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John McLaughlin on the Mystery of Creativity, Inspiration, & Music

Alan Bryson By

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AAJ: It seems like some of the songs have a slow natural beat to them, but Ranjit Barot and Gary Husband play very fast within that framework, so it creates a kind of tension, because it is a slow beat, but they're playing really fast at the same time. It's like doing two things at once, and you seem to be tapping into the tension, and I think that makes for a very powerful approach.

JM Well you're actually very observant because on a lot of the pieces I set up a slow rhythm for one of the drummers, and I had the other drummer play either a third or a double on top of that. So in effect you have two different waves, the long slow wave underneath, like the ocean, and I really like the effect it has on me as a player. It's very stimulating because you have this wonderful—I don't know how to explain it—this long slow rhythm that's solid yet fluid and supports everything, and then you have this bubbling rhythm on top that's joyful. So you have this freedom to move between slow and middle tempo, and that's very liberating for me as a player.

I'm very impressed you noticed that, because most people simply think there's good drumming going on, which it is, because Ranjit and Gary are really amazing, and of course you must have heard Ranjit singing Konokkol.

AAJ: Right, right.

JM I'm really happy to get that in, because one of the tunes "Panditji" is an homage to Ravi Shankar. I was very fortunate to have been accepted as a series student by Panditji. I was in New York at that time, and when he would come to New York he would call me and I would go over to his hotel. And one day he said, "John, I'm going to teach you South Indian Konokkol, even though I'm a North Indian musician. What a blessing, and what an impact he had on me, as a human being, and as a musician.

This South Indian theory of Konokkol was really a revolution for me, you can communicate rhythm to each other—there's nothing like hearing someone like Ranjit, who is masterful at Konokkol, singing rhythm.

I'm very happy I was able to integrate that into this recording. We've been doing it for a while now on stage. The Konokkol and Gary's rhythm, they do it on the record actually, where Ranjit is singing some rhythmic compositions, and Gary listens to it and plays the same rhythm on the drums. There's wonderful communication between the two of them. I'm really thrilled that we were able to integrate this aspect of music into the album.

AAJ: John that really comes through, and I thought to myself you guys give fusion a new meaning. The group is so organically bound to each other, it's like a fusion of the musical minds. It really comes through.

JM Oh I'm really happy that you feel that Alan, because we fell it. When I say this is maybe the greatest band I've ever had, I'm not belittling other bands like Shakti or Mahavishnu Orchestra. I mean the first Mahavishnu Orchestra existed for two years. This particular formation with Ranjit, Etienne, and Gary, we've been together for over three years (now 5 and a half.) So when we get together we're just thrilled. Something happens, it's joyful to play together, and this gets into the music. So the music has got a kind of joyous feeling, and it's so marvelous for me to feel that as a player.

Of course, then to hear it after we've recorded it! Music is about the celebration of life, and the realization that we are all connected, we've been connected, and we can't help but be connected forever, even though we might not be aware of it. What music does, it reminds me in no uncertain terms, just how deeply connected we all are. It's marvelous, this is the power of music for me.

It becomes profoundly spiritual at the same time because these guys aren't just great players, they are also human beings who are participating with that viewpoint. It's not about being religious, I don't mean to bring religion into this, we're talking about the great spirit we're connected to. With this band, on a good night, on a good recording, I feel this sense of wonder for everything and everybody.

AAJ: It's fascinating that you said that, because there's a couple of questions that relate to that which I wanted to ask you. One is maybe a bit of a metaphysical question, but I notice as someone in the audience when the musicians really connect on stage, it seems like you can also feel the energy of the audience, like we're all connected in this experience too. It's like you can feel what is going on around you, maybe it's just my imagination, but it feels that way. So I wondered if you pick up on that when you are on stage?

JM When I go to a concert and the musicians come on stage, what I want them to do is to sweep me away into their world, to their life story, to their affections, to their joys and sorrows, so that I'm lost in their music. This is everything. If they can do that, that constitutes a great concert for me. It means the music is that good, not just that, but the complicity they have together, the love, affection, and admiration they have for each other, the ability to stimulate each other, to go beyond the normal mind and to to places they've never been before. I know that sounds like Captain Kirk on Star Trek, but it's true. (We both laugh)

So about the audience, I'm part of the audience just like everybody else when I got to a concert, and I'm sure they are all like me. They want to be caught by the music and transported out of themselves and into the musicians' world and into the musicians' music. They find themselves in a greater sense of the word. That's all I ever want when I go to a concert, that I lose myself in their music, and I'm sure most of the audience are looking for the same thing.

Why do we go to a concert, why do we want to see live music? We want that wonderful sense that we all belong together. Music has the power and the beauty to transport us out of our regular little world, and away into the music itself. The whole point of music, of playing, is to find a way to transcend ourselves, our mundane little "world" self, and find a big beautiful world that lies inside all of us. Music, if we're having a good night, you never know Alan, sometimes you have bad nights, you're fighting your own ignorance, your own instrument, but that itself is good. The fight is good. You're not fighting anyone, you're fighting your own ignorance. But then there are nights when we musicians become free, liberated, we're flying in the music. And the audience, they start flying with us, because they're in the music. I know because it happens to me, when the band is flying on stage, I'm flying with them.

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