Prog - - Contents - Words: David West John McLaughLin

John McLaughlin helped rev­o­lu­tionise rock mu­sic with his part in the de­vel­op­ment of jazz fu­sion. Here the Ma­hav­ishnu Orches­tra gui­tar god tells his story.

The Prog Interview is just that: ev­ery month, we’re go­ing to get in­side the minds of some of the big­gest names in mu­sic. This is­sue, it’s John McLaughlin. From help­ing cre­ate jazz rock fu­sion to tack­ling every­thing from funk to In­dian mu­sic to fla­menco, McLaughlin’s ca­reer has been de­fined by his will­ing­ness to take his gui­tar and his mu­sic into undis­cov­ered ter­ri­tory.

In the late 1960s, change was in the air. Jimi Hen­drix had hinted at the pos­si­bil­i­ties of throw­ing jazz im­pro­vi­sa­tion into rock mu­sic, James Brown am­pli­fied the R&B groove to cre­ate funk, and Miles Davis and Tony Wil­liams were chomp­ing at the bit to shake off the limits of acous­tic jazz.

Orig­i­nally from York­shire, John McLaughlin was a prodi­giously gifted gui­tarist work­ing on the Lon­don cir­cuit when Wil­liams brought him to New York to join his new band, Life­time, for their ground­break­ing, genre-de­fy­ing al­bum Emer­gency!.

Davis, im­pressed by the young Brit’s speed, flu­ency and in­ven­tion, re­cruited McLaughlin to play on In A Si­lent Way and Bitches Brew. Th­ese three al­bums tore up the jazz rule book and made some­thing new – jazz rock. It was loud, the crit­ics loathed it, but it was un­stop­pable.

“It was a great pe­riod, the end of the 60s go­ing into the 70s,” says McLaughlin. “I just hap­pened to be in the mid­dle of it all. It was just luck re­ally.”

In 1971 McLaughlin founded Ma­hav­ishnu Orches­tra to play their own fear­less, fe­ro­cious brand of this new form. In the mid-70s, he switched di­rec­tion to pur­sue In­dian mu­sic with Shakti. Now lead­ing John McLaughlin And The 4th Di­men­sion, the gui­tar wiz­ard re­mains a rest­less musical ex­plorer, his light­ning ve­loc­ity on the gui­tar matched only by his bound­less drive to ex­pand and im­prove his craft. “I think mu­sic re­minds us of our home where we all be­long to­gether,” he says. “It’s won­der­ful.”

What prompted you to record your re­cent gigs at Ron­nie Scott’s in Lon­don?

We had two nights there and it gave us the op­por­tu­nity to record, be­cause Ron­nie’s has got the fa­cil­ity built right into the club, which is re­ally very handy. I asked specif­i­cally to play Ron­nie’s. It’s very nice to play in the Bar­bican or the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall, beau­ti­ful halls. Maybe it’s age and nos­tal­gia, but I thought how won­der­ful it would be to be back in Ron­nie’s af­ter how many years. I was in one of the house bands at Ron­nie’s in 1966/’67, about 50 years ago, called the Mike Carr Trio: very fine Bri­tish mu­si­cian, Ham­mond or­gan player.

That was the whole theme in the 60s, the Ham­mond or­gan, and of course I have such a huge debt to Ron­nie per­son­ally. Ac­tu­ally, a lot of mu­si­cians have a very big debt to him. You’re probably too young to re­mem­ber the War­dour Street club be­fore he moved to Frith Street in the early 60s. The first one was a very small club but when he moved, he kept the small one open for the young mu­si­cians so we had a place to play. It was very sweet. Also, he was in­stru­men­tal in get­ting me to Amer­ica in

’68. He was just a su­per guy

What can you say? Th­ese purists, they’re the bane of mu­sic. They think they know what mu­sic is and all they do is they have cer­tain fix­a­tions about what they like, and they want every­body to like what they like. They have prob­lems ac­cept­ing new con­cepts and in­no­va­tion.

and a great player too, so it was per­sonal for me. I asked to record, so maybe we’ll have a Live @ Ron­nie Scott’s. How nice!

