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John McLaughlin Interview

By Mark Towns
Published: September 21 2003, JazzHouston

Since emerging from the jazz-rock scene in England during the 1960's, John McLaughlin has been committed to reshaping the language of the guitar into a personal, powerful musical expression of his inner vision.

Early in his career, he embarked on a series of high-profile projects, including records and performances with drummer Tony Williams' Lifetime, a trio McLaughlin so enjoyed working with that he initially declined an offer to join Miles Davis' group. But after Lifetime's members parted ways, McLaughlin took Miles up on his offer, and went on to contribute to many of Davis masterpieces, including Bitches Brew, Directions, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, In a Silent Way, and Live Evil. In 1970, he recorded My Goals Beyond, beginning a long and fruitful relationship with the acoustic guitar.

Throughout the 70's, McLaughlin continued to experiment with contexts: his legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra set commercial and artistic precedents for electric fusion with the classic The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire, albums which sold hundreds of thousands of records and led the band to perform to sellout crowds. At the height of its success, McLaughlin returned to acoustic guitar and formed the first edition Shakti, a pioneering Indian group that further demonstrated his eclecticism. He continued his acoustic and electric explorations for years to come, combining their best elements and always finding new grooves in the process. Lured back to electric music with solo recordings and a revamped Mahavishnu in the 80's, McLaughlin experimented with guitar synthesis, and wrote and performed The Mediterranean Concerto for classical orchestra.

On the eve of the fall 2003 release of his latest orchestral work, "Thieves and Poets," McLaughlin hits the road again with the latest version of Shakti, featuring tabla great Zakir Hussain, U. Shrinivas on mandolin, and V. Selvaganesh on kanjira, ghatam, and mridangam. The group makes their only Texas appearance on Sunday, September 28th, 5:00 p.m. at the Verizon Wireless Theatre.

I recently spoke with McLaughlin in Paris by phone from radio station KPFT 90.1 FM in Houston for the following interview, portions of which will be aired on the station's "Border Crossings" show Thursday September 25, between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.

Mark Towns: Tell me about the Shakti tour.

John McLaughlin: I'm leaving in just a few days. We begin in Colorado, then we go over to the West coast, up the West coast up to Vancouver, then start to move East, work through the Midwest and then we'll be down to see you in Houston.

MT: Are you rehearsing a lot for this show?

JM: Oh, yeah. We always like to rehearse. We'll do this in Colorado.

MT: Are you doing many of your new compositions?

JM: Yeah, there'll be some new compositions, yeah. And although I don't think that he'll be there with us in Houston, Do you know the singer Shankar Mahadevan?

MT: Yes.

JM: Yeah, well Shankar Mahadevan will be with us the first ten days. But I think he'll be leaving before we get down to Houston. It's too bad he can't stay with us the whole tour. This guy's become a superstar in India in the last couple of years, so he's really busy. But, he's coming on the first ten days of the U.S. tour. And then we have about four or five weeks in the U.S. and then we come back to Europe. Then we do a European part, another month in Europe, and he comes back again to join us for another ten days. But if you know "Saturday Night in Bombay" [Shakti recording from December 2000], then you know the work that we've already done together.

MT: Miles Davis was once quoted as saying the best bands are [racially] mixed bands.

JM: mixed bands, yeah!

MT: Why do you think that is? I mean, I agree with that?

JM: Why? Because that's the way it is! It has a cultural richness, I think. You have people from different cultures coming together, they input their culture, they input their ideas and I think the global result as a consequence is richer with that input.

MT: Are you still into exploring the relationship between the 12 astrological signs and the 12-tone scale?

JM: No, not so much as I was in the past. It was a consideration for me. But, I'm more concerned with the quality of the relationship between intervals, which gives the impact. And I'm speaking about harmony here, because this is essentially about harmonies and the notes, and the relationships between notes. They are governed by, like everything else, the laws of harmony, whether they are dissonant or whether they are hard dissonant, or whether they are soft dissonant, whether they are consonant or whether they're hard consonant; There are a number of qualifying levels that govern the relationship between notes. But, I much more concerned now with the way they hit my inner ear, as it were, and how they correspond to what I hear in my imagination.

