John McLaughlin: On The Road, Part 1: The Interview

John Kelman By

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You cannot get more personal than with music. But I've a personal philosophy that the more personal you get the more universal it actually becomes.
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It's been nearly a decade since legendary guitarist John McLaughlin toured North America with an electric fusion band. With a new group, The 4th Dimension, and a new label, Abstract Logix, McLaughlin will be hitting the road in September, 2007 for a series of dates that will take him coast-to-coast in the United States, with a handful of Canadian dates also booked.

All About Jazz Senior Editor John Kelman will follow McLaughlin and his outstanding group—keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband, young bassist Hadrien Feraud and drummer Mark Mondesir—as they converge for a series of rehearsals and their first gig at the Carolina Theater in Durham, North Carolina on September 13, 2007. AAJ's multi-part series will also include coverage of the final three dates of the tour, in Canada, beginning October 2 in Montreal. AAJ's extensive coverage will provide unprecedented insight into how a tour evolves, from inception to completion.

To set the stage for what's to come, John Kelman spoke at length with McLaughlin about the tour, the group, his relationship with Abstract Logix and the changing face of music and the music industry.

Leaving The Majors Behind

A changing landscape—where artists working in marginalized genres now receive little, if any, support from major labels—has caused many to rethink their approach to getting their music out to the public. McLaughlin, an intrepid explorer of new technologies as early as the mid-1970s, when he worked with one of the earliest guitar synthesizers, views this as an opportunity, rather than a challenge. "I'm a big fan of technology, I must admit," McLaughlin explains. "It's part of society. I can understand people who don't want to be tied up to the internet, don't want a mobile phone, and I admire that even. But personally, I think these inventions, these discoveries are wonderful. Of course they can be abused, but nevertheless it's part of the world, it's part of the way we communicate, and it's been radical in the transformation of the music industry, the music world.

"This is the birth of the small label, the new phenomenon, the marginal music. The big labels are going the way of the dodo as far as people like me are concerned, because I'm in the marginal side too, a little more known only because I've been around for a long time. But, nevertheless, the big record companies, they're dying. The writing was on the wall in the '70s, when blank cassettes passed seven billion dollars in one year; they [the record labels] should have known it was another aspect to how people could access music. And it was just as inevitable with the CD. Once Sony agreed to music being copied that opened the floodgates.

"But there are good sides and bad sides. On the bad side, for example, I left Universal in February, 2006, in the sense that I did not resign with them and my contract finally expired in February 2007, a year later. But I'm very happy not to be with this label anymore, and it's a shame, because I'm going to have to put records out my own way, but I'd much rather do it, because the labels are like my 360 guitar synthesizer system in the '70s, with six Minimoogs, one for each string—they're like an unwieldy elephant. It's like we're back to E.F. Schumacher, you know, 'Small is Beautiful.' You have to be fluid and spontaneous."

Abstract Logix began life as an online storefront for all things fusion and more in 2003. In the past couple of years, however, Abstract Logix's founder/president Souvik Dutta has begun transforming it into a bonafide record label, releasing two of 2006's best fusion discs—guitarist Alex Machacek's [sic] and keyboardist Scott Kinsey's Kinesthetics. Abstract Logix may be small, but it's remarkably ambitious, and did more to get the word out about Machacek and Kinsey than Universal did for McLaughlin's last record, the superb and stylistically assimilated Industrial Zen (Verve, 2006).

McLaughlin's relationship with Dutta goes back a few years. "It started a few years ago," says McLaughlin, "he came over [to Europe] about seven years ago on a Shakti tour, and he was selling records here in Europe, so I got to meet him. And then we [Shakti] did an American tour, must have been four years ago, and he was there. And I got to see how he worked and what kind of attitude he had.

"Four years ago we were planning the instructional DVD, This Is The Way I Do It (Mediastarz, 2004), and so we made some inquiries, because it's a box set—three DVDs, minimum five years work for your average guitarist. We contacted some distributors and they said 'Yeah, we'll distribute it and you'll get 40% and we'll take 60%,' and I said, 'Wait a minute, we just spent $175,000 on this production, what did you give? Nothing.' 'Yeah, well that's the way it is.' No it isn't. So we said 'No, we don't believe that, sorry, we'll see you later.'

"So, after having a number of these experiences I thought of Souvik and I said, 'Wait a minute, let's talk to Souvik, because he loves music so much, he's so into getting music out there, let's see if we can do it.' And we did, we made a deal with Souvik, and we haven't looked back and it's amazing, how well it continues to sell, and only on the internet."