How is it dif­fer­ent play­ing in a club ver­sus a big hall?

I like the clubs; I grew up in the clubs. Even when I went to the US play­ing with Tony Wil­liams and Larry Young, it was all clubs. No con­certs at all re­ally un­til a year later when Jack Bruce joined the band. Jack was al­ready kind of a star in the four-piece Life­time, but even Miles [Davis] was play­ing mainly clubs in Amer­ica in the 60s and 70s too. There’s an in­ti­mate at­mos­phere in clubs that’s re­ally hard to re­pro­duce in a con­cert hall. The sound of a con­cert hall can be re­ally great, but that in­ti­mate com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the au­di­ence and the band, I like that, I re­ally do.

They can see the dirt un­der your fin­ger­nails.

You men­tioned or­gan trios were in fash­ion in the 60s – the orig­i­nal in­car­na­tion of Life­time was an or­gan trio.

Ab­so­lutely. I didn’t even know Larry would be in the band un­til

I got to New York but I was thrilled. He was one of the new breed of Ham­mond or­gan play­ers that stepped out of the


genre of Jimmy Smith, this kind of funky R&B. Which I loved, but Larry brought this dif­fer­ent chordal har­mony that McCoy Tyner was do­ing with John Coltrane in the early 60s. He brought that to the Ham­mond or­gan and I thought that was mar­vel­lous. On the road, we were making $20 a night in those days. Not a lot, but it was a mar­vel­lous ex­pe­ri­ence to play with Tony.

When you formed Ma­hav­ishnu Orches­tra, did you con­sider the or­gan trio for­mat?

I wanted a dif­fer­ent sound. Don’t for­get, I’d been play­ing for many years. We’re talk­ing the early 60s, with peo­ple like Ge­orgie Fame And The Blue Flames. I loved it but by the time I’d done two years with Tony and Life­time with Larry Young, I was break­ing out. Plus, I wanted a vi­o­lin in my band and I al­ways loved the Fender Rhodes.

It must have been the end of 1970, about a month or so af­ter Miles had rec­om­mended that I form my own band. It’s all his fault re­ally. One night in a club we were talk­ing and he said, “It’s time to form your own band.” That was a real shock for me be­cause he was a very hon­est man, the most hon­est man I ever met. In any event, within a month I was putting it to­gether. I got Billy [Cob­ham], Billy and I were on [A Trib­ute To] Jack John­son to­gether and I loved the way Billy played.

Then Miroslav [Vi­touš] called me and he said, “John, we’re form­ing a band with Wayne [Shorter] and Joe [Zaw­inul] called Weather Re­port and we want you in on gui­tar.” Oh man! “Sorry Miroslav, but I’m un­der or­ders. I’ve got to put my own band to­gether.” He said, “Lis­ten, have you heard Jan Hammer? He’s a great piano player.”

He was play­ing with Sarah Vaughan at the time and that’s as good a cre­den­tial as you can get. So I called him and he was up for it, he wanted to break out. It was in the air. Peo­ple wanted to break out of the mould, to cre­ate new forms and, in a sense, you’ve got to break some of the old ones and he was up for that. Of course, he was play­ing Fender Rhodes, so it was per­fect for me.

How did the jazz rock sound de­velop?

In a way, you could say my dis­ci­pline is a jazz dis­ci­pline but I like that dis­tor­tion thing. It re­minds me of Coltrane. You lis­ten to some of the record­ings of Coltrane, even on A Love Supreme, ’64/’65, some­times he hits two or three notes on one note. You hear th­ese har­mon­ics coming out. That’s what I loved about Jimi [Hen­drix], he was find­ing a way to get a new sound and al­ready by this time, we’re talk­ing mid60s, I was a lit­tle bored with the kind of jazz tone of the gui­tar – this pure, al­most ny­lon string sound on an elec­tric gui­tar.

