Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Great Guitar Solos #4: Mahavishnu Orchestra, "Miles Beyond" (John McLaughlin)

Available On: Birds Of Fire (1973)
Solo Bits: 3:17-4:03

About a year ago, I took a class on jazz improvisation with the hopes of immersing myself in one area of music that I found myself extremely lacking. It turned out that there are just some people that aren't meant to play jazz, at least in the sense that we were expected to play it, which would be to play only notes that fit the scale of the chord sign, or to play solos with proper "swing" patterns. These were things I had a difficult time doing. I believe part of my problem was the expectation I had going into the class: I wanted to play jazz like a fusion player, as opposed to anything else, and I wanted to learn in particular how to improvise something wild and off-kilter like what John McLaughlin does on the Mahavishnu Orchestra classic "Miles Beyond."

For those not familiar, John McLaughlin has quite a pedigree, as far as both jazz and rock are concerned. First appearing on the scene as the guitar prodigy in Tony Williams' Lifetime, he is of course most famous for being scouted by Miles Davis, an eerily prescient judge of young talent, and then appearing on his landmark albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Both albums showed that McLaughlin, among all Davis' musicians, was particularly receptive to Davis' new electric fusion style, so much so that there is even a song on Bitches Brew called "John McLaughlin," where he deftly plays against the weird keyboard stabs and funk rhythms.

Like many jazz musicians, Davis was always finding himself in new groups, and eventually McLaughlin left to go do other things. Among his better and more commercially successful ventures was the fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra, a supergroup which consisted of McLaughlin, Jan Hammer on keyboards, Billy Cobham on drums, Rick Laird on bass, and Jerry Goodman on violin. Inspired by Hendrix and other psychedelic rock musicians, the group made experimental jazz that was commercially palatable due in part to the tunefulness of the songs, as well as the flashiness of the instrumentalists. They released two albums, The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds on Fire, and then lineup drama ensued.

These two albums are benchmark fusion releases and probably my favorite albums to come out of the whole scene, although I admit I'm fairly lacking in jazz fusion knowledge. If you want a fusion album that still has the muscular, riffy electric guitar playing so beloved by rock fans, Birds on Fire is a good place to start. The music is tense and the playing is showy, but never less than interesting, and some of the songs are simply good even without the wanking.

One of those songs is "Miles Beyond," a tune written by McLaughlin obviously meant to honor his former bandleader. The tune pays homage to Davis' cool-jazz style, but the stop-start dynamics are straight out of rock music. It's basically based off an awesome, devious sort of keyboard lick, off which McLaughlin and Goodman coerce strange noises out of their instruments and each trade teriffic solos.

One important aspect of a solo is how the instrumentalists choose to lead up to it. "Miles Beyond" contains not only a guitar solo but a violin solo, and it's useful to compare the two. The violin solo, done without the use of a bow, displays a lot of deft fingerwork but is played very gently, with minimal instrumental accompaniment. The solo builds up tension just in time for a breakdown, with lots of really out playing by Cobham. It's during this breakdown that the song sounds like it's coming apart--Cobham is flailing, Goodman and McLaughlin are playing squeaky one-note lead lines that sound on the verge of collapse, and then--two snare hits from Cobham and McLaughlin takes off, attacking one note like a bullet and alternating it with what sounds like shrieks or sirens.

McLaughlin is playing what sounds like a lot of 16th notes here, and it's worth noting how Cobham tries to play along with McLaughlin rather than keep rhythm for the rest of the band. The result is extreme intensity, especially for someone like me who is so used to drummers keeping the beat while other members of the band solo. It works extremely well. McLaughlin pulls out a few dive bombs, driving home the speed of his picking rather than the amount of notes that he's playing, then cycling through a few recovery lines that serve to embellish the lead. Towards the end of the solo, McLaughlin slows down as he moves to the top of the neck, playing faster yet again but then ending with a series of staccatto single notes, all the way up to the top of the neck. Then he ends with a burst of rawk lead-playing, and goes back into the lead riff with Goodman.

This is unbelievably tense stuff. The way McLaughlin plays doesn't seem that hard at first, nor does it seem particularly "jazzy," given the amount of distortion and the way he liberally bends the pitches. Still, it shows a remarkable amount of good sense on his part, to break away from the common jazz equation of speedy lead lines separated by clear phrases. He plays like a rock player does, really. Not like Jimi Hendrix, whose playing reportedly made McLaughlin consider doing more rock-oriented stuff, but maybe like Jimmy Page. Surely, what the two had in common was a sense of rhythm so deft that they could make any pattern of notes sound novel. As well as the preference for instruments with multiple necks.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review man, I am trying to find the best John Mclaughlin electric guitar stuff to listen to.This is a good one. He has such a varied output it can be hard finding the stuff that some rock metalheads rave about in regards to John. ZCheers