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John McLaughlin: Risk, Magic And Mystery


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Shortly after completing a successful European tour with the 4th Dimension, guitarist John McLaughlin has some time to put his well-traveled feet up at his home in Monaco and reflect on the evolution of this band, its second CD, Now Here This (Abstract Logix, 2012), and the mysteries of live performance. Yet, just two days before this phone interview took place, the great Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar passed away at the age of 92, and it seems more than appropriate to begin the interview by asking McLaughlin to share his thoughts on his former teacher, guru and friend.

Remembering Ravi Shankar

"I was very distraught, to tell you the truth," says McLaughlin. "I learned about it at 7:30 in the morning on the news. I knew he had been very sick, but I was very upset. I know he's in a better place, but nevertheless the sense of loss was very acute. It was a difficult day yesterday, but today is better. We learn to live with it. We're all here for a little space of time in this immense, unthinkably vast universe, and he did so many fantastic things and made so many people happy. He was a true bridge builder in every sense of the word—just a wonderful human being and a great inspiration."

McLaughlin recalls meeting Shankar for the first time in 1972 or 1973—his memory isn't clear precisely when—by which time McLaughlin was already a disciple of Indian spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy. "We would meet as the time went by," recalls McLaughlin, "and then from about 1975 he began to invite me to come by and see him every time he came to New York, where I was living at that time. He would call me, and I would go to his hotel and take him something, whatever he needed, you know, just to have the opportunity to be with him."

At Shankar's hotel, McLaughlin would sometimes run into Colin Walcott—former multi-instrumentalist of Oregon—whom McLaughlin describes as "a real disciple" of Shankar: "I was a kind of provisional student of his because I didn't play the sitar." McLaughlin remembers one particular visit with Shankar that would have a long- lasting influence: "After a while talking to me, he suddenly decided out of the blue that he was going to teach me South Indian music theory, known as konnakol. He was a Northern Indian musician, but he was so ahead of his time because even in the '60s it's clear that he had mastered the Southern Indian side of things, along with [tabla player] Alla Rakha, Zakir [Hussain]'s father."

For even the greatest Indian musicians to embrace both Northern and Southern schools of music was not common, as McLaughlin remembers from his very first foray to India. "The first time I went there, in the 1970s, you could see that there was a little bit of a schism between North India and South India, but here was one of the greatest North Indian musicians teaching me South Indian music theory; it was phenomenal. I was just shocked," remembers McLaughlin. "I had already studied South Indian veena with my veena guru, Dr. Ramanathan, between 1972 and 1974, but I was just astounded. In any event, Raviji was such a lovely man, and he was so helpful to me personally."

McLaughlin audibly brightens as he recalls memories of Shankar, of playing the same bill together and, as McLaughlin puts it, of just being together in times of happiness and sorrow. One memory that remains strong in McLaughlin's mind is of a Shakti concert in New York. "I remember when I'd come back from India in 1976 with Vikku Vinayakram. We were playing at the Dr. Pepper Festival in Central Park, which was a free festival. Raviji and Allah Rakha came, and they were standing on the side of the stage. Shakti was playing away, the very first band. I remember at one point I turned round, and I saw them looking at us, and there was a kind of look of consternation on their faces like, 'What are these buggers doing?'" laughs McLaughlin.

McLaughlin, like most artists who pioneer new directions, has come in for criticism over the years, but it's like water off a duck's back to the Englishman: "Of course, Zakir got criticized by the purist Indians, and I got criticized by jazz musicians, but he didn't care, and I didn't care. Even the association I had with Paco [de Lucia]—the flamenco purists criticized him for playing with me. The jazz purists didn't like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but it doesn't matter. You win some and you lose some."

Fast-forward to the year 2000, to a theater in Delhi, where McLaughlin and Hussain were performing with a dozen of India's top young musicians. McLaughlin picks up the story: "We walk out onto stage for the first number, and just at that moment Raviji walks into the hall, and he sits down front row center. All the musicians were, 'Oh, no,'" laughs McLaughlin at the memory. "It was instant nerve shock." At intermission, McLaughlin remembers, the musicians speculated as to whether Shankar might have tired and gone home, but when they took to the stage, a relaxed, smiling Shankar was still in his seat, keeping the musicians very much on their toes.

