John McLaughlin: Risk, Magic And Mystery
It seems, in a sense, that McLaughlin has been waiting for all these musicians to join him, and the enthusiasm with which he talks of this band suggests that, like Shakti, the 4th Dimension is here for the longer term. The 4th Dimensionlike Shakti and the Mahavishnu Orchestracan perhaps be seen as a vehicle for McLaughlin's music, regardless of changes in personnel. For McLaughlin, the similarities between the groups are fundamental: "I have a global view of the groups I work in, and that applies to all of the groups. My view of Shakti is not much different from my global view of the 4th Dimension, and one of the principal reasons, of course, is because Indian music integrates improvisation to the same extent as jazz music does.
"The forms are different, and they're coming from different cultures, but whether we sit down or whether we stand to play together, what happens? We have pieces that have been arranged, orchestrated if you will, to allow the maximum opportunity for each musician to shine individually and collectively. What I go forand I'm sure all the musicians go forevery time we play is to have a collective experience in which it's all spontaneous; music becomes really quite magical at that point. The marvelous thing about improvisation is the allowance of spontaneity to come in, which is such an important element in music, and such an important element in life, because in spontaneity we can only be ourselves. We are being absolutely honest at that moment, and it's really the only moment we have."
Improvisation and spontaneity are themes that McLaughlin returns to again and again in conversation about music, and no wonder, as the thrill of this domain has been the guitarist's holy grail for his entire career. "When we go on stage, with either Shakti or the 4th Dimension, we know the tunes, we know the arrangements, but what happens in the middle we don't know. That's really what makes it so exciting," affirms McLaughlin. "We don't know really what's going to happen; you can go on stage feeling great, but in the end you don't play anything, and you can go on stage feeling tired, and you can play like a God. It's very mysterious."
Mysterious and magical are apt words to describe any McLaughlin group on a good night, but it's really about being prepared, as McLaughlin relates: "The whole point of working and practicing your whole life is so that you're ready when that moment arrives; when the inspiration arrives, you are ready to be at the disposal of inspiration."
McLaughlin is clearly very pleased with the 4th Dimension's second studio recording, Now Here This, and the autumn tour: "The band is really together, and I'm really thrilled with it," he says. The 4th Dimension's autumn tour took it all over Western Europe, Scandinavia and Russia, and McLaughlin describes the concerts as a great success: "There's a kind of collective joy in the band, and this is what the people can feel. They can feel what we experience through the music, and this is the great power of music."
In the past, McLaughlin has spoken of the elusiveness of truly great nights with his touring bands, but things are obviously improving: "The percentage has gone up with this band, I have to tell you. We had some fantastic nights, really extraordinary." McLaughlin talks of the band's criteria in terms of collective spontaneity, integrity and freedom and, importantly, love. "You love the notes, you love the music, you love the people you're with," McLaughlin says. "You're happy just to play your instrument and to have the opportunity to play for people. All of these emotions come into the music."
Not every night can reach the heights, McLaughlin admits, though there are always positives to take away: "Even on a bad night some interesting things happen," he affirms. "I'm a great believer in bad nights because I think it's in the bad nights where we make the most progress, strangely enough."
The 4th dimension's autumn European tour shuffled a set list that promoted material both old and from Now Here This, but there were two numbers that were featured at every concert: saxophonist John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders' "Light at the end of the World." Coltrane's influence on McLaughlin has been well documented, Sanders' perhaps less so. "He was a very important figure to me," says McLaughlin. "Pharaoh, to me, is a very special human being, and this piece is just a delight to play. I only knew Pharaoh because he recorded with Coltrane; that's how I discovered him, and he had an impact on me right away."
As McLaughlin's extensive and diverse body of music demonstrates, his ears are open to all music: "I've been influenced by people, like [saxophonists] Sonny Rollins and Rahsaan Roland Kirk; I've had so many influences. And don't forget, I grew up with R&B, funk and rock, too, and they're all part of me, too. They all find their way in my music, somehow. Sometimes it's more noticeable and sometimes less. For example, there's one tune on Now Here This, 'Echoes from Then,' and that is out of the Mahavishnu book. It could have been played by that band."