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Walter Kolosky: Affairs of the Heart

Walter Kolosky: Affairs of the Heart

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Looking back on John's life and music, this is the clear message: we're all here to search for something. Your own effort says everything about you. I can't think of a better plan than to follow your heart.
It took journalist Walter Kolosky eight months to put together Follow Your Heart: John McLaughlin Song by Song (Abstract Logix, 2010), though, in effect, this impressive listener's guide has been the culmination of a lifetime listening to the English guitarist's music. Kolosky has written extensively on John McLaughlin's music for many years, and has interviewed him many times. Few people have dedicated quite so much of their time or expended as much energy as Kolosky, in attempting to understand McLaughlin's music. This is not the first book about McLaughlin's music that Kolosky has penned, either; Power, Passion and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra (Abstract Logix Books, 2003) was a long overdue look at the incendiary fusion band that made McLaughlin's name as guitar legend. The book garnered rave reviews and established Kolosky as one of the foremost authorities on the music of John McLaughlin.

It is precisely because of McLaughlin's heavyweight fame as one of the world's greatest guitarist—Jeff Beck has described McLaughlin as the best guitarist in the world—that his considerable compositional skills have taken something of a backseat when considering McLaughlin's contribution to music these last 40 years. This was one of the driving factors in convincing Kolosky of the need to write a book which looked at McLaughlin the composer. Beginning with McLaughlin's first album as a leader, Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969), Kolosky traces, song by song and album by album, each and every one of this most influential musician's songs, shedding new light on McLaughlin's compositional process and, in the process, building a portrait of the man.

Kolosky underlines the unique compositional skills of McLaughlin, and leaves no doubt as to the considerable ambition of McLaughlin's music. In addition, McLaughlin's far-reaching influence on several generations of musicians of remarkably varied stripe—as well as his overlooked ability to write and perform music of great subtlety and beauty—comes across strongly in this first book to scrutinize McLaughlin's work so closely.

Kolosky is passionate about his subject and has lectured on McLaughlin's music at the Cordoba Guitar festival. Follow Your Heart: John McLaughlin Song by Song has been included in the curriculum at Berklee, cementing Kolosky's reputation as the preeminent expert on McLaughlin's music. However, Kolosky is the first to admit that it can be frustrating being a McLaughlin fan, as just when you think he's settled into his stride, he suddenly takes a left turn and a whole new musical direction. Following McLaughlin's music these last four decades has been, Kolosky declares, a hell of ride.

All About Jazz: Walter, why a song-by-song approach to John McLaughlin's music as opposed to a more conventional biography?

Walter Kolosky: I knew, from knowing John, that he wasn't interested in a biography, which doesn't immediately restrict one from writing one, but if you think you might not get the cooperation necessary to write a good biography it obviously figures into the equation. I actually had no plans to write this book, but over the years people have been writing to me because of my previous work, Power, Passion and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra, saying: "Why don't you write a book about John McLaughlin's band Shakti?" "Why don't you write a book about The Guitar Trio? " Why don't you write a book about the time John McLaughlin spent with [trumpeter] Miles Davis?" And on and on; I would get these requests all the time. I thought a lot of those things had been written about in great detail already.

So my mind starting working about a year ago; what could I do that was unique, of service to John McLaughlin fans and be good enough to create a book. John's work is so vast. The more I started thinking about a song-by-song listening guide which was something really to help fans who were familiar with John's music, or not familiar with it yet, the more I thought we could really get inside the music in a deeper way.

When this idea came into my head all sorts of other questions came in with it: how do you write such a book? In what way do you present it? Who's the book for? I decided the book has to be for the everyday fan and for musicians who enjoy McLaughlin's work.

This was a very simple deduction because if you made the book only for advanced musicians you'd sell about 93 books; you just wouldn't sell enough books—not that I could write that type of book the way the great guitarist Steve Khan could. At his website he goes into analysis of tunes that is mind boggling. It's very impressive. I could not do that. All that being said, this book, like my last book about Mahavishnu will be part of the curriculum at Berklee College of Music this next fall. I must have done something right [laughs]. Though I suppose having a beautiful foreword written by [pianist/keyboardist] Chick Corea doesn't hurt either [laughs].

