The September 18 Rolling Stone touts a list of "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time," but the accompanying article is not nearly as wide-ranging (or definitive) as its headline implies. The late Andrés Segovia may be widely regarded as the finest classical guitarist of the twentieth century, but Jann Wenner's aging- and neo-hippie protegés apparently feel he couldn't keep pace with Quicksilver Messenger Service's John Cipollina (number 32) and Moby Grape's Jerry Miller (68). Likewise, Charlie Christian -- the man credited with introducing electric guitar to jazz, thereby influencing everyone from Wes Montgomery to Joe Pass (another pair of also-rans) -- was inferior to Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes (23), Free's Paul Kossoff (51), Alice Cooper sideman Glen Buxton (90), and, in 98th place, Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer, which was a band, not a detergent. Feel free to burst into raucous laughter anytime . . .
Indeed, the only six-stringer on the Rolling Stone roster with a serious jazz pedigree is John McLaughlin, who checks in at number 49, sandwiched between Aerosmith's Joe Perry and the Who's Pete Townshend. The motivation behind his placement on such a rock-centric index isn't tough to suss out. From the late '60s to the mid-'70s, he brought the passion and amplitude of heavy R&R to jazz, thereby helping to define jazz fusion, a once-exciting genre that's gotten smoother (and therefore less interesting) over time.
Yet a pair of fresh packages -- one in stores now, the other slated to arrive shortly -- prove that McLaughlin, 61, is a far more complex figure than his Rolling Stone blurb implies. The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, a just-issued five-CD boxed set culled from tapes linked to a similarly monikered Miles Davis platter originally released in 1971, is dominated by the guitarist, whose scorching performances blast through stylistic boundaries as effectively as an AK-47. In contrast, Thieves and Poets, a new solo platter due October 14, features an orchestral suite and a handful of jazz standards that McLaughlin surveys with understated brio. Toss in Remember Shakti, the Indian-music-inflected group with whom the guitarist is presently touring, and it's clear that McLaughlin isn't limited to simply cranking out the skronk.
McLaughlin's background is appropriately diverse. Born in Yorkshire, England, during the most dire days of World War II, he grew up with a love of American blues that was common among members of his musical generation; among those with whom he shared a stage were future Cream drummer Ginger Baker and Alexis Korner, remembered by pop historians for having nurtured Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones during the period before they formed the Rolling Stones. Rather than cast his lot with blues rockers, however, McLaughlin drifted toward jazz, serving an apprenticeship with Gunter Hampel, a German vibes player who dabbled in everything from free jazz to nascent jazz rock.
In 1969, McLaughlin moved to New York City, where he soon fell in with Tony Williams, a drumming prodigy who'd been associated with trumpeter Davis while still in his teens. The timing of his arrival was propitious, because Davis was entering one of his most fecund periods. McLaughlin's work on 1969's In a Silent Way is relatively low-key, as befits a recording whose brilliance is wrapped in finesse; the album can be thought of as an electrified complement to the moody acoustic masterwork Kind of Blue, cut a decade before. Bitches Brew, unleashed later in 1969, is another story. The double-LP salvo is eerily unhinged, with Davis and an all-star cast of fellow explorers (Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Joe Zawinul and more) boldly going where no jazzbos had gone before -- to the spot where rock rhythms and jazz improvisation meld. McLaughlin's importance to the project is visible onthe offering's gatefold sleeve: Davis named one of its seven compositions after him.
From a commercial standpoint, A Tribute to Jack Johnson fell well short of Brew, and no wonder. The music was written as a soundtrack for a documentary about the aforementioned Mr. Johnson, whose status as the first African-American heavyweight boxing champ brought out the worst in many of his Caucasian countrymen during the early 1900s; after Johnson's defeat of a white opponent spawned a race riot, he was accused, under shadowy circumstances, of transporting white women over state lines with an eye toward prostituting them. To put it mildly, this was rich subject matter, but, unfortunately, the film reached few screens and remains little seen to this day
Or little heard -- and more's the pity. Tribute contains a mere two songs, "Right Off" and "Yesternow," but listeners got their money's worth, because they both clock in at more than 25 minutes in length. The boxed set preserves the original versions on disc five, with the former mating some of Davis's most energetic and evocative soloing with power chords from McLaughlin that wow, flutter, echo and assault. "Yesternow," for its part, is less aggressive but just as imposing. Throughout, McLaughlin displays a lesson learned from Miles: You don't have to play a lot of notes as long as you pick the right ones.
