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Interviews

A Conversation with John McLaughlin

By Published: October 17, 2003
Trying to classify guitarist and composer John McLaughlin's music is like trying to grab a handful of mercury. McLaughlin himself is fond of pointing out that words can't describe music anyway. Music must be experienced. For over forty years McLaughlin's compositions and unparalleled guitar playing have helped us experience blues, rock, jazz, jazz-rock fusion, Indian ragas and classical forms one at a time or co-mingled — as only he can present them. His music may not be describable, but like mercury, it is one of the great wonders of the world.

There is a wise business adage that goes something like this: "It is one thing to know how to build a company, but the most successful business people are the ones who know how to take one apart." This maxim simply suggests that those who understand how to dissemble and re-align the basic components of the whole are those who will succeed. This analogy also describes the true magic of John McLaughlin and his music. He has a stronghold on the true fundamentals of the simplicity of music. He has usurped music's technical and emotional building blocks to create great architecture. He is a master builder.

He laid the foundation in his younger days that led to him eventually play with Graham Bond, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. He built the first floor by helping to lead musical revolutions with Tony Williams and Miles Davis. His incomparable Mahavishnu Orchestra constructed the staircase to the second level which housed his Indo-jazz Shakti and his acoustic outings with Paco DeLucia and Al DiMeola. Another wing was added as he experimented with the new musical technology of the guitar synthesizer and wrote classical guitar concertos. In recent years, along with musical brother Zakir Hussain, he has helped to renovate the second floor with the electric Remember Shakti. Funny thing about this building that Mclaughlin is constructing, though. It has no roof.

John McLaughlin has produced another remarkable album for Verve entitled Thieves and Poets. While not jazz in its truest sense, improvisation comes as a breeze though some of the open windows of McLaughlin's musical edifice. McLaughlin recorded the piece with acoustic guitar and symphony orchestra. It is broad in scope but quite thematic. Also featured are four acoustic guitar pieces McLaughlin performs with the Aighetta Guitar Quartet dedicated to musical influences. For this outing he pays homage to four pianists and friends who have influenced McLaughlin both in music and in life. They are Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

For McLaughlin fans this has been a year of great bounty. In addition to the new CD and other interesting things on their way, McLaughlin is on the new Miroslav Vitous release featuring the fusion bassist, Jack DeJohnette and Chick Corea. This year has also seen the re-release of legendary McLaughlin performances from Miles Davis' Tribute to Jack Johnson album that features many before unheard takes. Also just released and re-mastered with extra cuts is the album McLaughlin recorded with his good friend Carlos Santana, Love Devotion and Surrender. And if these riches were not enough, McLaughlin's collaboration on the tune "Flame Sky", along with Carlos once again, is seeing the light of day with the reissue of Santana's "Welcome."

Recently while on another very successful U.S. tour with Remember Shakti, McLaughlin spoke to AAJ about his new album and about other things that especially interested AAJ's interviewer. While McLaughlin is clearly a musical genius and can talk in great depth about many topics, one can not have a conversation with him without realizing that at heart, he is a very down-to-earth guy.

AAJ: Film Director Steven Spielberg was in the audience at a recent Remember Shakti show. His presence reminds me of the wonderful soundtrack recording you did for the European movie Molom a few years back. Have you been approached to score any other movies?

JM: Yes, its funny you should ask that. After our Vancouver show backstage in jumped a couple of really famous people that told us they were interested in having Shakti do the music for their next movie. It was very sweet and complimentary. There has been talk about another movie as well. But, you know these things are always are up in the air. In Houston, a scientist came up after the show and he said "Unbelievable. Can you do the music? I am making a movie about sub-atomic particles." [Laughing.] Well, I would love to do the music for sub-atomic particles. It was fantastic. It was so touching.

AAJ: Speaking of Remember Shakti...

JM: Yes, the current tour has gone phenomenally well. It's almost too much sometimes... I don't know... you can never have too much applause Walter. The reaction from the people, I don't know. It's wonderful.

AAJ: Sometimes you just don't question things, John.

JM: This is true. This is true.

AAJ: I know you tried to go hear the Mahavishnu Project perform in New York recently- but that you couldn't quite make it happen. Can you share your feelings that music you have written over the years is being interpreted not just by the Mahavishnu Project, but by many others... such as Doves of Fire, England's Wild Strings Quartet, The Groningen Guitar Duo, Bassist Lucas Pickford... and of course there's Gary Husband's upcoming tribute...

