Walter Kolosky: Affairs of the Heart

Walter Kolosky: Affairs of the Heart
Ian Patterson By

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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?



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