McLaughlin recalls how after the second set and encore, the musicians were about to give a second encore when Shankar arrived on the stage. "He picks up the microphone and just says the loveliest things about what we were doing. He blessed all of us, one after the other, on stage. It was just so wonderful," says McLaughlin. "At that point, I remembered the look I got from him and Alla Rakha way back in '76, and I thought, 'Finally, we made it,'" the guitarist says, laughing.

Ravi Shankar's Influence on Shakti

As for Shankar's influence on Shakti in particular, the guitarist responds without skipping a beat: "I think it's impossible to overestimate the impact Raviji had on all of us, individually and collectively. This man, we have to realize, changed the Western world. Between him and Abbaji [Alla Rakha], they built this marvelous bridge that allowed us Westerners to cross over and experience this marvelous music in this culture that they were coming from."

One of Shankar's highest-profile students and disciples was guitarist/songwriter and Beatle George Harrison. "How did George Harrison get to know him?" asks McLaughlin rhetorically. "Because Raviji and Abbaji had already been playing in the West for at least a decade. Raviji and Abbaji were the ones who brought this fantastic music to the West. I cannot overestimate the impact he had on me as an individual and as a musician. His impact on the Western world was phenomenal."

McLaughlin and his guru Shankar would subsequently meet periodically over the years, and although McLaughlin was aware of the great sitar player's declining health, his passing has clearly deeply affected McLaughlin: "It was just a terrible shock because when you lose someone you love, there's a terrible sense of loss. He's passed, and we'll just do what we can to keep the flame burning, and that's all." With Shakti due to release a new studio recording in 2013 with accompanying tour, McLaughlin and Hussain will in no small measure keep Shankar's indomitable spirit of bridge building alive for another generation.

The 4th Dimension: Evolution

However, it is to the 4th Dimension that McLaughlin next turns his thoughts, and in listening to McLaughlin it's hard to escape the feeling that this 4th Dimension band is a bit special for him. It is special not just for the musical personalities involved but for the fact that it has been together—with just a little seat shuffling—for more than half a decade. Already, five years is longer than the life spans of the Mahavishnu Orchestras I and II combined and longer than the original Shakti—the bands that stand out in McLaughlin's endlessly fascinating trajectory for their originality and lasting impact.

The 4th Dimension's second studio recording, Now Here This (Abstract Logix, 2012), picks up the narrative where To the One (Abstract Logix, 2010) left off, with driving jazz fusion and elements of funk, rock and McLaughlin's often-unsung lyricism all there in the mix. The lineup, however, has changed in the interim, altering the chemistry of the group. "The minute you change one person in a small group, the whole group changes," says McLaughlin. "It's inevitable."

Ranjit Barot

Since the 4th Dimension's first major tour in 2007, bassists Hadrien Feraud and Dominique di Piazza have come and gone—the position is now held by Cameroonian Etienne Mbappe—and drummer Mark Mondesir has been replaced by Ranjit Barot. McLaughlin is in no doubt as to Barot's impact on the 4th Dimension. "The new recording is really the result of Ranjit's presence," McLaughlin acknowledges. Since his tenure in drummer Tony Williams' Lifetime, McLaughlin has consistently worked with extremely dynamic drummers and percussionists, from Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden to Dennis Chambers, Trilok Gurtu and of course Zakir Hussain, in a 40-year association. As a drummer, Barot seems to provide the missing link.

With the bustling polyrhythmic energy of Cobham and a deep understanding of Northern and Southern Indian music, Barot is McLaughlin's kind of drummer. "He provokes me," says McLaughlin, laughing, "but that's what I need to get to the unknown. You can only get to the unknown if you have a certain kind of stimulus—somebody behind you putting their foot in your backside. And of course, it's my job to put my foot in their backsides."

There was a lot of mutual backside kicking on McLaughlin's Floating Point (Abstract Logix, 2008), which brought together a stellar group of Indian musicians to play Western jazz fusion. That CD marked the first time Barot and McLaughlin had recorded together, but as the guitarist explains, their association goes back further: "We played together for the first time about nine years ago in a spontaneous jam session."

The jam session was part of the annual February 3rd free concert in Mumbai organized by Zakir Hussain in memory of his father, Alla Rakha Khan. As McLaughlin explains, it's something of a marathon: "It starts at 6:30 in the morning, and it goes on until midnight because this is the day of his [Alla Rakha Khan's] passing. Every time I'm there, I meet Ranjit, and this is actually where we first met."

