“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, but reading musical biography and narrative does tell you about a wealth of music that you may not have found otherwise. Therefore, is it always necessary to not know about a music before you can get something out of reading about it? Specifically what do two books presenting personal interpretations of John McLaughlin’s compositions have to offer to the likely already well-informed fan? Let’s see.
|Follow Your Heart: John McLaughlin, Song by Song by Walter Kolosky (Abstract Logix Books 2010). Available from Abstract Logix.||John McLaughlin: The Emerald Beyond by Ken Trethewey (Jazz-Fusion Books 2008). Available from Amazon.|
You wait for years for a book about John McLaughlin and then three come along at (almost) the same time. First there was Kolosky’s “Power, Passion and Beauty – The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra” (Abstract Logix Books 2006), and now Ken Trethewey’s “The Emerald Beyond” and another from Kolosky, “Follow Your Heart”.
Trethewey’s “The Emerald Beyond” is not a biography, although there is a biographical section as an introduction, where some well-researched facts and recycled legends add interest. Otherwise, the rest of the book is the author’s opinion and interpretation of John McLaughlin’s music. There is nothing wrong with this premise, subjectivity accepted, and Trethewey goes some way in providing justification for his biases. To wit, there is a detailed analysis as far as styles, song structures and time signatures are concerned, but there is no comparative analysis and the material is limited by sticking entirely to official releases, when arguably a vital, parallel aspect of John McLaughlin’s music and musicianship has been its constant evolution through live performance.
In contrast, Kolosky benefits from his direct association with John McLaughlin, lending insight to his musical analysis and, where it lacks Trethewey’s technical detail, Kolosky focusses more on song history and the way various pieces have evolved. He is also, understandably given his position, on the whole more respectful and less critical. I think it is fair to say that, while Trethewey demonstrates a more constant understanding of, and interest in song structures and time signatures, Kolosky has a better grasp of style and genre, especially Indian classical forms, arguably essential for the analysis of John McLaughlin’s music.
That is not to state a preference, both are well written and make vital contributions, but not without fault. Indeed, Trethewey’s book does offer a bold and courageous perspective, but beyond minor factual errors, the major problem is that throughout, he uses Paul Stump’s error-ridden and previously dismissed “Go Ahead John” as a benchmark and sounding post, rather than sourcing the original articles.
Trethewey is not afraid to lay his cards on the table, even going as far as scoring a mark for each album: he very much favours the Mahavishnu Orchestra, its first lineup, while really disliking Tony William’s Lifetime, casts judgement on John McLaughlin’s dismissal of the Trio of Doom and presents only little understanding of John McLaughlin’s parallel musical activities in jazz, fusion and world genres, especially throughout the 70s. However, Trethewey’s apparent ignorance of Indian music, particularly konnakol, is a hindrance to his interpretation in places. Additionally, attributing “Sleep Easy Baby” (2006) by the pop-music producer of the same name to our John McLaughlin is totally unforgivable, and embarrassingly risible.
Of course, Kolosky shares Trethewey’s love of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, but is broadly more tolerant of other incarnations and lineups. Tastes do differ, and musical taste is largely subjective. Thus, rather than taking opinion to heart, perhaps the best outcome from reading this style of musical narrative is a renewed interest and intrigue in the music. Reading both books had my digging into my John McLaughlin collection, to listen once again to long-forgotten tracks, to check their measure against my own ears.
In conclusion, read both, and in parallel for the most comprehensive and insightful and technical analysis of John McLaughlin’s music, or a pleasant excuse to revisit it. In the absence of an autobiography, or even an authorized biography (both of which seem very unlikely), who could ask for more?