Jazz CD Reviews

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: The Essential John McLaughlin – Columbia/Legacy (2 CDs)

This pivotal guitarist of the twentieth century keeps expanding and growing.

Published on June 9, 2007

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: The Essential John McLaughlin – Columbia/Legacy (2 CDs)
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: The Essential John McLaughlin – Columbia/Legacy 88697 06931 2, (2 CDs) 152 minutes  **** :

Which John McLaughlin do you fancy? The pre-fusion jazz session player? The hard-driving jazz-rock fusioneer of the Mahavishnu Orchestra? How about the Indo-jazz improviser of Shakti? Don’t forget his delvings into flamenco, his flirtings around classical orchestral accompaniment . . . . the list goes on. This pivotal guitarist of the twentieth century keeps expanding and growing. You can’t keep up with him. Few ever could. Even now, with the recent release of Industrial Zen, he keeps discovering new territories and snagging traveling companions along for the ride.

For a twofer The Essential John McLaughlin is a comprehensive (and generous) 152 minute-survey into the genius of this man. Most remember McLaughlin’s introduction to American audiences as a player in Miles Davis’ two pioneering albums, Bitches Brew (1969) and Live Evil (1970). But this set begins with Doxy from Graham Bond’s band (1963), a post-bop number that also features Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Nice rare find. Pieces with Miles include the inventive interplay between the two men in Right Off from A Tribute to Jack Johnson–his riff perseverates 2/3 of the way through–and the cluttered Aura (Intro) from Aura. Yes, this is a warts-and-all collection, although the warts are few.

Oddly, they include several hapless collaborations with talented conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (Wings of Karma and Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra). I had great hopes for the latter when it came out in 1990, but Tilson’s neo-romantic muscles yank at McLaughlin’s unfettered flights. It was nice to hear the glorious Birds of Fire from The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and listen again to his cover of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (which in several ways rivals the original). His collaborations with Zakir Hussein and other Indian musicians are successful beyond expectation. He’d clearly learned from Yehudi Menuin and Ravi Shankar’s record East Meets West (1966). You could almost consider India from A Handful of Beauty a classic (albeit short) raga. The cut from the Trio of Doom, Dark Prince, is an angry frenetic piece. Never heard of the Trio of Doom? You soon will. Sony is also releasing McLaughlin’s single album collaboration with the manic bassist Jaco Pastorius and the tempermental drummer Tony Williams. I can’t leave out the flamenco cut David – from Passion, Grace, and Fire. That acoustic album with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia manages to be peaceful and virtuosic at the same time. The listeners that I would not recommend this set to are the aficionados who have followed his career every year from the beginning. But that includes you, right?

— Peter Bates

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