So, the question was how could I write in a way that attracts both of those audiences-the everyday fan and the musician? Taking a song title from McLaughlin's latest album To the One (Abstract Logix, 2010) you have to walk "The Fine Line." That's how I approached this book, I had to make it appealing to the everyday fan and interesting enough for the musician. So, I brought in five experts to help me with some of the technical aspects of the music and also to give me five different points of view. I handled all of the visceral aspects. I listened to the music for hours on end in my office—there's a picture of me doing that at the beginning of the book which is very revealing—with my desk covered with many CDs and books and notes. If particular points interested me technically, I would ask one of my musicologists about it. If I could comprehend what I was being told and could then explain it in a way that an everyday reader could understand, it could then be in the book. If it was beyond me, it's not in the book.

I used to write for newspapers, and a lot of that writing style is investigative; you have to be able to tell a story and tell it as economically as you can. You have to pick out the important aspects and weave an interesting tale. So, I tell of feelings, emotions, context and history. If this book were pure cold analysis, believe me, you could write 10 pages about every song. And become bored in the process. That didn't make any sense at all. I focused on three areas.

Follow Your Heart is a listener's guide which you are meant to read along as you listen. I already have scores of emails from people who did just that; the work can also be used as a reference book; or you can look at it as a history. I believe if you read the book, even without listening to the music, you'll get a pretty good history of John McLaughlin, if not a history of the fusion movement as it progressed from '69 through 2010.

AAJ: It must have been a very intense process, listening to hundreds and hundreds of hours of McLaughlin's music, the entire thought process and analysis that must have gone on, interviewing people and assembling ideas; did your ideas about John McLaughlin's music change much during the writing of this book?

WK: Absolutely, which I wouldn't have thought possible. I have listened to this music for thousands of hours my whole life, but I think I mention in the book an experience when I was listening to The Heart of Things—Live in Paris. (Verve, 1998) As I'm listening I suddenly think: What is that I'm hearing? I know where that comes from!" I'd never noticed it before and so I immediately dropped my headphones and ran to my CD shelves and picked out John's album Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969). I seem to remember this section of music someplace on this album and sure enough there it was; to me, what I found fascinating was this 30 second motif, if I remember correctly, was there in the middle of a tune on this album almost 30 years before, but nowhere else on his records until now. This gave me an insight into John's mind—and one can only go so far inside that mind because it's so complex—here's an idea he had all those years ago and it's still bobbing around in his head along with everything else. He pulled this piece of music out again, changed it slightly with different instrumentation and a different approach, but it really is the same thing.

This was fascinating to me. I think John McLaughlin's music to him is a mine, and instead of mineral deposits, there are musical ideas in this shaft and he has to fully excavate to get every last ounce of inspiration out until he squeezes the rocks dry.

AAJ: That's a nice analogy and that idea comes across very clearly in the book that McLaughlin has revisited tunes, revisited themes, dug deeper into ideas, refined and remolded ideas; would you say that this is a common trait among great composers?

WK: I think all great musicians do that. And you find this in the works of the great classical composers as well. I think they all do it. My point is that to the best of my knowledge nobody does it the way John does it in the sense of putting it all into immensely different bags. You just have to look at his compositions that end up in contexts which are entirely different from their original presentations. Something may be acoustic and played by Spanish musicians in one context or could be a raucous fusion number in another. I also find it revealing that oftentimes there is a hint of a future direction. You might not hear that future for another two or three albums. But there's a little hint at what's to come and it's bouncing around inside the walls of his head right now. He doesn't know what he's going to do with it, but three records later here it is; that same phrase he used as part of his improvisation three years before.

AAJ: One of the nice touches about the book are the quotations from John McLaughlin, though they tend to shed more light on the man and his general world view than they do about the song. In your conversations with McLaughlin for the preparation of this book, did he throw much light upon the songs themselves?

