John McLaughlin: On The Road, Part 1: The Interview
McLaughlin has always been an artist looking to break down boundaries in music. From early innovations like the jazz/rock fusion of Mahavishnu Orchestra and Indo/jazz fusion of Shakti through to the stylistically integrated Industrial Zen, he's cut a broad swath across contemporary music since his first album as a leader, Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969). He was a key member of Miles Davis' first forays into electric music, from In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) to A Tribute To Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970) and On The Corner (Columbia, 1972).
He's found a nexus point where high energy electric music and symphony orchestra can meet, translated the music of Bill Evans into repertory for himself and a quartet of classical guitarists, expanded the guitar/organ/drums trio numerous times, and explored new approaches to flamenco music with Paco de Lucia. And that's only a small sampling of his view that music is a large continuum where everything and anything can and should coexist.
In response to the countless genres and subgenres of music that seem to be endlessly searching for ways to categorize the unclassifiable, McLaughlin says, "I think compartmentalized styles were an invention of the record industry, they're really for marketing. Of course there are people who don't want to listen to jazzfusion or bebop or neo-bebop or free jazz, whichever you choosebut there are people who don't want to listen to Beethoven or Bach or Mozart. But I believe, particularly with what's been going on for more than a few years now with what they call world music, that people have embraced music in a global sense and they tend to discriminate more simply between what's good and what's not good. Or not so good, as all music is good in a sense, though there is some badly performed music.
"The lines are being blurred, certainly from the classical point of view. I have many classical musician friends and they all just want to improvise and, of course, they've never had the opportunity to, or they don't have the training. But they would give their back teeth to improvise, it's amazing.
"Over the last fifteen years I've been somewhat disenchanted with what's coming out of the jazz world. I know we don't like to make comparisons, but nevertheless I have to, the comparisons are there all the time. When I think of the '60s, I think of the fabulous innovations that came outthose shining, brilliant minds and hearts and souls coming out and expressing themselves in music. If you ask me, pure jazz was crystallized with Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959).
"I'm not a big fan of what they call smooth jazz, simply because it seems too plastic for me. So I found myself, twelve or thirteen years ago, looking into the underground, and a lot of what you hear with these young guys, what they're doing with these underground records, is basically noise, but it's very interesting. Because what is noise? In a way, if you have the right perspective everything is musical. People don't walk, they dance; and they don't speak, they sing, depending on what state of mind they're in.
"What you can call the art of noise is, I think, an aspect of music that I began to explore with Industrial Zen, but I would like to continue looking at. Certain sounds that you would not normally call musical sounds, when used in a particular way, evoke a reaction that can only be called musical. A kind of emotive reaction, and this is really interesting for me as a musician and as a composer. I write tunes, but it's the concept of tunes. One of the things I learned from Miles and Wayne [Shorter] about the conception of form, and this is something that's always fascinated me, is that to arrive at a particular concept is really, really interesting. It's like a painter who suddenly discovers a new kind of way.
"For me, it's about musical influences plus cultural influences. For me, you could say that includes R&B, funk, hard rock and heavy metal, because I grew up with all of it, they're all inside me, they're all buzzing around. And this is something that I would hope never to lose. We become not obsessed, but as a musician I find myself exploring particular mines, like say a harmonic mine, and I'll spend timeand I don't know how much time, sometimes it can be a year, sometimes it can be three yearsexploring a particular kind of harmonic, which I'm trying to express in a melodic way.
"To improvise while moving out into harmonic extensions is part of my life, it's part of my way, and I would do it even with Shakti, I would really take it out sometimes. But nevertheless I'd like to do it with keyboards and drums and bass guitar because this is my tradition.
"I think this process of recapitulation is an ongoing process, as far as I'm concerned anyway, because I'm continually going backwards, not just to Mahavishnu days, but to the first record I heard from Miles, Milestones (Columbia, 1957). I've got that on my iPod and I listened to it today, it's outstanding, I mean wonderful. This is part of my tradition, part of my school, it's the way I think, the way I articulate; it's part of it. And the Hispanic side is a part of it too, the Indian side of it; the heavy metal is part of it too, rhythm and blues is a part of it. This is the integral part of it that is most accurately represented on Industrial Zen, which is a summation or synthesis of elements or influences from over the years.
"I think this is probably what goes on, not just on a conscious level but a subconscious level, because the things that have been influencing my musical directions to a high degree are quite numerousthere's a big handful. But the ideal, of course, is that, for example, when I listen to someone like Ravel and can hear the Hispanic influence, it's integrated, it's inside. It's not like he's putting some kind of pastiche on top of a Western chord, you can see that there's real love behind his integration of that particular aspect, that particular color in music. It's really the ideal for all musicians, myself included."
One of the defining characteristics of music in the 1960s and 1970s was that anything seemed possible, and there seemed to be a large audience for artists who were looking to find new ways to bring together what, at the time, appeared to be completely disparate styles. Punk in the late 1970s and the emergence of the neo-bop "young lions" movement sounded the death knell for styles like fusion, but in recent years it seems as though it's no longer a dirty word.
"In the New York Times," McLaughlin says, "sixteen or seventeen years ago, the opening statement from a NY Times jazz critic was, 'Thank God that pestilence known as fusion jazz is dead.' What a moron!
"I've been a little out of touch with what's been going on, especially because I just spent the last seven months in Indiawhich was wonderful. But I was, in a way, cut off from the mainstream. Which is not so bad, I kind of enjoyed that, just to be in another place. What amazes me, whether it's west or east, are the young musicians coming up who are really outstanding. This makes my heart warm, as they say, because on a recording I did in India, for example, I used all Indian musicians, but there was a rhythm section, all Indian musicians playing western instruments, who were just killing. But each piece featured one of the new young lions of India, playing a traditional instrument, but in a very western environment. Not western like 'Giant Steps,' they don't have the training; but I know how to set up some harmony where they can just go on their ragas and everything works out fine. Some of these young players are amazing, truly amazing, and are only in their early twenties.
"And back here it's the same, these young players. This bassist who's coming out with me, Hadrien Feraud, and this kid Ryan Cavanaugha banjo player I hooked up with [saxophonist] Bill [Evans]. An outstanding player, wonderful, yeah!
"Why did Miles love Europe so much? Because people recognized him for who he wasa great, great artist, not just a great musician. But traditionally Europe supports culturejazz or pop or fusion or other alternative forms of music are accepted as valid cultural currencies and are supported as such by the state, by the city, by the governments. Which is something that never really happened in the US. Even the symphony orchestras were supported to a large extent by GM or Ford, but there are quite a number of symphony orchestras that have gone bankrupt over the past fifteen to twenty years. The US government, in particular, does not deem it relevant to support cultural aspects, which I think is an error. But it's like every country, there's good and bad, you just have to go with the flow."