Walter Kolosky: Affairs of the Heart
WK: I am not. Obviously, he has the three piecesApocalypse (Columbia, 1974), The Mediterranean Concerto (CBC, 1988) and Thieves and Poets (Verve, 2003)but, in McLaughlin's own words, and he's said this many times: "I am not a classical musician nor do I want to be." The overriding issue there is his need to improvise and even in the classical albums he's done they're full of improvisation, which isn't the norm for classical music. Those three albums have classical leanings but, when you think about it, so do the Shakti albums, which are Indian classical.
AAJ: Drummer Greg Bendian says that he feels the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra should be considered as modern classical music, and Matt Haimovitz said he felt there is a Beethoven-ian quality to "A Meeting of the Spirits." Do you feel that there is a classical vein to McLaughlin's music, even though he doesn't consider himself to be a classical musician?
WK: I would have to since I wrote an article for All About Jazz, quite a few years ago, about the Mahavishnu Orchestra being the new classical music [laughs].
I absolutely believe so. I guess that article is a precursor to this book. But going from memory I believe the main thrust of it was the compositional aspect of this music and how it was suited to interpretation in many different ways. It's not just the Turtle Island Quartet and Matt Haimovitz, there's also the Radio String Quartet, the Wild Strings Quartet. I don't think this is surprising because many of McLaughlin's compositions are conducive to creative arrangements. Often when you hear a piece of his music you think: "Boy, it would be interesting to hear this played by a symphony orchestra or as a ballet score or as a movie soundtrack or as a big band number and on and on."
AAJ: Coming back to some of McLaughlin's influences and you quote him as saying how bassist Charles Mingus influenced his musical concepts; in what way would you say that Mingus has influenced McLaughlin?
WK: This is my educated guess because I didn't delve deeply into that with John, but it would probably be his approach to jazz and the blues via the whole post-bop movement that Mingus was a part of, along with Miles, Coltrane and others. I think it's also a question of attitude; McLaughlin has strong opinions, as did Mingus, about life and politics and I think that's part of Mingus' influence as well.
AAJ: McLaughlin has paid full album tribute to two of his major influences, pianist Bill Evans on Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans (Verve, 1993) and saxophonist John Coltrane on After the Rain (Verve, 1994) are you surprised that he hasn't done the same for Miles Davis?
WK: I think he has in a way, from Mahavishnu Orchestra to The One Truth Band, and even later in the '80s when there's been one or two tunes on an album that were basically for Miles Davis. There was also Miles From India (Times Square Records, 2008), which he was on. I may be putting words in John's mouth here but I think he would say that every album is a tribute to Miles.
AAJ: It also seems strange that in 40 years since he recorded with Miles Davis, only one McLaughlin composition has featured a trumpet (Joey DeFrancesco, on Tokyo Live (Verve, 1994)). It's striking that his is the only example of trumpet in McLaughlin's works, given the influence of Miles Davis.
WK: Save for Bob Knapp, in the second Mahavishnu Orchestra and symphony orchestra trumpeters, I believe Joey has been the only man with that horn on McLaughlin's recordings. The remarkable thing about Joey DeFrancesco is that he sounds just like Miles, and I'm sure when he first played for John he probably blew him away. Perhaps, just perhaps, McLaughlin's love of Davis' approach and sound has made him wary of other trumpet players. I am sure he would disagree, though.
AAJ: One theory which you put forward in the book is that in your opinion John McLaughlin's Guitar Trio ushered in the unplugged movement; what leads you to that conclusion?
WK: That's a controversial comment on my part, no doubt. It's an idea I've had in my mind since back in the day. When you read MTV's history of the unplugged movement nothing is mentioned about this. Back then in the late'70s, music was about electricity; I don't care which genre you were listening to, with the exception, of course, of classical music. To hear these players, specifically John and Al Di Meola, and to a much lesser degree Paco de Lucia who's always acoustic, to hear these electric fusion godswhich is what McLaughlin and Di Meola were at that timecome out and play purely acoustic music and garnering legions of rock fans; there's the key right there, these records went gold. Records started coming out that were acoustic across the board and it was shortly thereafter that the MTV unplugged thing started. It's my theory and I'm sticking to it.
AAJ: There may be some truth in it. Another thing that you remind readers of in your book is that the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1972) reached #15 in the Billboard pop album charts; would you agree that similar success would be unthinkable for such a fusion group today?