In conversation with john mclaughlin
by Walter Kolosky
For the past four decades it seems guitarist and composer John McLaughlin has been about forty years ahead of everyone else. He has thrived in a cross-section of musical genres. In fact, his 50-year career has been a case study in how to create new genres.
After paying his dues in the London music scene of the 60s, McLaughlin came to New York City to play in the trailblazing jazz-rock of Tony Williams’s Lifetime band. Very quickly came revelatory performances with the legendary Miles Davis. In the early 70s, with a double-neck electric guitar as an appendage, he led his historic Mahavishnu Orchestra– fusion music’s first supergroup.
Mahavishnu’s pioneering jazz-rock was able to break through the popular musical barriers of the time to connect with a wide range of fans. Today this music is being revisited through numerous tribute recordings, and even music festivals. Young musicians all over the world continue to be influenced by its reach. After Mahavishnu, McLaughlin and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain formed the Indo-Jazz group Shakti, playing a form of world music before the category even existed.
Later, as part of the Guitar Trio, McLaughlin, Paco DeLucia and Al DiMeola redefined flamenco music. Since those times, McLaughlin has performed in a number of fascinating groups, written concertos and produced critically acclaimed instructional DVDs.
John McLaughlin continues to push himself to the limits. Currently, he has four projects operating simultaneously. A European tour with his group The 4th Dimension was to start in a couple of weeks when we spoke. He also is busy with the release of his new Floating Point CD and its companion Meeting Of The Minds DVD. The CD is his first studio recording since he left Universal Music. The ‘floating point’, according to McLaughlin, is the place musicians find themselves when the group is grooving so hard they almost form their own gravity. They float. McLaughlin is also in the early planning stages of a very exciting world tour to begin later this year.
John spoke to jazz.com from his home in Monaco. We discussed jazz education, John’s sojourn last year in India, his new releases and his future plans. But to begin the conversation I wanted him to talk about something he saw the very first week he came to America.
It was almost 40 years ago. You were a young jazz musician and came to New York City for the first time to play with Tony Williams’s new band, Lifetime. The first day you are there, you meet Miles Davis; your all-time musical idol. It must have seemed like a dream. Then later in that very same week, you are witness to the two trumpet legends Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong engaged in conversation.
Yes, it was at the Baron Club. But it wasn’t just Louis Armstrong. It was Dizzy Gillespie too! I saw Dizzy and Louis Armstrong chatting. Miles came out of the men’s room. Then Miles saw them and the three of them started-up. It was wonderful to see this beautiful complicity between them. They were three giants. Of course, I had no camera. I had no money. I recorded the scene to ROM in my head. If I close my eyes I can still see it now. They were joshing and joking and bull-shitting around. It was so sweet to see the three of them. It freaked me out. It was the very first week I was there. There they were– three generations of jazz trumpet giants right in front of me. These guys were really wonderful people too. I met Louis but didn’t really get to know him. I knew Dizzy a little more. He was just out of sight. What a great guy. Miles of course was one of the greatest human beings I ever knew.
Speaking of jazz tradition… We have a popular column here at Jazz.com called The Dozens. One of the [forthcoming] topics is dedicated to your interpretations of the jazz standards. I think it is an aspect of your career that often gets overlooked because of your, shall we say, more exploratory music. No matter what musical direction you are taking at the time, you always find a place for a standard. What is it about the standards that still attract your attention?
It’s all about the love in the end, isn’t it Walter? It is what makes everything tick. It’s what makes me tick. I love the standards. In spite of all my adventures in Shakti-land, flamenco-world and on the jazz-fusion planet – I grew-up with the standards. In the right environment, the standards can be extremely attractive. It’s hard to put into words. But I simply think it comes from growing-up with these tunes and loving them. It is as simple as that.
You play them for the love of it. How important do you think this repertoire is for the learning process? Shouldn’t all young jazz players be studying this music?
Of course. This is especially so if they take the time to analyze what the great musicians have done in the past with them. I think part of the problem with young players today is that they’ve got such a whole bunch of things to learn just to get up to date. For us back then, it was already quite a mouthful. You had bebop with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, then Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell. Then along comes John Coltrane, Miles, Bill Evans, Herbie, Wayne – this whole new school of neo-bebop.
And you also had the things that Miles did with Gil Evans like the wonderful standard Porgy and Bess. We had all of that to get a hold of. That was, of course, in addition to being long-haired hippy weirdo freaks and dropping acid and freaking-out generally and buying big amps and freaking our guitars out with feedback too…[laughs] This is what we call evolution in music. Some people wouldn’t call it that. They’d call it devolution! [laughs]
Today, if the young musician has the time to study what happened in the 50s and 60s and then come to terms with the fusion music of Weather Report, Mahavishnu, Return To Forever and other fusion bands of the 70s and puts it all together to form their own style…well, it’s already quite a job.