WK: This was on purpose. Firstly, speaking with John I had a certain amount of time. I picked about 40 songs to ask him about, which was a little over 10 percent of the tunes. I told him quite specifically I didn't want any information about the actual music. He totally agreed with this approach. To him, music isn't print on paper or font on a computer screen; it is about emotion. I wanted his inspiration for the music. I wanted people to better understand the man. Coming closer to the man takes you closer to his music. That's the other aspect of the book I hope people get from it; that it's inspirational, and this inspiration comes from McLaughlin's own words. And though I don't shy away from the question of his spirituality in the book, you'll notice many of his quotations include aspects of his spiritual life. In conversation with him he wants you to know that he's never preaching or proselytizing via his music. His music stands alone and his motives for making his music are in his own psyche. His spirituality is not a message of his music, but it is an important aspect of the motivation.

AAJ: He says very clearly in one of the quotations: "I have no message." Another of the strengths of the book is that you point out McLaughlin's influences as well as some of the many who have been influenced by him, specifically with reference to all the artists who have recorded interpretations of his music, and this in effect creates a roots and branches of John McLaughlin's musical reach; was that one of your aims at the outset of this project?

WK: There are two reasons I did that: first I wanted to relate to the here and now and how McLaughlin's music is influencing young musicians even today. Some of them show it by covering his tunes while others do it without knowing; I always get a kick when I read somewhere where somebody hears Mahavishnu Orchestra for the first time and they say something like: "Boy, this group reminds me of Mars Volta" and I start laughing because obviously it's the other way around. The other reasons I chronicled the cover versions of John's compositions—and with that I had the help of one of my editors, Ted McCallion—was that I wanted to get across the strength and staying power of John McLaughlin's compositions. I mention in the book that when you are such a virtuoso as John is on the guitar, sometimes people forget the other element of what makes him such a great musician; it is his compositions.

As we're talking I just opened the book at "The Dance of Maya" and, at the time of writing, there were 15 different cover versions from fusion groups, acoustic guitar groups, country music groups, a string quartet, and finally, and I got a kick out of this one, a surf music version of "The Dance of Maya." To me this just expresses the different genres in which John McLaughlin has made a mark. I think it's quite unique.

AAJ: How much of a task was it for you to accumulate details of all the artists who have recorded his music?

WK: This was another journey all on its own. It was quite time consuming; God bless the Internet. I knew about many of these covers but as I researched on the Internet, I found more. For inclusion in this book I had to hear a clip of the music to make sure it was the song. For example, there were quite a few songs named "Guardian Angel" so how do you know if this is the John McLaughlin version? You have to hear it. There were three or four songs that I was sure were John McLaughlin tunes, but because I was unable to track down the music, they are not included. The amazing thing is I find myself on the crest of a wave and since I've written the book, two or three more McLaughlin covers have been released. [Cellist] Matt Haimovitz has come up with a very fine album, Meeting of the Spirits (Oxingale Records, 2010), with a couple of Mahavishnu Orchestra songs, and so on.

I want to add here too, that a great deal of time was also spent tracking down and assembling many historical images of John for the print version of the book that have never been published before. There are some real rarities. There are behind-the-scenes looks at the Love, Devotion, Surrender (Columbia Records, 1973) recording sessions, and images of the infamous Trio Of Doom band, featuring John, [bassist] Jaco Pastorius and [drummer] Tony Williams playing onstage for the one and only time in Cuba, in 1979.

AAJ: As I was reading the book I was listening to a lot of McLaughlin's music, but also the Turtle Island Quartet's version of "To Bop or Not to Be," drummer/pianist Gary Husband's wonderful piano interpretations of McLaughlin's music on Meeting of the Spirits (Alternity Records, 2006), and the Matt Haimovitz CD you mentioned, and these three in particular suggest that McLaughlin's music translates very well to a classical interpretation; are you surprised that he hasn't ventured more into the classical sphere?

WK: I am not. Obviously, he has the three pieces—Apocalypse (Columbia, 1974), The Mediterranean Concerto (CBC, 1988) and Thieves and Poets (Verve, 2003)—but, in McLaughlin's own words, and he's said this many times: "I am not a classical musician nor do I want to be." The overriding issue there is his need to improvise and even in the classical albums he's done they're full of improvisation, which isn't the norm for classical music. Those three albums have classical leanings but, when you think about it, so do the Shakti albums, which are Indian classical.