So, I have less consideration about the astrological implications and harmony. It was very interesting in the early days, when I would write pieces for that person's particular sign, and the combination of different astrological influences translated into music. I mean, it was kind of interesting. But, at this point I'm much more interested in the exploration of the quality of the tensions and relationships between notes.

MT: What about the way the space between notes is perceived? the way the notes reflect the space between them?

JM: The space between the notes?

MT: Yes.

JM: Yeah, well, what about it? (laughs)

MT: Is that something that you've contemplated?

JM: Yeah, I've contemplated it my whole life. My whole life has been dedicated to music. And of course, I've been accused a million times of playing too fast or too many notes, and I'm sure justifiably sometimes. But, you know, I'm the way I am and as we grow old, we learn and I'm still learning about space. But I'll be learning about space until I die.

One of the great masters of space was Mahalingam. I don't know if you know him, flute player? [T.R. Mahalingam] He passed away quite a few years ago. He was a master of space and tension. Unbelievable. If you could find any recording by him, it's definitely worth a listen.

MT: You've said Jimi Hendrix had a powerful effect on you.

JM: Oh, yeah! Him and many others, too, not the least of which was Miles and that whole gang from the late '50s that were in Miles' band. But, Jimi had an influence on me, like he had on, I think, every guitar player. He was kind of a revolutionary. And, whereas we were all experimenting in the '60s with feedback and these big amps and just looking for new ways of playing the electric guitar, Jimi really put it all together with the Stratocaster and the Marshall. I mean, he just, he turned the world on its ear. He had the most profound effect, and lasting effect, because the effect of Jimi Hendrix on guitar players is with us still today. And he changed the course of rock music, and blues, and pop music. He had a very direct effect on guitar players in these genres, y'know.

MT: Where do you see yourself as fitting in the history of guitarists?

JM: I don't look at myself like that all. I think that's your job, Mark! (laughs) I don't care where you put me! (laughs)

MT: You seem to be a great fan of music and you seem to be a person who has successfully synthesized all of his influences into something really unique. How do you feel about that? A lot of people like a lot of different things, but not many people can put 'em together like you have -- into something really different.

JM: First of all, my entire life has been dedicated to music, Mark. I'm 61 years old now, and I will die with my life dedicated to music. That's the way it's always been and that's the way it will be. I'll stop when I die. But, in addition to that, I have this very profound fascination with different cultures and the music from different cultures, be it India, or be it Spanish, or particularly Flamenco, or even classical.

My new CD ["Thieves and Poets" on Verve Records] is with a symphony orchestra. This is a piece that's been kind of like cookin' away for a few years now on the back burner, then worked here a little, put back on the back burner again, and finally I've recorded it. I'm very, very happy with the recording. And you'll hear all kinds of diverse influences in this orchestral piece.

Originally I was a piano player. And I was playing classical music until 11 years old then the guitar came in and the blues came in -- that is, the Mississippi Delta Blues. And between the ages of 11 and 15, I heard all my major musical influences that would affect me throughout my life. At 11 years old I heard Mississippi Blues, at 13 I heard Flamenco music, and then I heard jazz music -- Django Reinhardt. And then I heard Indian music at that time. I didn't know what it was, but it had a very profound effect on me. And then at 15 or 16 years old, I heard Miles Davis' band for the first time and that really knocked me out. That was the way I wanted to go. But, these influences marked me, you know, they had a very profound effect on me, all of them. And they still do today. They've had an effect on me throughout my entire musical life. And my personal life, too.

Especially India -- India's had a very direct effect on the way I perceive things because of its culture and my fascination and love, basically, for that culture and the people of India.

So, I think in the end, Mark, love is the key. I think if you "love" a particular music, not only will you be influenced by it, but it will tend to come out in your own music. It's kind of inevitable, you know what I'm sayin'?