McLaughlin is, as he never fails to point out in interviews, a Western musician, but he's spent more than half a lifetime studying Indian music, and in Barot, he recognized a musician with similar sensibilities: "Ranjit is a Western drummer, which I love, but he's got all of this wonderful Indian feeling, North and South, because he also knows both schools."

Barot studied at the same school in Madras as did original Shakti member Vikku Vinayakram—a school Vinayakram took over from his father—but as Barot described in an interview with All About Jazz in 2010, he grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra before going on to play with such jazz free spirits as trumpeter Don Cherry and saxophonist Charlie Mariano. McLaughlin notes of Barot, "He's got this other side to his playing, which is very provocative, like Zakir."

Barot was thrilled to be invited to play on Floating Point, but McLaughlin was just as excited by the chemistry. "It was a marvelous record," the guitarist says. "When Mark [drummer Mondesir] left, it was on the cards that Ranjit should come in to the band." This lineup of the 4th Dimension, McLaughlin acknowledges, has taken the music to another level. "Since Ranjit joined, about two years ago now, a lovely kind of cohesion happened in the group," says McLaughlin, "another kind of complicity that we didn't have with Mark [Mondesir], who's a lovely person and a lovely drummer."

Gary Husband

One of the features of the 4th Dimension's autumn European tour was a drum duet between Barot and Gary Husband. Despite being best known as a drummer, particularly for his long-standing collaboration with guitarist Allan Holdsworth, Husband is a truly fine pianist and keyboard player, and he's been the 4th Dimension's keyboardist since the band's inception. Prior to Barot's joining the band, Husband and Mondesir also indulged in drum battles, but this tête-à-tête between Barot and Husband really gets McLaughlin's juices flowing. "Gary and Ranjit are like Tom and Jerry—they just go together," enthuses McLaughlin. "It's like rock 'n' roll. They have a fantastic understanding between them."

Husband seemed destined to play in McLaughlin's band one day, ever since seeing Shakti in 1976 and the One Truth Band a couple of years later. In a 2009 interview with All About Jazz, Husband described how he always used to make a point of seeking McLaughlin out after a gig to pass him a cassette in the hopes of making an impression on the guitarist. Eventually, in the mid-'80s according to Husband, McLaughlin did offer him the role of second keyboardist, but Husband was holding out for the drum chair.

A decade later, McLaughlin invited Husband to record drums on one track from The Promise (Verve, 1995), but scheduling clashes made that impossible. Finally, Husband played keyboards and drummed on McLaughlin's Industrial Zen (Verve, 2006), and from there the door to becoming a permanent member of the soon-to- be-born 4th Dimension was opened.

If Husband was thrilled by the opportunity to tour with McLaughlin, then the guitarist is no less enthusiastic about what Husband brings to the band. "Gary is one of those rare human beings: delightful, unpretentious and just loaded with talent. I mean, just amazing. He's so quick, I just make a suggestion to him, and he knows exactly what to do. You don't have to paint a picture, you just make a little sketch, and he knows immediately what has to be done in the music. He probably knows my music better than I do," laughs McLaughlin.

There's more than an element of truth in the notion that Husband knows McLaughlin's music, if not better than the man himself, then better than most. Husband's solo piano recording A Meeting of Spirits: Interpretations of the Music of John McLaughlin (Alternity, 2006) showed Husband's deep feeling for McLaughlin's unique idiom. McLaughlin was more than impressed. "I was amazed," he recalls. "I sent Gary's recording to Chick [Corea], with whom I have a friendship going back over 40 years now, and Chick loved it. Chick wants to record with Gary, just two pianos, and if you're looking for testimony, that's it."

Husband's significance to the chemistry at the heart of the 4th Dimension is great, as McLaughlin is quick to acknowledge: "What he contributes to the band—I don't know, I mean, if I lost Gary I would be lost." It's hard to imagine McLaughlin ever being lost, and he elaborates a little when pushed on the point: "Nobody is indispensable, it's true. I would hope—and both Zakir and I feel very profoundly about this—that Shakti can continue in some formation and that eventually we could be replaced even though it was founded by us. Nobody is irreplaceable, but I would have very big problems if I lost Gary. It's very clear. He's very, very dear to me as a human being and as a musician."