I was cut­ting my teeth on Coltrane, whether A Love

Supreme or In­ter­stel­lar Space or Om – that mu­sic is just to­tal passion and Miles of course al­ways played with such a passion. Jimi re­ally opened the door to elec­tric gui­tar play­ers in how to achieve this kind of get­ting more than one note out of one note. It’s dif­fi­cult to say, but Jimi had a very strong im­pact on me in terms of the tone of the

gui­tar, and I think he af­fected an en­tire gen­er­a­tion. In fact, more than one gen­er­a­tion.

How much was your ap­proach in­flu­enced by Life­time?

When Life­time started, Tony was al­ready rad­i­cal. I loved Tony be­cause he was free, he was a real free spirit and he had new con­cepts of how to play drums. I loved that.

When we started play­ing, within a cou­ple of months I had to get a big amp and trade in my hol­low body for a solid body, oth­er­wise the hol­low body gui­tar freaks out with high vol­ume. Tony was al­ways loud and strong be­cause he loved rock’n’roll. There’s good rock’n’roll and bad rock’n’roll, like there’s good jazz and there’s bad jazz. There’s good and bad ev­ery­where.

Is it true that Ma­hav­ishnu Orches­tra were hated by crit­ics?

We got re­ally slagged off big time by a lot of the jazz play­ers. The purists, they’ve al­ways been around and they’ve al­ways be­lieved that they know what the real jazz is, but it hap­pens ev­ery time. It hap­pened with Shakti.

When I started play­ing with Zakir [Hus­sain], the tabla player in Shakti, he got be­rated vi­o­lently in the press for play­ing with peo­ple like me – it was making the mu­sic im­pure. I mean, it’s so silly. Paco [De Lu­cia], when

Miles [Davis] rec­om­mended that I form my own band. It’s all his fault re­ally. That was a real shock for me be­cause he was the most hon­est man I ever met.

we started to play the fla­menco, purists said, “It’s over, now the pure fla­menco is dead.”

What can you say? Th­ese purists, they’re the bane of mu­sic. They think they know what mu­sic is and all they do is have cer­tain fix­a­tions about what they like, and they want every­body to like what they like. They have prob­lems ac­cept­ing new con­cepts and in­no­va­tion. It hap­pened with Coltrane, even from A Love Supreme. Within a year he started to make al­bums like In­ter­stel­lar Space, bring­ing Pharaoh

San­ders in there, just scream­ing sax­o­phones like scream­ing gui­tars, but won­der­ful. Well,

I like it, but the crit­ics were say­ing, “What is he do­ing? He’s got such an ugly sound!” They don’t know how to deal with it.

When you start to break the mould of what­ever they have a par­tic­u­lar af­fec­tion for, they get very ner­vous and anx­ious: “This is not the real thing, it’s wrong.” [Laughs] But it’s ev­ery­where. Who wor­ries about that? There’s no point. As Os­car Wilde said, “They love you, they hate you, as long as they don’t ig­nore you.”

When you played with Zakir Hus­sain in Shakti, was it like learn­ing a new musical lan­guage?

It’s an­other cul­ture, isn’t it? Mu­si­cally, there is com­mon ground be­tween jazz and In­dian mu­sic. I think they’re the only two cul­tural ex­pres­sions that have com­mon ground and that is rhythm and im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Coming out of the whole psy­che­delic pe­riod in the mid to late 60s, many of us were look­ing to the East for an­swers to the great ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions, and once you start look­ing East – In­dia in par­tic­u­lar has been ad­dress­ing th­ese ques­tions for thou­sands of years – at some point you come across the mu­sic.

