Between Miles and Mahavishnu: John McLaughlin’s “Devotion”

John McLaughlin, guitarist extraordinaire, came to New York in 1969 at the behest of drummer Tony Williams to join his new group. He immediately found himself playing a record date with Williams’ former employer, Miles Davis on what was to be the seminal record, In A Silent Way.  He went on to play on a series of Miles records including the epic Bitches Brew. Between the Miles Davis recordings and the live reputation that Tony Williams’ group Lifetime was generating (that unfortunately was never captured on record), McLaughlin was making a name for himself as a guitarist to watch on the New York City scene. In 1970, while a member of Lifetime, McLaughlin signed a two record deal with producer Alan Douglas for $2,000 (ouch!). The first of these two records was Devotion, a record that I consider a overlooked landmark album and a personal favorite of mine.

Given McLaughlin’s jazz pedigree and his subsequent groundbreaking work with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, this record would be considered by most to be jazz-fusion but Devotion is McLaughlin’s “acid rock” record. Someone even once described it as jazz-grunge, a term I find apt. Backed by organist Larry Young, bassist Billy Rich and drummer Buddy Miles, the record definitely has a psychedelic vibe with a muddy, reverb heavy mix that won’t win any sound engineering awards. The music also has a messy looseness that would stand in contrast to the cleaner, more tightly constructed sound of The Mahavishnu Orchestra. But it’s that looseness that I find to be a good part of it’s appeal. Playing with rock guitar toys like fuzzboxes and wah-wah pedals, McLaughlin’s playing is less technically precise that his later work but is still on fire. The rhythm section is rock solid and fellow Lifetime bandmate Larry Young on Hammond B-3 organ plays bluesy psychedelic chord clusters that adds atmosphere and provide sonic contrast to McLaughlin. Also of note to fans of McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra is the appearance of several melodies that show up on later Mahavishnu records.

Devotion starts off with the title track. The song opens up with an ominous riff played by the guitar and bass in unison before another cool guitar riff enters on top. The tune then morphs into a two chord vamp with McLaughlin overdubbing two intertwining improvisations that weave in and out  with each other before segueing into Larry Young’s beautiful, other worldly organ solo. Also check out Billy Rich’s bass playing which is great throughout the whole record.

John McLaughlin – Devotion

The next two songs are the most riff-oriented. Dragon Song features McLaughlin tearing it up with wah-wah infused soloing over a heavy and hypnotic bass riff for much of the song. There is a definite Hendrix vibe to this which is not surprising since McLaughlin, Young and Buddy Miles had all played with Hendrix around this time.

John McLaughlin – Dragon Song

Marbles starts with 50’s sci-fi movie sounds which then give way to Buddy Miles playing a heavily echoed tribal rhythm. That sets up an absolutely killer riff which the group locks into, providing a groove for McLaughlin to solo over which he does like nobody’s business.

John McLaughlin – Marbles

To this day, McLaughlin is angry about the way former Hendrix producer Alan Douglas mixed this record and it is the one major downside to this album. There are numerous instances where I find McLaughlin’s solos are too buried in the mix and the use of post production tricks like reverb and phase shifting to be a little too much. Apparently, Douglas also spliced bits of music together here and there that were not supposed to be connected. Despite these flaws, this album is an over looked gem of early jazz fusion guitar.

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Posted in Improvisation, Jazz, Music Appreciation and Analysis

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