Etienne M'Bappe /Joe Zawinul

The other element of the 4th Dimension is bassist Etienne Mbappe, whose power is matched by his lyricism. He and McLaughlin also go back a bit. "I've known Etienne for 12 or 13 years now," says McLaughlin. "I met him when he was playing with [keyboardist Joe] Zawinul." At the mention of his former sparring partner on trumpeter Miles Davis' album In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969), McLaughlin goes off on a slight tangent, talking about the tours that Weather Report shared with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti and recalling how the great Austrian composer/keyboard player wasn't always the easiest person to get along with.

"Joe and I didn't always have a very happy relationship," admits McLaughlin. After one particular Zawinul strop, McLaughlin composed the song "Jozy" for him. "I just wanted him to know that I really cared about him, and I did. I cared very deeply about Joe," says McLaughlin. "After that, we became very dear and very close friends. And every time I'd go and see him play, for years afterwards, he would always take the mic and say, 'I just want to say John is here.' It was so sweet."

McLaughlin gave a eulogy for Zawinul in Vienna and it's perhaps fitting that a little bit of the spirit of Zawinul should now reside in the 4th Dimension through bassist M'Bappe, who had also recorded with singers Salif Keita and Ray Charles. M'Bappe had been on McLaughlin's radar for a dozen years since they first met, but McLaughlin, himself a Francophile, had to bide his time. "Etienne was busy with Joe [Zawinul] and doing other things," says McLaughlin."I had to wait until he was free, and he's been in the band ever since."

Spontaneity and the Collective Experience

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 Dimension—like Shakti and the Mahavishnu Orchestra—can 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 for—and I'm sure all the musicians go for—every 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."

The 4th Dimension's European Tour

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."


After 40 years and over 250 compositions, it may come as a surprise that McLaughlin still doesn't see himself as a composer. "The thing is, I don't sit down and write music; I'm not able to do that," he explains. "Music comes to me, and then I write it down. I don't know why any specific tune comes. I have to wait. It comes, and then I write it down, and I just have to get it out of the way."

The 4th Dimension's music runs from Coltrane-inspired electric bop to radio-friendly guitar ballads and from grinding jazz-rock to funk grooves, but to McLaughlin it's all just music. "The 4th Dimension is, in a way, a jazz-fusion band," acknowledges the guitarist. "We're not trying to be world music, and we're not trying to be a jazz group or smooth jazz or anything like that. We're building bridges to each other, and it's a marvelous experience, it really is."

A key element of any of McLaughlin's projects, and now with the 4th Dimension, is spontaneity and the excitement generated by risk— those moments of magic and mystery. "We need the tightrope walking in the middle of the piece where you might fall, and perhaps we do," McLaughlin laughs, "but you have to take the risk, and we make it sometimes, and that's the whole point, to get to that marvelous collective experience."

Selected Discography
John McLaughlin & The 4th Dimension, Now Here This (Abstract Logix, 2012)
John McLaughlin & The 4th Dimension, To The One (Abstract Logix, 2010)
John McLaughlin, Floating Point (Abstract Logix, 2008)
John McLaughlin & The 4th Dimension, Official Pirate: The Best of the American Tour 2007 (Abstract Logix, 2007)
John McLaughlin, Industrial Zen (Verve Music Group, 2006)
John McLaughlin, Thieves and Poets (Verve Music Group, 2003)
Remember Shakti, Remember Shakti (Verve Music Group, 1999)
John McLaughlin, The Heart of Things (Verve Music Group, 1997)
John McLaughlin, The Promise (Verve Music Group, 1996)
John McLaughlin, Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans (Verve Music Group, 1993)
John McLaughlin Trio, Live at the Royal Festival Hall (JMT Productions, 1990)
John McLaughlin, The Mediterranean Concerto (Columbia, 1990)
John McLaughlin, Bello Horizonte (Warner Music Group, 1981)
John McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist (Columbia Records, 1978)
Shakti, Shakti (Columbia Records, 1976)
The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia Records, 1975)
John McLaughlin/Carlos Santana, Love, Devotion and Surrender (Columbia Records, 1973)
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Birds of Fire (Columbia Records, 1972)
Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (Columbia Records, 1970)
Miles Davis, In a Silent Way (Columbia Records, 1969)
The Tony Williams Lifetime, Emergency! (Polydor, 1969)

Photo Credits

Page 1, 4: Courtesy Ted Kurland Associates
Page 5: Ina McLaughlin

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