And you help in your own way. The last few years you have produced and released two remarkable and technically revolutionary instructional DVDs. This Is The Way I Do It is a uniquely formatted guitar improvisation guide. The Gateway To Rhythm is a tutorial on mastering rhythm without having to play drums. What are you hearing back from the users of these music teaching tools?
You can not imagine the profound satisfaction Ina (John’s wife and co-producer) and I feel from the letters we receive and emails we get about these DVDs. These were not financial ventures. They were about addressing problems confronted by musicians.
When and how did the ideas for these instructional DVDs come about?
Thirty or forty years ago, I started doing master classes and became aware of the problems guitarists were confronted with. Time went by and I did more classes and learned more about those problems. I know my own inadequacies only too well. Knowing them is the constant path of learning. In the early 80s, I started taking protégés and helping put them through music education at Berklee, Juilliard… just generally trying to put back what music has given me. It has given me so much. At any rate, a number of years ago, after a particularly difficult master class, I was bombarded with questions of quite different characters. There were questions of right-hand technique, left-hand technique, how to improvise, how to get a grip on harmony, how to get a grip on rhythm, what the spiritual aspect of music was and how do you relate it to improvising and jazz… The questions were coming from quite different quarters. This event actually began to germinate into the beginnings of This Is The Way I Do It. I should mention that on previous occasions I had been approached by educational societies and companies with regard to teaching with video cassettes. As you know using video cassettes is limiting. There was no way I could do it. In the end this is how the This Is The Way I Do It DVD was born.
Creating a useful instructional program the way you wanted to do it on DVD had to be a difficult undertaking.
Yes, in particular getting the score moving in sync to all the audio. This was really a first. It was a very difficult and tricky problem to solve. We had no reference. No one had done it before. But we actually did it. Even today we have letters coming in about this. Some of them are very touching.
That DVD collection took care of the melody and harmony. But there is another important music element you thought it would be helpful to explain.
Gateway To Rhythm, which I did with the wonderful Indian percussionist Selva Ganesh, is about how to master rhythm without having to play drums. The konokol method comes from South India but its application is absolutely global. This DVD has also been very well received. I think Gateway was really the second aspect to This Is The Way I Do It.
Do you still teach master classes?
I stopped doing master classes because they came to be frustrating. If you have more than five or six people you are in trouble. I have my own particular style. Hence the name This Is The Way I Do It. My teaching philosophy is that in the end who can teach whom? All the teacher can do is show what they do. This allows, by a process of identification and assimilation, the student to take what he wants out of that and apply it in his own particular way. They are not going to play like me. Well, maybe in the beginning they will play like me or Pat Metheny or John Scofield. But they need to carve their own style. To do that they actually need to try to discover who they are as human beings – which is the spiritual way in life – to address these questions of who we are. I didn’t really get into that, but anyone who is curious can always visit my website to learn where I am coming from. I talk about the whole Mahavishnu thing with the guru years ago. It was wonderful and I loved Guru Chinmoy. I miss him since he passed away a few months ago. What he gave me as a teacher is inestimable.
You have already said that your brand new album may be the best you have ever recorded. That’s quite a statement, John, considering all of your music that has come before. Why do you say it?
I don’t know why. I love all my paintings. My recordings are all like paintings to me. The guys in the band are mostly Indian except George Brooks on saxophone out of San Francisco and Hadrien Feraud the young bass player who is with me in the 4th Dimension band. Let us start with the drummers. They are coming from the Indian tradition. But they know everything about Western drums and Western percussion. They hit it! They are wonderful.
A lot of these young Indian musicians have grown-up listening to your music and admiring how you have incorporated it into their traditions. You may be more famous in India than America.
They have their own way of thanking people and I was a recipient of this. At the beginning this was strange. These Indian people would come up to me after a concert and touch my feet and say “thank you for making me aware of my music.” It was all very sweet. I have been going to India for 30 years now. So now I am used to it -- I give them my blessings and off they go on their way. This is just the way it is. When you get over sixty, Walter, you become a guru yourself. [laughs] There has been a lot of that going on with the Shakti group. Other Indian people, not necessarily musicians, who may be in the arts like painting or dance… I have had a good contact with these people. I think they identify with me. They certainly identify with my profound affection for India and its culture and people. I was there for 7 months last year and I miss it. So does Ina.
What was the experience of living in India like for you?
It’s hard to describe my feelings. But there is another prevailing atmosphere or different attitude toward life in India that is quite different to the West. Life and death are much more evident over there. You don’t see dead people in the street. But you see people going off to the funeral pyre carrying the bodies down the street. You see people that are mutilated for whatever reason in front of the temples – a sight from which we are very protected from in the West. The beauty and the tragedy of life are much more in your face over there. This necessarily affects you. I defy anyone, even the most insensitive of human beings, to go to India and not be influenced or touched in some way by, say, the beauty of the smiles – even from people who have absolutely nothing. The beggars in the street smile and it is like the dawning sunshine. It is quite astonishing.