JM: Yes, Gary what a sweetheart. It's all very flattering. If I was younger I would probably have more to say... but, I am in my 60's now, Walter... I am very appreciative, don't get me wrong.

AAJ: What is exciting is that when you go out to hear this music, there are a lot of young people there.

JM: It's very encouraging because particularly in the U.S. there's been this peculiar derogatory aroma around fusion music. I was there at the beginning of jazz fusion. To see this kind of stain or slur start to disappear is very encouraging. This negativity is a U.S. phenomenon. You don't have this type of stigma to fusion music in Europe. What I really and truly want for all of these musicians is for everybody to be themselves. I have heard the Mahavishnu Project and they are outstanding players, but I also want to know who they are...

AAJ: Yes. The Project players do their own things as well.

JM: Yes, I know. Gregg told me. [Drummer Gregg Bendian leads the Mahavishnu Project.]

AAJ: I have seen Gregg in different formats. He is a monster.

JM: I know he is. He is unbelievable! He's got a jazz trio too. He can play those drums. He is wonderful. It was a great pleasure to meet him.

AAJ: I am fascinated with the cover of your new album, Thieves and Poets. Is that your dog? Does he like fusion music?

JM: Yeah, that's my dog. No he doesn't like fusion either. [Laughs.] He wants to be up on the chair all the time and he wants to cuddle all the time.

AAJ: What's his name?

JM: Skip. He's a very soulful dog.

AAJ: I can see that. The other thing I see on the cover is that guitar. If I am not mistaken, that is the guitar known as "Our Lady" that was made for you ten years ago by Abe Wechter. Your fans have been waiting a decade to hear it on a recording.

JM: Yes it sounds gorgeous. [To see detailed images, visit www.wechterguitars.com/custom .]

AAJ: We?ll get back to that cover and the new album itself later on. In addition to Thieves and Poets , you have two very exciting projects coming out soon. First there is your Guitar Instructional DVD. How did this project come about?

JM: First of all, I have done quite a few master classes. I have been playing guitar my whole life. I know what problems can confront the enthusiastic guitar student. I've seen some guitar instructional videos and they are pretty lame, Walter.

AAJ: You have to rewind...

JM: Yes, that's it. The medium is all wrong. I have seen one I think is of some value from John Scofield. And there have been some great people out there like Eric Johnson and Scott Henderson. My solution is to address the problem. Principally, the young student doesn't know how to work effectively alone. If some guy in Frozen Sneakers, Idaho is passionate and wants to really learn to improvise, this is going to help him. But it will also help someone who lives in New York City or South East Asia where a player may have no access to a teacher. The DVD will be in six different languages. The other problem with video is yes, sometimes you can get a split screen- but never any notation. Everything I play has a score or notation video that is in sync. And I think it really works well.

AAJ: When do you expect it to come out?

JM: Well, it is not one DVD. It is three. It is everything I have in my pumpkin, Walter. The DVDs go from absolute beginner to very advanced. The last two chapters are called 'tough Tunes.? I go through analysis of my own improvisations with a score on a big screen and I stop and explain things. But there is one point at the end I start laughing because it is so crazy. I am coming at a thousand miles an hour with these complicated chord sequences and I say "hey if anybody can get this, I'll hire them." After you finish this course, you can play, believe me.

[Note from author: At this point a very proud and excited John McLaughlin started to give me the rundown of each chapter of the DVDs in painstaking detail. I listened patiently for five minutes.]

AAJ: John, I am going to have to interrupt you because you are going to use up the rest of my tape and there are other things we need to discuss.

JM: Yes, yes I know I get carried away with it. It should be out in January. Nothing exists like this anywhere. I think it can be very useful.

AAJ: Also due out is a box set of your Montreux Jazz Festival performances from the past 30 years.

JM: How about that, huh?

AAJ: What's on that, John?

JM: Wow. We don't have the first Mahavishnu Orchestra because it wasn't recorded. But the second Mahavishnu is there. There are things with me and Paco [De Lucia]. There are things with Chick [Corea]. There is the One Truth Band with Sonship on drums and T.M. Stevens on bass.

AAJ: The first One Truth Band.

JM: Yes, yes. It is amazing - a great night.

AAJ: Do you know how many CDs there will be in the set?

JM: About 20. [Laughs.] Hey, 30 years is a long time Walter.

AAJ: Releases like these are ?manna from heaven? to your fans just like the recent Miles Davis? Tribute to Jack Johnson box set.