Zakir and I go back to ’69 when we both ar­rived in the US. We had a mu­tual friend who had a mu­sic store and I asked this guy, “Lis­ten, if you get an In­dian mu­si­cian walk in and he wants to give a les­son, call me.”

It hap­pened to be Zakir Hus­sain and he [the store owner] called me. I said, “What does he play?” He said, “He plays tabla.” I said, “Well, I don’t study tabla, can he give me a vo­cal les­son?”

I went down right away and I don’t sing well at all. Zakir re­ally doesn’t sing much bet­ter than me, but he gave me a vo­cal les­son, we had a good laugh af­ter­wards and we be­came friends. By 1972 I’d stud­ied North In­dian. In ’72 I was study­ing South In­dian, so I was get­ting the best of both worlds. By 1973 I’d met L Shankar, the first vi­o­lin player in the Shakti band, and I took the per­cus­sion player of my teacher, my guru Ra­manathan, and that was the first Shakti group.

By this time, I’d been study­ing the­ory for sev­eral years so I knew about the rhyth­mi­cal struc­tures, to some ex­tent about the raga sys­tem of In­dia, and I was re­lat­ing it to my own Western har­monic knowl­edge be­cause Western mu­sic is based all on dif­fer­ent scales, be­cause har­mony is just a bunch of notes from a par­tic­u­lar scale play­ing to­gether. It’s a ver­ti­cal view of har­mony – of a scale rather, a chord.

I was play­ing acous­tic gui­tar and by the end of ’75 that was it for the Ma­hav­ishnu Orches­tra. I told the guys, “Sorry, I’m go­ing to have to let you all go be­cause I just want to con­cen­trate on the Shakti group.”

By the end of ’75 I’d gone to In­dia and I found Vikku Vi­nayakram the ghatam player. I con­tin­ued learn­ing, play­ing with the great mas­ters like Zakir. Zakir, he’s probably the great­est tabla player alive. I think the only guy who was bet­ter than him at that time was his dad, Alla Rakha.

How have those in­flu­ences from In­dia shaped your play­ing?

I’ve been go­ing to In­dia now for more years than I can re­mem­ber. We’re not alone in the West in seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion else­where, in In­dia or wher­ever for that mat­ter. Be­cause mu­si­cians, of which there are mil­lions in In­dia and

I’m 75, I’m still learn­ing ev­ery day. I still work ev­ery day be­cause I know so lit­tle about every­thing. In my ig­no­rance, since I’m aware of it, I have this in­sa­tiable de­sire to learn more.

they’re great play­ers, they’re also seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion. They’ve been lis­ten­ing to and are in­flu­enced by Western mu­sic.

Float­ing Point, the al­bum I made in In­dia about 10 years ago, is an ex­am­ple of that. There’s a piece with two gui­tar play­ers, one gui­tar, one is a zi­tar – it’s an elec­tric sitar – with Ni­ladri Ku­mar. The way he plays that elec­tric sitar, you can hear the Western in­flu­ence with the In­dian in­flu­ence.It’s not con­trived.

I have no de­sire to be an In­dian mu­si­cian. I’ve done that. I’ve re­alised af­ter years of work­ing on In­dian in­stru­ments that I’m a gui­tar player. I’m not gifted enough to play more than one in­stru­ment, but the in­flu­ences and the knowl­edge that I’ve searched for and stud­ied in

In­dian mu­sic are re­ally be­cause I love that mu­sic and I want to un­der­stand it more. In fact, the more I un­der­stand it, the more I un­der­stand the mu­si­cians them­selves.

It’s like speak­ing a lan­guage. I live in a French-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion and there’s no way you can en­ter into the French mind with­out the lan­guage – it’s im­pos­si­ble. To un­der­stand the mind and the cul­ture, you need the lan­guage, so I needed the lan­guage of In­dian mu­sic in order to com­mu­ni­cate in a co­her­ent way with my In­dian brother mu­si­cians. Even though we’re thou­sands of kilo­me­tres apart, we’re grow­ing up and dis­cov­er­ing each other through mu­sic and through love re­ally, be­cause if you don’t love it then it’s not go­ing to work.