MT: It is if you have a clear channel to work with -- a clear mind with which to be able to channel the influences.

JM: Well, don't forget that I started studying, I mean, seriously 30 years ago, Indian music, more than 30 years ago. I began studying Indian music theory. And I became, for example, an extra curricular student at Western University in Connecticut. I was studying carnatic music [the music of south India] on the vina with Dr. Ramanathan, and this was a wonderful experience. And I became a kind of extra curricular student with the great Ravi Shankarji, who helped me so much with my theory, whether south or north Raviji is the master of both north and south Indian music, and he was wonderful to me. You know Zakir Hussain [Shakti's tabla player]?

MT: Oh, yes.

JM: Yeah, I mean, we go way back to, we met in '69. We started to play, the first time we played together was '71, that's 32 years ago, so, you know, here we are still going strong?

MT: Is it because of the improvisational angle -- is that what's interested you about Indian music, the fact that it's based on improvisation?

JM: Of course, of course. That's one aspect. But it's funky, too. I find Indian music very funky. I mean it's very soulful, with their own kind of blues. But it's the only other school on the planet that develops improvisation to the high degree that you find in jazz music. So we have a lot of common ground. And I'm not the first to explore this; Coltrane did to a very powerful degree. His son's name is not Ravi for nothing. Coltrane himself was a student of Ravi Shankar.

MT: Right, right.

JM: And I'm just following in the great man's footsteps, that's all. And I'm very fortunate to have had a chance to study with these people. But, with Zakir, he's unbelievable. His is, without a doubt, the greatest tabla player in the world today. And he's a master improviser.

MT: I think he's the greatest percussionist in the world today -- on any percussion instrument?

JM: Yeah, I mean, he's a tabla player essentially, and he makes the tabla sing. I mean there's some great percussion players, y'know, just look at the Santana Band, for example with?uh?with uh?

MT: Raul Rekow and Carl Perazzo?

JM: Raul and Carl, yeah, and then especially when they are playing with Dennis [Chambers], my old comrade in arms, I mean that is some infernal machine they got going there. Unbelievable. I know -- we had a jam together last year with Santana's band. And this is another kind of percussion, but as a tabla player, Zakir is absolutely supreme. But what's wonderful is over the years, I mean, y'know, when you play together with somebody for 30 years, you develop this very strong complicity. So we have kind of communication that's wonderful, it's just wonderful. But, of course, I play with Selvaganesh, the son of Vikku [Vinayakram, one of the original members of Shakti], and Shrinivas, the electric mandolin player. These guys are something -- these guys are prodigies.

MT: Do you think all improvisation and composition has a spiritual basis?

JM: No, I don't think about that in music. If you want to develop yourself in a spiritual way then I can highly recommend it. I began that many, many years ago and I will continue that. But, I don't really consider music in those terms. Because the way I see it, my life comes first. My interior life comes first. And the development of my interior life will take care of this because music follows life. That's the way I see it. It's not the other way around. I don't have any message in the music. Music will be fine as long as you take care of yourself. Of course you have to work at the music. I mean, your life has to be dedicated to music, to the mastery of your instrument, otherwise the instrument will master you in the end. I don't try to make this analogy between, "I follow a spiritual path and so I want to play spiritual music." Music is already a spiritual language! You don't have to think about music being a spiritual language or not; it already is, y'know what I'm sayin'?

MT: Yeah. You said you tried free jazz and you said it was not for you?

JM: Absolutely not for me!

MT: Why not?

JM: It's chaotic. It's like every man for himself, not exactly. I'm being a little exaggerated here. But, I like to feel the rhythm, y'know, and the pulse of the rhythm. And frequently in free jazz, the pulse, it's hard to even feel it, y'know. Because music has a certain sensuality about it, and this is where the rhythm comes in. It's everybody playing together that gives it that certain sensuality that I really like in music.

