandleader and composer John McLaughlin and what shines through right away is his lust for life. When you’ve had, and are having, a life like his that’s not surprising.

John McLaughlin. Photo by Andrea Palmucci.

Born in 1942, McLaughlin, who plays Budapest’s MOM Sport venue on April 20, has had a long and remarkable career. Alongside future legends like Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, he was a “studio shark” appearing on pop records by 1960s icons including Petula Clark, Tom Jones, Burt Bacharach, French chanteuse Francoise Hardy and even The Rolling Stones.  

He played with Miles Davis on such milestones of jazz-fusion as “Bitches Brew”, “In a Silent Way”, “Jack Johnson” and the ferocious “Live-Evil”. Hendrix respected him enough to invite him to jam. His own Mahavishnu Orchestra pioneered a singular fusion of jazz, Indian and classical influences and hard rock. And that’s only scratching the surface.

It is hard to think of a guitarist more garlanded with praise than McLaughlin. Miles Davis called his playing “far in.” Fellow rapid fire guitar-slinger and contemporary Jeff Beck rates him “the best guitarist alive”. Jazz fusion pianist and keyboard player Chick Corea told Downbeat magazine that “what John McLaughlin did with the electric guitar set the world on its ear.” Incidentally, Corea also plays Budapest on July 1 of this year.

I spoke to McLaughlin by phone. He was at his home in Monte Carlo, Monaco. This struck me as a strange place for him to live. But perhaps he needs that city’s peace and quiet to decompress from life on the road, especially considering the intensity he still brings to his playing.

‘Changed my Life’

“My mum was an amateur violinist. There was only classical music in the house when I was young. I discovered the guitar aged 11. My first guitar was only a five-pound piece of junk, but I loved it,” McLaughlin told me.

“This was when the blues boom hit the U.K. I had two elder brothers at university and at exactly the time they started bringing records by Mississippi blues players like Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly home with them, the guitar arrived in my hands. It changed my life forever. There have been other powerful musical influences on me, but the blues has stayed with me. But so has classical. I’ve written two pieces for guitar and orchestra.”

He first made his reputation as a so-called “studio shark” in London. What exactly did that entail?

“It means a session musician who plays on whatever sessions come along. I played on some nice things. Sessions with The Four Tops and Burt Bacharach come to mind.”

While he was a guitarist for hire, McLaughlin was also getting to know key figures in the London blues scene. Just to namedrop a tiny bit, he played with bass guitarist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, later to form Cream with Eric Clapton, as well as blues champion Alexis Korner and Georgie Fame. Naturally, he was pally with Clapton.

How did he get from pop sessions to playing with Miles Davis? “The session work was deadly, really, but for the first time I had money in my pocket. After 18 months I couldn’t stand it anymore and became poor again. But happy. I moved to New York in January 1969, which was where I met Miles.”

Sweet and Scary

I always imagine Miles Davis as a scary guy. Was he really? “He could be. But, to me, he was one of the sweetest men alive. He loved his musicians. Miles always stuffed money in my pocket. ‘Make sure you eat, make sure you pay your rent’, he’d say. I survived thanks to Miles and I ended up playing the best with him.”

That includes McLaughlin’s work on Davis’ “Jack Johnson” album.

“It sounds pretentious but ‘Jack Johnson’ was started by me. Generally, Mile would come into a session with a brown paper bag holding coffee he’d picked up from a diner on the way in. He’d write chords on this piece of paper and we’d start the session using them, ” the musician told me.


“At the beginning of the ‘Jack Johnson’ sessions, he didn’t even have a piece of paper. Nothing. He was with the producer and we musicians were waiting to for him to tell us what to do. After 15 minutes, I got bored and started playing this thing that ultimately became my ‘Dance of Maya’, recorded with Mahavishnu Orchestra. The other players picked it up and within one minute we hit a groove. The producer started recording. Miles ran into the studio with his trumpet, went in front of the mic and played for 15 minutes straight. It was just marvelous. And he told me and everyone this was the greatest record he ever made.”

By this time, I’d been transported back to the halcyon days of the late 1960s jazz scene and was happy to stay there. But McLaughlin announced that he was running out of time. We hadn’t touched on his musical career from the early 1970s onwards. I had time for one last question: What can we expect in Budapest?

“You’re going to hear music stretching back at least 47 years and from all the different decades up to now because we have new music as well. The band, the 4th Dimension, is really amazing. I love these guys. They’re such great players and as crazy as me. We have a huge repertoire so we can wing it on stage. We have music that goes from the early ’70s up to today. That’s a lot of years, a lot of music. We’ll wing it, but you’ll enjoy it.”

John McLaughlin plays Budapest MOM Sport (1123 Budapest, Csörsz u. 14-16) on April 20. You can get tickets from getcloserconcerts.com/koncert/john-mclaughlin-the-4th-dimension-2019/#jegyvasarlas

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