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Walter Kolosky: Affairs of the Heart

By Published: April 9, 2011
WK: What's difficult for people who hear the Mahavishnu Orchestra's music for the first time today is to realize just how powerful and how jarring that music was at that time. There was nothing else to compare it to. It amazes me when I hear a young musician saying: "I'm surprised how sloppy the guitar playing is." I start laughing because the guitar playing at that time was miles beyond anything that was happening and it wasn't processed through all these tuning machines and everything else they use nowadays. In fact, part of the charm was that a lot of the music was so raw. In retrospect and in comparison to anything else it was anything but sloppy; it was the opposite. One of the things I hope the book can do—and it's the reason it was written chronologically—is that if you're able to listen to some of the early music that John did as leader, starting with Extrapolation and listening all the way through to 40 years later, even though he started at a very high level you still get to hear the growth of that musician. You have an insight into his vocabulary. Rock has informed it. Jazz has informed it. Indian music and the blues have informed it, creating the musician you hear today. I would argue the music he's playing today is as jarring, in its own way, as the music was back then. This is the continual evolution of a musician.

From left: John McLaughlin, Bill Evans

AAJ: One recording which you decided against including in the book is the only film soundtrack that McLaughlin has composed for the film Molom (Verve, 1995); why did you not include that?

WK: I decided to include albums where John McLaughlin was the leader, and that was not a John McLaughlin album. That was a soundtrack album, and a lot of the music on it has nothing to do with John McLaughlin. That being said, it's a very worthwhile album and it includes a lot of the themes from his own music. Even the music which is not McLaughlin's, the Mongolian folk songs, are very interesting and enjoyable.

AAJ: One quotation from John McLaughlin, which appears in your book is: "less is more." Do you think his playing has become more economical in his later years?

WK: That's a difficult question; if the question is does he play fewer notes, then I think he does not play fewer notes. However, the songs are shorter, so in that sense, maybe so. I've always made the point, and I put it forth in this book, that people who dismiss McLaughlin because they think he can just play fast are missing the point; not only can he play so fast with melodic intent, which is extremely difficult, but he often plays very slowly. But for some reason people ignore this slow playing. He plays beautiful slow ballads like "Nostalgia." The brilliant "Sanctuary" from Birds of Fire is painstakingly slow. You ignore these tunes at your own risk.

AAJ: Yes, and I think you go to some pains in Follow Your Heart to point out all the beautiful ballads and impressionistic pieces that McLaughlin has written throughout his career. What do you expect from John McLaughlin in the years to come? Do you expect any more surprises?

WK: One should always expect the unexpected from John. As I said in the book you can always count on John to throw a curve ball. The question is if you know he's going to do that how unexpected is it? [laughs] Throughout his whole career—and I think this important, though John might not agree—but I think it's true as a listener you have to work to be a John McLaughlin fan. He never lets you become too comfortable. As soon as you get used to one style or approach, he'll change it. He'd start playing something with commercial appeal and then the very next album he'd get away from it. It was very frustrating for a while. It's like one of those rollercoaster rides where you become inverted from time to time and you just never know where the next turn will take you, but you can't get off. It's almost a chase of the cars ahead of you, isn't it?

AAJ: Why did you choose Follow Your Heart as the book's title?

WK: I think most people would have named the book after a more famous McLaughlin tune, but I chose "Follow Your Heart" for several reasons: one, this is the one tune that John McLaughlin has written that I think should be a jazz standard, and I am happy to see more people are covering this tune. It's not the easiest music to play as it has an odd time signature, yet despite that it's very accessible, and in the end that's what I want people to understand about John's music and not to be afraid of it. There are people who would run out of the room if you played some of John's fusion music, probably feeling personally assaulted, but here's a song, "Follow Your Heart" which couldn't be more gentle, more touching or more accessible.

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