In free jazz, I think it's possible, let me put it this way, if you are totally self-disciplined and the fellow musicians you're playing with are all totally disciplined, I think you could play some free jazz because you have such a high development of the personality. Then you would automatically kind of harmonize with each other. But generally what happens is this chaotic element. It's not together in the way I'd like it to be together, particularly in terms of rhythm. And this I found to be a problem for me. That's why I did it, and then I left because it just, not that I'm against it, don't misunderstand me, I've listened to free jazz and there's some wonderful things out there, but it's just not for me personally.

MT: You're known for doing many things in complex time signatures. Do you think some people have trouble relating to anything that's not in 4/4 time?

JM: Um, only because they haven't been exposed to it. But I have to tell you something; I've just finished work on a DVD that is for mastery of improvisation on guitar, and how to master harmony on the guitar, and how to really develop the sense of odd time signatures. And I think that it's just a question of time before you'll have more and more odd time signatures coming through. I mean look, even in pop music -- Sting had a pop tune in 5/4.

MT: Right.

JM: And that's really cool, you know, because, generally the pop market is basically catering to the lowest common denominator, which is not wrong. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not into this elitist thing at all. It's just that, if it's 4/4, and if it's swingin' and it's funky, it's great, because in the end, Mark, there's two kinds of music: good and bad.

MT: Right.

JM: And whatever the genre, whether it's classical, whether it's Indian, whether it's from the North Pole, whether it's from the Moon, it doesn't matter. It's good or it's bad. And 4/4 or 5/4, this is just something particularly for instrumentalists where you can develop the sense of rhythm, and you can enjoy the shape of the rhythm. Because when you hear something in 7/4, it's not like hearing something in 4/4 or 5/4 or 9/4, you know what I'm sayin'?

MT: Right. Even The Beatles did things in odd times, like "All You Need is Love."

JM: Yeah! It already started in the 60's?

MT: Right.

JM: Yeah, The Beatles did a great advance work on this thing. It hasn't been continued because there's been no group like The Beatles since The Beatles, of course. But I think it's just a matter of time. Because the level of musicianship in popular music continually rises, and there are some great things happening in pop music.

MT: Do you think the improvising musician will continue to survive?

JM: Continue to survive? Yeah.

MT: Things like acid jazz, jungle, drums and bass, hip-hop, and rap don't include much improvisation?

JM: Not yet. Not yet, but they will.

MT: (laughs)

JM: It's just that? There's been a big movement the last, say, 10 years with all of these movements -- with jungle, and drums and bass, acid jazz, hip-hop, which I love. I love all of this. In fact, I listen even more to underground music than I do to overground, because I'm a little disappointed, actually, with what's going on in jazz. And I'm not alone. The young people, they hear this. Especially today, there's a lot of this retro movement to play how they used to play in the 60's. You know, I mean, this is pretty boring stuff.

MT: Well, do you think that's what's going on in jazz, or what's going on in the marketing and sales of jazz?

JM: That's part of it. Yeah, that's part of it. The record companies, they wanted musicians to play in this retro style. Don't ask me why. But in America particularly, it's very bad. There's not this stigma attached to fusion music outside of the US. They don't care about it anywhere else except in the US, the media, this thing about fusion, so that's why it's really only a problem as far as the US is concerned. But the US is the major music market in the world.

But these developments, which have been started by, for the most part, young people experimenting with sampling and computers and sequencers, I mean, they've done a great job. They've done a great job, but, you know, while they've been bringing up these new ways of playing and new genres, the improvisers have been kind of staying 30 or 40 years back, you know what I'm saying?

MT: Yeah.

JM: And so, there's a gap at the moment between these new innovators of form and the improvisers who are employing them. Because there are very few improvisers who employ these kind of forms.

MT: So can we take this to mean that you'll soon be putting out some type of acid jazz or underground recording?

JM: I already started working on it a long time ago, Mark. Yeah, I'm definitely there. The critics are gonna crucify me over this one.

MT: Oh, not me. Bring me a copy!

