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John McLaughlin: Risk, Magic And Mystery

Ian Patterson By

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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.


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