There was a pe­riod in the 80s when it be­came New World Mu­sic and peo­ple were sam­pling the Shakuhachi flute from Ja­pan with a 12-string gui­tar with a Peru­vian flute – it was all sam­pling. They made records and ac­tu­ally be­came very suc­cess­ful, but it wasn’t play­ing. No­body’s play­ing where you sweat and you can fall down and hit your nose on the ground, which is of course the only mu­sic that I want to play – real im­pro­vised mu­sic.

You’re revered by other gui­tarists. Are you ever tempted to start be­liev­ing your own rep­u­ta­tion?

Yes, but I don’t be­lieve a word of it. That’s the prob­lem: I am acutely aware of my in­ca­pac­i­ties and my ig­no­rance. In fact, I was just think­ing this morn­ing, I should make a CD called Deaf, Dumb And Blind be­cause that’s how I feel some­times. It’s very sweet what peo­ple say and th­ese ac­co­lades. It’s lovely, but it doesn’t mean any­thing. It’s pleas­ing to the ego but I’m also acutely aware that my ego is re­ally a stupid fel­low so I don’t want to pay any at­ten­tion to it.

I’m not just try­ing to be hum­ble here be­cause hu­mil­ity can be turned into in­verted van­ity but what I say is what I truly feel. I know ret­ro­spec­tively I’ve had a great deal of suc­cess but in a way, that has stim­u­lated me even more. My whole life has been ded­i­cated to my in­stru­ment and to mu­sic. It hasn’t stopped.

I’m 75, I’m still learn­ing ev­ery day, I still work ev­ery day be­cause I know so lit­tle about every­thing. In my ig­no­rance, since I’m aware of it, I have this in­sa­tiable de­sire to learn more.

Has Ma­hav­ishnu Orches­tra cast a long shadow over your ca­reer?

I see it more as a bit of a shin­ing light. For me, it’s a very pos­i­tive thing that hap­pened in my life. Even by that time, I was a very avid stu­dent of med­i­ta­tion and be­com­ing in­creas­ingly aware of my own stu­pid­ity and this amaz­ing out­ward suc­cess, which hap­pened more or less in­stantly with Ma­hav­ishnu, I couldn’t be­lieve it. It was just kind of a phe­nom­e­non, and phe­nomenons, they come and go just like the tides, like the night and the day.

I had no il­lu­sions about los­ing pop­u­lar­ity. In fact, I al­most did it in­ten­tion­ally be­cause when I came out of Ma­hav­ishnu and said to my agent and my record com­pany, “I’m go­ing to do Shakti,” they said, “You’re out of your mind.” Lit­er­ally, there was one guy from the record com­pany, which was CBS at that time, he said, “Whatcha gonna do, sit down and play acous­tic gui­tar with th­ese In­di­ans? What are you, crazy?” And I said, “Yes, but I as­sume the con­se­quences.”

That’s re­ally all it is. There were fi­nan­cial con­se­quences, we didn’t sell many records and that’s why they were pissed at me. Ma­hav­ishnu was a real mon­eyspin­ner for the record com­pa­nies.

In In­dia, Shakti is some­thing like a cult band, truly get­ting a won­der­ful re­cep­tion. Ma­hav­ishnu, it is a light to me be­cause it’s part of my musical his­tory. I wouldn’t be play­ing how I am, I wouldn’t be who I am, with­out the Ma­hav­ishnu, so I’m just very grate­ful for what­ever that brought to me, mu­si­cally, per­son­ally, spir­i­tu­ally, what­ever you want to call it.

Live @ Ron­nie Scott’s is out on Septem­ber 15 via Ab­stract Logix Mu­sic. For more in­for­ma­tion, see www.john­m­claugh­













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