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John McLaughlin Honors Coltrane’s Music and Spirituality

Nov. 10, 2010
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If John Coltrane is the leading voice in jazz, then John McLaughlin is part of a large chorus of musicians singing his praises through emulation and homage. But the English-born jazz-fusion guitarist, who leapt on to the scene in the 1970s playing not with Coltrane but with Miles Davis, approaches the legendary reedman from both a musical and spiritual perspective. McLaughlin’s reverence is part of his own inner mounting flame of spiritual self-awareness, giving the musician a distinct place in the pantheon of contemporary jazz artists.

“Since my life has been, and is today, dedicated to music and my interior life, I would say that I'm on a spiritual path, and I am part of the path both musically and spiritually,” says McLaughlin, 68, who appears with his group The 4th Dimension Nov. 18 at Northern Lights in the Potawatomi Bingo Casino. “I have no idea why I am the way I am. I'm just happy to be who I am.”

Since his emergence more than 40 years ago, the classically trained McLaughlin, who played violin and piano before switching to guitar at age 11, has been at the forefront of the jazz-fusion movement. He’s performed on trumpeter Davis’ genre-bending ’60s and ’70s albums In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson, and in 1971 he formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra with drummer Billy Cobham, another Davis alumnus. But it was with Love Devotion Surrender, the 1973 album recorded with Carlos Santana and inspired by the teachings of Sri Chinmoy, the pair’s guru of choice, that McLaughlin’s spiritual side became evident to his growing fan base. The disc also featured two Coltrane songs, indicating early signs of the artist’s influence.

“Sri Chinmoy was the first ‘guru’ I chose, and was responsible for my first meditative training,” McLaughlin says. “Having stayed with him for five years, and particularly during the period of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, it's normal to assume he had a greater effect on me than other teachers. But this is not necessarily the case.”

Other influences, especially that of Coltrane, have also driven the guitarist’s inner development. After hearing in 1964 A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s spiritual and musical magnum opus, McLaughlin easily fell under the great artist’s influence. His new CD, To the One, is another Coltrane homage of sorts, but the guitarist is quick to point out that there was no conscious effort made to replicate either Coltrane’s sound or spirituality on the disc.

“I never sit down and try to write music for a recording,” McLaughlin says. “I wait for the music to come and then act. The ideas began arriving and only after hearing them did I make any reference to A Love Supreme.

“In my life I have made several homages to Coltrane, but this recording is more an unconscious reference to when I first heard Coltrane's recording,” he adds. “In addition, there are events in my interior life that echo events in Coltrane's life, particularly in terms of constancy in following the spiritual path.”

Regarding the album’s title, McLaughlin once again cites the spiritual references that drive his music.

“If you have ever made any attempts to answer the fundamental questions in life, you will inevitably end up in religion,” he says. “Since the ’60s I have practiced cultivating my interior life. This can be done through prayer, meditation, acts of benevolence—there are many ways, but they all lead to what people call God. Once you have had the experience of absolute oneness, you will see that we are and always will be part of that One. Everything everyone does is to and for the One whether they know it or not.”

McLaughlin believes his Northern Lights date may take Milwaukee fans closer to the One. In addition to cuts from the new CD, the guitarist will dip into the past for Mahavishnu Orchestra numbers, as well as cuts from Floating Point, Industrial Zen and other recordings. He’s confident that listeners will be able to travel with him, if only for a short while, on what has become a lifetime musical and spiritual journey.

John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension plays the Potawatomi Bingo Casino on Thursday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m.


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