The creativity that flows from Tribute was just the beginning. As pointed out in the set's informative liner notes (largely penned by Bill Milkowski), a crew that included, at one time or another, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Sonny Sharrock, Chick Corea and Ron Carter toiled in the studio on and off for sixteen weeks, producing so much material that Columbia, Davis's label, was able to cannibalize it for years. Music from this period wound up on Live-Evil, Get Up With It, Big Fun and Directions -- creative hodgepodges intended primarily to keep Davis product in the racks when he was low on inspiration. But because none of the albums sold especially well, the average listener will probably be unfamiliar with most of the compositions, and there are enough previously unissued gems to keep even fanatics busy for hours.
Granted, Sessions contains multiple takes of many tracks: Disc one sports six versions of "Willie Nelson,"which was partially incorporated into "Yesternow." Nonetheless, the grooves at the heart of the song -- which shares the handle of the famed country troubadour for reasons that don't make much sense -- are so deep and unavoidable that the repetition begins to exert an attraction all its own. Besides, neither Miles nor McLaughlin are satisfied with duplicating their efforts from take to take. On the fifth go-round, for instance, McLaughlin lets fly, unleashing a yowl of sound here, bunching together a flurry of tones there. When Davis comes back into the mix, he's extremely tentative by comparison, a likely reason the recording wasn't made available until now. Elsewhere, McLaughlin manages to use feedback gracefully on "Go Ahead John" (disc two); gets funky in an avant-garde kinda way on the irresistible "Honky Tonk" (disc three) and the deft-stepping "Ali" (disc four); and kicks off "The Mask" (disc five) with a breakneck solo that Corea, Jarrett and Hancock chase but never quite catch. At moments like these, McLaughlin accomplishes the seemingly impossible, by temporarily turning Davis into a sideman.
With his skills honed to such a sharp edge, it's no wonder that after completing the Johnson sessions, McLaughlin founded a band of his own, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The ensemble had plenty of strong moments during its relatively brief life, but in 1975, as Mahavishnu's music became louder and more indulgent, McLaughlin chose to retreat into the quieter realm of Indian music with Shakti, which paired him with percussionist Zakir Hussain. The guitarist has ventured away from this very different brand of fusion on numerous occasions in the ensuing years, but he always seems to return -- and on 2000's The Believer, credited to Remember Shakti, it's obvious why. The acoustic runs McLaughlin stitches together on "5 in the Morning, 6 in the Afternoon" are every bit as challenging as his electric playing, but somehow the frenzy seems almost meditative. The storm and the calm that precedes it are as one.
Thieves and Poets, McLaughlin's upcoming presentation, puts some of the knowledge gained from his passages to India into a Western context. The classical-dabbling title song is broken into three parts, with McLaughlin's lyrical melodicism underscored by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, conducted by Renato Rivolta and orchestrated by Yan Maresz, who once studied with McLaughlin. The effect is wholly traditional, with sweeping romanticism keeping modernism at bay throughout the exuberant first section, the lush second movement and the driving third, which concludes with McLaughlin's strings singing in unison with the sounds produced by dozens of his fellows, sawing away as if they're trying to take wing -- and they do.
Given the dramatic nature of "Thieves and Poets,"McLaughlin's gentle depictions of "My Foolish Heart," "The Dolphin," "Stella by Starlight" and "My Romance," assembled with the help of the Aighetto Quartet, seem anti-climactic. Still, these tunes are deeply felt, too. Although his playing on them may lack the fire of The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, it still puts off a warm glow.
Instrumental subtlety like this would never have caught the ear of the folks at Rolling Stone, who believe in their heart of hearts that Jack White of the White Stripes is the seventeenth-best guitarist to ever strum. But Andrés Segovia and Charlie Christian would approve.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.