AAJ: Drummer Gregg Bendian says that he feels the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra should be considered as modern classical music, and Matt Haimovitz said he felt there is a Beethoven-ian quality to "A Meeting of the Spirits." Do you feel that there is a classical vein to McLaughlin's music, even though he doesn't consider himself to be a classical musician?

WK: I would have to since I wrote an article for All About Jazz, quite a few years ago, about the Mahavishnu Orchestra being the new classical music [laughs].

I absolutely believe so. I guess that article is a precursor to this book. But going from memory I believe the main thrust of it was the compositional aspect of this music and how it was suited to interpretation in many different ways. It's not just the Turtle Island Quartet and Matt Haimovitz, there's also the Radio String Quartet, the The Wild Strings Quartet. I don't think this is surprising because many of McLaughlin's compositions are conducive to creative arrangements. Often when you hear a piece of his music you think: "Boy, it would be interesting to hear this played by a symphony orchestra or as a ballet score or as a movie soundtrack or as a big band number and on and on."

AAJ: Coming back to some of McLaughlin's influences and you quote him as saying how bassist Charles Mingus influenced his musical concepts; in what way would you say that Mingus has influenced McLaughlin?

WK: This is my educated guess because I didn't delve deeply into that with John, but it would probably be his approach to jazz and the blues via the whole post-bop movement that Mingus was a part of, along with Miles, Coltrane and others. I think it's also a question of attitude; McLaughlin has strong opinions, as did Mingus, about life and politics and I think that's part of Mingus' influence as well.

AAJ: McLaughlin has paid full album tribute to two of his major influences, pianist Bill Evans on Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans (Verve, 1993) and saxophonist John Coltrane on After the Rain (Verve, 1994) are you surprised that he hasn't done the same for Miles Davis?

WK: I think he has in a way, from Mahavishnu Orchestra to The One Truth Band, and even later in the '80s when there's been one or two tunes on an album that were basically for Miles Davis. There was also Miles From India (Times Square Records, 2008), which he was on. I may be putting words in John's mouth here but I think he would say that every album is a tribute to Miles.

AAJ: It also seems strange that in 40 years since he recorded with Miles Davis, only one McLaughlin composition has featured a trumpet (Joey DeFrancesco, on Tokyo Live (Verve, 1994)). It's striking that his is the only example of trumpet in McLaughlin's works, given the influence of Miles Davis.

WK: Save for Bob Knapp, in the second Mahavishnu Orchestra and symphony orchestra trumpeters, I believe Joey has been the only man with that horn on McLaughlin's recordings. The remarkable thing about Joey DeFrancesco is that he sounds just like Miles, and I'm sure when he first played for John he probably blew him away. Perhaps, just perhaps, McLaughlin's love of Davis' approach and sound has made him wary of other trumpet players. I am sure he would disagree, though.

AAJ: One theory which you put forward in the book is that in your opinion John McLaughlin's Guitar Trio ushered in the unplugged movement; what leads you to that conclusion?

WK: That's a controversial comment on my part, no doubt. It's an idea I've had in my mind since back in the day. When you read MTV's history of the unplugged movement nothing is mentioned about this. Back then in the late'70s, music was about electricity; I don't care which genre you were listening to, with the exception, of course, of classical music. To hear these players, specifically John and Al Di Meola, and to a much lesser degree Paco de Lucia who's always acoustic, to hear these electric fusion gods—which is what McLaughlin and Di Meola were at that time—come out and play purely acoustic music and garnering legions of rock fans; there's the key right there, these records went gold. Records started coming out that were acoustic across the board and it was shortly thereafter that the MTV unplugged thing started. It's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

AAJ: There may be some truth in it. Another thing that you remind readers of in your book is that the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1972) reached #15 in the Billboard pop album charts; would you agree that similar success would be unthinkable for such a fusion group today?