I understand a wave of profound creativity overcame you quite unexpectedly while you were there.
We were there in our house. It was lovely weather. It was near the ocean. We have very dear friends there. I have my little computer, my guitar and my little amp. It just started like that. I had not intended to write at all. But day after day things were just coming to me and I had to get them out. This had never happened to me before. Ina said she couldn’t believe how much music I was writing. I told her I couldn’t believe it myself. I just couldn’t stop. I had become a compulsive composer for want of a better word. So she said we should make a CD. It went from there.
Was there a theme?
The principal crystallization for the album came from the festival of Abbaji. The opening tune on the CD is a piece called “Abbaji” that I wrote for that festival. There is a tune, but there is a lot of free form improvisation with George Brooks on saxophone. This festival honors Zakir Hussain’s father, the great tabla player Ustad Alla Rakha, who died on the third of February five years ago. Zakir organized the concert that ran from 6:30 A.M. to 11 P.M. There are outstanding musicians playing. I had the 6:30 A.M. spot. And there is an audience! Can you believe it? Not bad, huh? Along with me were the drummer, the percussionist and the keyboard player who subsequently I would invite to record with me as the main rhythm section for the CD. George was with me too. It was only later I started looking for guest soloists because on every tune except one there is an Indian guest soloist. These musicians are not really all that well known. But they are sort of the young lions of Indian music. They are coming up and really burning on their instruments. Bamboo flute players, electric sitar player, Shankar Mahadevan singing like…ah, wonderful…
But you say this is not an Indian music album.
It is not. This is a jazz fusion. I was not going the Shakti way. Shakti has a lot of Western influence in it because of me. But we observe a lot of Indian rules and regulations in the music. But this is not at all that. Ranjit Barot the drummer and Sivamani the percussionist– the two together are amazing. And then there is Louiz Banks the keyboard player… they are not Indian instruments. They are Indian people playing Western instruments. You’ve got to hear them!
Meeting of the Minds is a DVD documentary of the recording sessions.
Yes. We couldn’t call it “Meeting Of The Spirits.” [laughs] (John is referring to an old Mahavishnu classic tune.)
Yeah, that’s been used. [laughs]
The DVD was Ina’s idea as well. It was all live in the studio. We were in a beautiful studio. The studios in India are generally better equipped than the ones in New York. Can you believe that? You go into any little recording studio in India and they have the best equipment. It is unreal. Because it was a live recording in the studio it was a very special event. You have these Indian guys coming into the studio to play my music. They are coming over to my world but playing their way. It was a real juxtaposition of cultures in a very different sense than Shakti.
So we see the recording process, but we see a cultural mixing of methods and culture as well?
Absolutely. Yes. I have seen the DVD myself. But our first order of thousands of DVDs was lost on the way from Germany. I couldn’t believe it.
Have they turned-up?
Yes, just about 20 minutes ago…
The record is great. I love the recording. I am doing electric guitar and synth. I am very happy with the atmosphere. These players are wonderful. You see a real meeting of the minds on the DVD.
You are promoting Floating Point and are about to embark on a European tour with your wonderful new fusion group The 4th Dimension in just a few short weeks from this conversation. But there are already gears turning in another realm that are going to thrill music fans. You and Chick Corea are forming a new band to be called The Five Peace Band.
We are. I just went to see Chick in Austria. He had a concert with Gary Burton. I know Gary from a long, long time ago. What a wonderful player. We are going to have a band with Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett and Vinnie Colaiuta. We have been talking about it. Chick and I go way back to the 60s. Chick is one of the rare guys I have had a constant contact with. He is such a lovely person and such a fine player – what a wonderful musician.
Do you have any clue at this early date as to what music you will be playing?
No. I don’t really know. I mean we’ve had our hands full lately. But there will probably be some new music coming out. I am sure we will also go looking for pieces that are appropriate for this type of line-up. I have thought about a piece from the Heart of Things Live album. Kenny can really play. We played together in Paris for the last Miles concert. The other guys too… It should be something.
Postscript: At the time of this interview I had not yet had the opportunity to see the new Meeting of the Minds DVD. I have seen it since. It is a fascinating exposition of two musical and social cultures coming together to make music that speaks to all cultures.
Walter Kolosky is the author of the book Power, Passion and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra This book is currently available with a discount for jazz.com readers -- $12.95 (almost half off the Amazon price). But, readers need to use this link and enter the jazz.com coupon code (for US purchases jazz.comusa and for outside the US jazz.comintl -- use all lower case).