JM: (laughs) I've done a lot of work on it. I don't think it's gonna be out before late next year, because I've been so busy with the orchestral work. It's a great recording.

MT: Will much of Shakti's show be improvised?

JM: You better believe it! I mean, yeah, we've got a lot of great compositions, we've got a lot of arrangements, but improvisation is the heart and soul of this band. Because that's where you get spontaneous, Mark. You know, you're a musician, right?

MT: Oh, yeah.

JM: Yeah. And you get spontaneous, you're in your natural human state, and our natural human state should be continuous improvisation, even out of music, you know what I'm sayin??

MT: Oh yeah.

JM: We're improvising all the time.

MT: Right. We don't wake up with a script in our hand for the day.

JM: No.

MT: We're always improvising.

JM: We wake up with a big list of conventions in our mind, you know what I'm sayin??

MT: Yes.

JM: And we tend to follow the conventions. But, in music, we don't have these problems, and we can be as free as we wish to be, and believe me, we will be very free. But not free jazz! (laughs)

MT: So, do you ever just play the guitar just for your own amusement anymore? Or is it always just for gigs or a project?

JM: Naw, you know, are you kidding? I live with the guitar. I love guitar. I love guitar.

MT: Are you playing more acoustic guitar or electric now?

JM: The new CD is all acoustic. I mean, it's the first time I've made an all-acoustic record in a long time, about 10 years. But it's really a great recording. I'm very happy with it. But the next one won't be acoustic. I mean, there may be some acoustic on it, but it will be more electric.

MT: How do you want to be remembered?

JM: (pauses) Well, I don't care if you remember me or don't. Listen, I'm the most fortunate of people, Mark. My life's been dedicated to music. I've been able to do explorations and adventures inside myself to bring out and discover new forms in music, and just have a wonderful time doing it. I mean, I'm the most fortunate of people. I mean, if you don't remember me, then it's really fine. (laughing) It's no problem! Will I care once I'm gone? Of course not.

MT: When are you gonna do a Latin Jazz CD?

JM: Latin Jazz? Well, I was supposed to see Santana in three days, but I won't be able to do it. He's playing in Paris, and he wants me to go up and play with him, but I'm leaving very early on Saturday morning from a place called Nice Airport, so I'm not gonna be able to go up there. But in the meantime, one of the pieces on this crazy record that I'm planning for sometime next year or so is a piece that I wrote for Carlos and me. And so, I wanna get those great percussionists, Karl (Perazzo) and Raul (Rekow) and Dennis (Chambers) on this recording. So I don't know if I'm gonna make an [entire Latin jazz] album, 'cause I've got a lot of crazy things in my mind that I wanna do. But there'll be some Latin Jazz on there for sure.

MT: Great. And this thing you're doing that's some type of acid jazz record, does it have a title yet?

JM: No. No, the title will come when it comes. But I'm very excited about it because I have all these strange ideas comin' out of my imagination, you know.

MT: Great.

JM: And the jazz critics will have a field day. They'll have a wonderful time (laughs).

MT: You'd be surprised. The ones in their twenties will probably love it.

JM: Yeah, you're probably right. Just the old fogies. I mean, a lot of people call me an old fogie. (laughs) But it doesn't matter.

MT: Right.

JM: We'll see. Yeah, you're probably right there, though.

MT: Right.

JM: It's the younger generation, they know what's goin? on.

MT: Yeah. Well, anything else you wanna add?

JM: Get a copy of the record! You'll see where I'm coming from musically. I mean, you know, whatever words I'm saying will never equal what I'm able to say in music. Because I can talk to you about it, but it's like telling you, "Mmm, I'm eatin' this delicious cake," you know, the best thing you can do is eat it.

TICKETS for John McLaughlin & Shakti, Sunday September 28 at Verizon Wireless Theater, 520 Texas Avenue, Houston, Texas 77002, are $23.50 to $73.50 and available from Verizon Wireless Theater Box Office (713.230.1600); TicketMaster (713-629-3700); or from the Indo-American Association (281-648-0422)

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