CD Review of The Essential John McLaughlin by John McLaughlin

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The Essential John McLaughlin
starstarstarstarstar Label: Sony/Legacy
Released: 2007
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When people talk about guitar heroes, which names are mentioned most often? Stop to think about it and you might say Jimi Hendrix is number one. Then maybe Jimmy Page, or Pete Townshend, or shredders like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, or Yngwie Malmsteen. Jeff Beck might get some props too. But you’d have to venture beyond rock aficionados to find someone singing the praises of John McLaughlin, in spite of the fact that he mastered rock and blues tones – and far, far beyond – with such proficiency that all of the above sit humbly in his shadow.

But then, John isn’t a star – he’s a musician. And that’s precisely what The Essential John McLaughlin proves. You may have to put up with Sony BMG’s cheap-looking package, but let’s face it – this ‘Essential’ series does serve a purpose. And when it comes to providing an affordable entry point to a discography as vast and diverse as McLaughlin’s, Essential isn’t a bad way to go. In fact, right now it’s the only way to go.

In this case, it’s also somewhat revelatory. Take, for instance, the fact that most of those who are even aware of McLaughlin’s existence were introduced to him via his legendary early ‘70s fusion ensemble, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Sure, we get to hear the classics “Birds of Fire” and “The Dance of Maya” from Mahavishnu’s first two classic LPs, The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire, but Mahavishnu only takes up three of this set’s 23 selections. The credible but slightly anonymous group led by Graham Bond shows John functioning as a capable sideman in a straight-ahead jazz ensemble with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, later of Cream, in 1963. And “Spectrum” displays John as the integral piece of a pre-Mahavishnu trio that is best described as Cream if they leaned more in a jazz direction and replaced Jack Bruce with a smokin’ organ player. John even gets some playtime with Carlos Santana during a scorching, electrified take on John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”

And then… unplug the cord, and you get to hear John exercising his fingers as freely and frenetically on the acoustic guitar, with the Indian-European fusion ensemble Skakti in 1977 on a 12-minute piece titled, what else, “India.” One of John’s early ‘80s acoustic guitar trio recordings, “David,” with Al DiMeola and Paco De Lucia, is also present, as is the third movement of John’s “Mediterranean Concerto” for acoustic guitar and symphony orchestra.

But between all the rapid fire acoustic playing, electric storms brewed up with late masters Tony Williams and Jaco Pastorius (“Dark Prince”), and sessions with Miles Davis (“Right Off” from Davis’ Jack Johnson album and the intro to Davis’ final Columbia album, Aura), it’s ultimately John’s calm, tender, solo electric performance of the old standard “My Foolish Heart” that impresses the most.

At some point, it would make sense for McLaughlin to get the full boxed set treatment. Until that happens, Essential is the only compilation anyone really needs.

~Michael Fortes