JM: Yeah, how about that. I knew it was Miles? favorite record which blew my mind.

AAJ: Have you heard any of this material?

JM: No, no. I have had no time to do anything. I am very much behind in my own listening.

AAJ: We've really been blessed with all of this McLaughlin music that has come out this year ? and there is more to come.

JM: No, you know what I figure? They?ll wait until I die then all of the...

AAJ: Yes, we will feed on your carcass. That actually brings something up. Fans know that you have a private collection of music. I think much of it is shown on the shelves of your study on the new album cover. I know there is no such thing as having time... but do you have plans to go through that collection and cull material that you deem worthy for release to the public? We know you have this amazing stuff...

JM: I have a concert from Cleveland in 1971. I have to give some type of order to these tapes. I have got Mahavishu I and II and Mahavishnu from 85 or 86. I have great video of the Free Spirits. I just don't know. I don't know who owns the rights for some of these things. Next year...

AAJ: So basically, you are saying you can't make any promises, but you have an interest in trying to do this in the future. Is that fair to say?

JM: Oh, yeah. I mean if I have recordings that are up to par.

AAJ: Thieves and Poets features guitar and orchestra [I Pommeriggi Musicali di Milano] in 3 parts, representing the Old World, the New World and the unification of these musical worlds. You have captured these concepts beautifully. This is especially so in part 3 in which not only are the influences of your own output over the years... but also the influences of others can be heard. While I hear Belo Horizonte, Shakti and a myriad of your own musical periods, I am also reminded, in part 3, of the structure of West Side Story...

JM: It's not intentional. Definitely not intentional. Lennie Bernstein was a great composer. There is one section I know I heard it and I said to myself why does it sound like Bernstein? I don't want to sound like Bernstein. But it came out like that.

AAJ: You have some amazing soloists on Thieves and Poets how did these collaborations come about?

JM: I've known them for quite a long time. I am part of their greatest admirers. I remember seeing Viktoria [Mullova, violinist] play seven or eight years ago. She is absolutely amazing.

AAJ: You've also recorded four stellar standards with the Aighetta Guitar Quartet who you recorded the Bill Evans Tribute album with 10 years ago... "My Foolish Heart" has been in your repertoire for many years...

JM: I like this version though.

AAJ: Yes, it is beautiful. This time around you use less reverb in the recording of these pieces.

JM: Yes, I do. I like that. Maybe as I get older I like less reverb.

AAJ: I would be remiss if I didn't ask about a couple of rumors that are flying around the Internet. John, there is talk that you are going underground for your next record and that you believe that the results will freak people out.

JM: Yes, this is definitely true. This has been buzzing around in my brain for at least three to four years. This is the record where the jazz critics will crucify me.

AAJ: Sometimes that's good...

JM: And they can do it with great pleasure. No, no I am not serious. But I am serious about going and breaking all the forms I've ever used or even invented and take it from square one but from a whole other viewpoint. [With criminal intent in his voice.] I am definitely going underground, Walter.

AAJ: The rumor continues that you will be recording with Carlos [Santana] again. Is that on this record or is that something else?

JM: No, there is one tune (for this album) I wrote for him already that he wants to do. You know we had a great jam last year in Switzerland.

AAJ: Yeah, Dennis Chambers was with him.

JM: Yes. And recently Carlos invited me to play with him on stage through a newspaper article. He asked the reporter to write, "Please, John, come and play with me." It was so sweet. Problem was I was leaving from Nice on Saturday morning and he was playing on Friday night. I just wouldn't be able to come back down to make my plane to Colorado.

AAJ: John, as a fan of very longstanding, I would like to thank you for the musical journey you are leading thousands of us on. It's been a long road, but it has always been an interesting and unpredictable trip and we are all looking forward to seeing what is around the next turn.

JM: Me too. Me too.


At this point, the official AAJ interview ended and I proceeded to tell McLaughlin about the time I had met him several years ago and how my wife, whom I still love dearly, took some photographs of my lifelong musical hero, John McLaughlin, and me. Upon developing the film, I was horrified to see that I was, side by side with a legend — and both he and I were headless! My wife's aim had been a little off. McLaughlin suggested that I put a couple of potato heads with little eyes and ears in place of our missing faces. As I said earlier, the man may be a genius, but he is down-to-earth. You don't get more down-to-earth than potato jokes. In fact, that is really going underground. Isn't it?



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