John McLaughlin: His Goals Beyond
"What I learned from him, either in the studio or on stage, was simply amazing. He was Picasso in jazz music. If you want to go into painting, I would go so far as to say that Kind of Blue would be the Gioconda [Mona Lisa] of jazz, he intones. "I will never be able to pay my debt to Miles, honestly speaking; he did so much for me. I know he did so much for many people. But for me personally, not just brought me to the public eye, the public ear, he actually physically allowed me to survive in the early days in New York.
The history of McLaughlin with Miles Davis is well known by now: introduced to Miles by Tony Williams and then appearances on some of the most important jazz documents of the late 1960s and early 1970s, albums like In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969), Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969), A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970) and On The Corner (Columbia, 1972), itself soon to receive the box set treatment.
"He'd always find me, I don't know how he did it...the same thing happened with On The Corner. I was in New York and he found where I was, and I still don't know how he found out, found out what hotel I was in, what room I was in and he called me. And on the particular recording, it was the evening but he wanted to record then. I didn't even have a guitar with me. He said, 'Don't worry, I've got a guitar.' [laughs]. Some cockamamie guitar he had, weird electric. But I didn't care. Miles would call, I'd go. It was like that with Miles. I loved him so much I would have played bass for him and I don't play bass. And he was doing this jazz-rock kind of thing but he invented the genre didn't he? I mean Bitches Brew? Before Mahavishnu by a long time. Emergency (Polydor, 1969) with Tony. We came after that. Miles he was the real innovator in terms of form and conception.
Heady days indeed. So exhilarating in fact that, to return to an earlier topic, McLaughlin is unsurprised about living in the Age of Reissue, though his perspective is two-sided. "It's kind of strange but it's very understandable from two points of view. One: the general public has this nostalgia of the world that was in the end of '60s and the beginning of the '70s. And second, the record companies are going the way of the Dodo. So what are they going to do? Are they going to hire new musicians, produce innovative new records? Of course they're not. They don't have the money anymore. Well, they have the money but they don't want to spend it because they're losing money, they've been losing money for a long time because of the internet, piracy, CD copying, you name it, these are all elements that are causing the downfall of record companies. So what do they do? They capitalize on the nostalgia that the people are feeling and bring out new releases that allows them to recycle, make more money without any kind of overhead. So the two go together. So for the time being, that's the way it is.
After Industrial Zen was released, McLaughlin did not renew his contract with Universal, ending a fifteen-year relationship. "I wanted out ... I make a record but they're not able to promote it. They'll only promote something that they know will make money... But I understand. They're under the heel of the accountants, the lawyers, the bottom-liners: how much money did you bring in? It's not like how much good music did you make? ... You cannot count on record sales anymore, I cannot anyway. So I don't, you just gotta go with the flow.
When he plays New York in September, 2007, he will feature a new band, the 4th Dimension, with keyboardist Gary Husband, bassist Feraud and drummer Mark Mondesir, a gig touted as "his first fusion band tour in ten years. Since disbanding his Heart of Things Band in the late 1990s, McLaughlin has been his usual peripatetic self, working with a reformed Shakti, recording an acoustic album with a symphony orchestra and chamber quartet (2003's Thieves and Poets, on Universal) and creating instructional DVDs that make use of his love of technology (available from Abstract Logix).
When asked why he has returned to "fusion, or if he even thinks of it as a return, McLaughlin states, in his impish way, "I'm most definitely into the electric mode I can tell you. I'm very excited because it's time. I just know it's time for me to do this now. It's like Thieves and Poets. In the middle of doing Shakti and other things, I suddenly said I have to do this acoustic album and I don't know why but it was just the right time and it was and I'm very happy with that recording. I don't know why things change like that; I guess it's just part of my makeup.