Dutta and Abstract Logix are not only representing McLaughlin for his North American tour, they'll be releasing two new McLaughlin titles in the coming months. First, another instructional DVD called The Gateway To Rhythm, which explores Indian Konokol, a universal system of mastering rhythm without drums. McLaughlin has advocated this system since he formed Shakti over thirty years ago. The DVD, made in collaboration with Indian Konokol master/percussionist S. Ganesh Vinayakram, finds McLaughlin explaining and demonstrating, on guitar, the benefit of Konokol on his own work, in both composition and improvisation.

The Gateway To Rhythm will be followed, in early 2008, with a new album featuring The 4th Dimension and other players, McLaughlin's follow-up to Industrial Zen. Dutta has been working overtime to promote his new, formalized relationship with McLaughlin and the fruits of his efforts are already being seen, with significantly more interest in McLaughlin in North America than he's seen in many years. It's about time.

On The State Of Music Today

McLaughlin has always been an artist looking to break down boundaries in music. From early innovations like the jazz/rock fusion of Mahavishnu Orchestra and Indo/jazz fusion of Shakti through to the stylistically integrated Industrial Zen, he's cut a broad swath across contemporary music since his first album as a leader, Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969). He was a key member of Miles Davis' first forays into electric music, from In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) to A Tribute To Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970) and On The Corner (Columbia, 1972).

He's found a nexus point where high energy electric music and symphony orchestra can meet, translated the music of Bill Evans into repertory for himself and a quartet of classical guitarists, expanded the guitar/organ/drums trio numerous times, and explored new approaches to flamenco music with Paco de Lucia. And that's only a small sampling of his view that music is a large continuum where everything and anything can and should coexist.

In response to the countless genres and subgenres of music that seem to be endlessly searching for ways to categorize the unclassifiable, McLaughlin says, "I think compartmentalized styles were an invention of the record industry, they're really for marketing. Of course there are people who don't want to listen to jazz—fusion or bebop or neo-bebop or free jazz, whichever you choose—but there are people who don't want to listen to Beethoven or Bach or Mozart. But I believe, particularly with what's been going on for more than a few years now with what they call world music, that people have embraced music in a global sense and they tend to discriminate more simply between what's good and what's not good. Or not so good, as all music is good in a sense, though there is some badly performed music.

"The lines are being blurred, certainly from the classical point of view. I have many classical musician friends and they all just want to improvise and, of course, they've never had the opportunity to, or they don't have the training. But they would give their back teeth to improvise, it's amazing.

"Over the last fifteen years I've been somewhat disenchanted with what's coming out of the jazz world. I know we don't like to make comparisons, but nevertheless I have to, the comparisons are there all the time. When I think of the '60s, I think of the fabulous innovations that came out—those shining, brilliant minds and hearts and souls coming out and expressing themselves in music. If you ask me, pure jazz was crystallized with Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959).

"I'm not a big fan of what they call smooth jazz, simply because it seems too plastic for me. So I found myself, twelve or thirteen years ago, looking into the underground, and a lot of what you hear with these young guys, what they're doing with these underground records, is basically noise, but it's very interesting. Because what is noise? In a way, if you have the right perspective everything is musical. People don't walk, they dance; and they don't speak, they sing, depending on what state of mind they're in.

"What you can call the art of noise is, I think, an aspect of music that I began to explore with Industrial Zen, but I would like to continue looking at. Certain sounds that you would not normally call musical sounds, when used in a particular way, evoke a reaction that can only be called musical. A kind of emotive reaction, and this is really interesting for me as a musician and as a composer. I write tunes, but it's the concept of tunes. One of the things I learned from Miles and Wayne [Shorter] about the conception of form, and this is something that's always fascinated me, is that to arrive at a particular concept is really, really interesting. It's like a painter who suddenly discovers a new kind of way.

"For me, it's about musical influences plus cultural influences. For me, you could say that includes R&B, funk, hard rock and heavy metal, because I grew up with all of it, they're all inside me, they're all buzzing around. And this is something that I would hope never to lose. We become not obsessed, but as a musician I find myself exploring particular mines, like say a harmonic mine, and I'll spend time—and I don't know how much time, sometimes it can be a year, sometimes it can be three years—exploring a particular kind of harmonic, which I'm trying to express in a melodic way.

"To improvise while moving out into harmonic extensions is part of my life, it's part of my way, and I would do it even with Shakti, I would really take it out sometimes. But nevertheless I'd like to do it with keyboards and drums and bass guitar because this is my tradition.
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