WK: What's difficult for people who hear the Mahavishnu Orchestra's music for the first time today is to realize just how powerful and how jarring that music was at that time. There was nothing else to compare it to. It amazes me when I hear a young musician saying: "I'm surprised how sloppy the guitar playing is." I start laughing because the guitar playing at that time was miles beyond anything that was happening and it wasn't processed through all these tuning machines and everything else they use nowadays. In fact, part of the charm was that a lot of the music was so raw. In retrospect and in comparison to anything else it was anything but sloppy; it was the opposite. One of the things I hope the book can do—and it's the reason it was written chronologically—is that if you're able to listen to some of the early music that John did as leader, starting with Extrapolation and listening all the way through to 40 years later, even though he started at a very high level you still get to hear the growth of that musician. You have an insight into his vocabulary. Rock has informed it. Jazz has informed it. Indian music and the blues have informed it, creating the musician you hear today. I would argue the music he's playing today is as jarring, in its own way, as the music was back then. This is the continual evolution of a musician.

From left: John McLaughlin, Bill Evans

AAJ: One recording which you decided against including in the book is the only film soundtrack that McLaughlin has composed for the film Molom (Verve, 1995); why did you not include that?

WK: I decided to include albums where John McLaughlin was the leader, and that was not a John McLaughlin album. That was a soundtrack album, and a lot of the music on it has nothing to do with John McLaughlin. That being said, it's a very worthwhile album and it includes a lot of the themes from his own music. Even the music which is not McLaughlin's, the Mongolian folk songs, are very interesting and enjoyable.

AAJ: One quotation from John McLaughlin, which appears in your book is: "less is more." Do you think his playing has become more economical in his later years?

WK: That's a difficult question; if the question is does he play fewer notes, then I think he does not play fewer notes. However, the songs are shorter, so in that sense, maybe so. I've always made the point, and I put it forth in this book, that people who dismiss McLaughlin because they think he can just play fast are missing the point; not only can he play so fast with melodic intent, which is extremely difficult, but he often plays very slowly. But for some reason people ignore this slow playing. He plays beautiful slow ballads like "Nostalgia." The brilliant "Sanctuary" from Birds of Fire is painstakingly slow. You ignore these tunes at your own risk.

AAJ: Yes, and I think you go to some pains in Follow Your Heart to point out all the beautiful ballads and impressionistic pieces that McLaughlin has written throughout his career. What do you expect from John McLaughlin in the years to come? Do you expect any more surprises?

WK: One should always expect the unexpected from John. As I said in the book you can always count on John to throw a curve ball. The question is if you know he's going to do that how unexpected is it? [laughs] Throughout his whole career—and I think this important, though John might not agree—but I think it's true as a listener you have to work to be a John McLaughlin fan. He never lets you become too comfortable. As soon as you get used to one style or approach, he'll change it. He'd start playing something with commercial appeal and then the very next album he'd get away from it. It was very frustrating for a while. It's like one of those rollercoaster rides where you become inverted from time to time and you just never know where the next turn will take you, but you can't get off. It's almost a chase of the cars ahead of you, isn't it?

AAJ: Why did you choose Follow Your Heart as the book's title?

WK: I think most people would have named the book after a more famous McLaughlin tune, but I chose "Follow Your Heart" for several reasons: one, this is the one tune that John McLaughlin has written that I think should be a jazz standard, and I am happy to see more people are covering this tune. It's not the easiest music to play as it has an odd time signature, yet despite that it's very accessible, and in the end that's what I want people to understand about John's music and not to be afraid of it. There are people who would run out of the room if you played some of John's fusion music, probably feeling personally assaulted, but here's a song, "Follow Your Heart" which couldn't be more gentle, more touching or more accessible.

The title also has a double meaning because this is what John McLaughlin is doing and it's what any great artist does—follows his or her heart. Frankly, it's what any wise person would do with their life. I followed my own heart in writing this book. I think when you look back on John's life and music this is the clear message: we're all here to search for something. Your own effort says everything about you. I can't think of a better plan than to follow your heart.

Photo credits

Pages 1: Anna Kolosky
Pages 2, 4: John Kelman
Page 3: Linda Braceland
Page 5: New Soul Jazz

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