Traveling Light: John McLaughlin
Celebrated fusion guitarist John McLaughlin on his new album, an upcoming India tour and why he is pessimistic about the future of the music industry.
When someone like John McLaughlin says that the music industry is going through a “disastrous” situation, it’s not a good sign. McLaughlin, the grand old man of fusion music and a relentlessly prolific guitarist, is probably the best judge of the global scene — he has released a ton of material [solo, collaborative, live as well as a guest artist] in his six-decade-long career, and formed bands and supergroups with some of the most prodigious names on the international circuit. But he is anything but hopeful today. He says, “There are young musicians coming up who are fabulous players, and they have absolutely no chance to get a record contract…Worse is to come in the music world.” No mincing words there.
When McLaughlin started out in the Sixties, continual innovation in music seemed to be order of the day, especially in the jazz-rock and fusion space. His avant-garde quintet Mahavishnu Orchestra [the original line-up featured Jan Hammer on keyboards, Billy Cobham on drums, violinist Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird on bass guitar] set the tone for the style of music McLaughlin’s name would inextricably be linked with for the next fifty years — guitar playing that is high on technique and complexity, as well as emotiveness. By the time Shakti, his band that featured tabla player Zakir Hussain, was formed and had released its first album, McLaughlin was already enjoying the status of an importer of sorts of Indian ragas to the jazz-loving audience in the West. His love for India is well-known and well-documented too; McLaughlin has been a long-standing disciple of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy and has been a regular visitor to India. As he readies for another trip here, McLaughlin couldn’t be happier to return. His new album, Black Light, which showcases the genius of his latest band, 4th Dimension [featuring old-time collaborators Gary Husband on keyboards and drums, bassist Etienne Mbappe and drummer Ranjit Barot] is just out and he is prepping for a long Australia and Asia tour starting October 6th. The India leg will have three stops — Kolkata [November 3rd], Mumbai [November 6th] and Bengaluru [November 7th]. Ahead of this month-long tour, ROLLING STONE India caught up with McLaughlin and got him to tell us the secret behind being a great bandleader, what his new record is all about and why free music on the Internet spells danger.
We’ve heard you in different set-ups and on many records — as a guitarist and serial collaborator. Being a prolific musician, what kind of goals do you set for yourself before every release?
I have to say that at my age, I don’t have any artistic goals, and I never set up goals for myself. For many years I consider every concert and every recording to be my last one, and as a consequent, give it everything I’ve got. This is an attitude that is shared by all the members of 4th Dimension. The other aspect of the music is that when it arrives in my imagination, it comes with its own directives and inf luences. My job is to get it out from my head into reality.
‘Black Light’ features tribute compositions too. Tell us more about those particular tracks.
There are three tributes on Black Light. The first is to [mandolin virtuoso] U. Srinivas, and even though the title may throw you off, it is personally for him. It is the opening track called “Here Come The Jiis.” Srinivas was such a joyful person, with such a wonderful sense of humor; the piece needed to be joyful also. The second is “Panditji” which is a profound thank you to [sitar legend] Pandit Ravi Shankar, with whom I had the honor of studying under as an ‘extra-curricular’ student in the 1970s. He helped me so much in my life and music. The third is for [flamenco guitarist] Paco de Lucia and the title is “El Hombre Que Sabiá,” which is Spanish for ‘The Man Who Knew’. My association with Paco was for almost 40 years, and his friendship and music affected me most deeply. The principal reason for making another tribute to Paco — I’ve made another in the past — was that since 2013, we had planned to record a duo album in 2014. We had begun to exchange compositions, and I sent him “El Hombre” just before left for Central America where he died a few weeks later. Paco was particularly fond of this piece, and when I finally got over my grief at losing him, I decided to arrange this piece for 4th Dimension, and they did a fantastic job. I know Paco would have loved the way we recorded this piece. One piece of good news is that Eagle Rock records will release a recording that Paco and I made in 1987 during the Festival in Montreux Switzerland. It is such a wild recording; it is two crazy guys on a crazy night with a crazy audience!
Although all of your works carry your inimitable style and stamp on them, the musicians that have played on them — from drummer Billy Cobham and tabla master Zakir Husain to Etienne Mbappe and Gary Husband — can call these records as much as their own as you can. What is the secret behind allowing the musicians to have as much fun as you have while working on a song, and letting them ‘own’ it too?
We are all, consciously or not, seeking liberation of one kind or another. Now while it’s true I write the music, when I give the scores to the musicians, I’ve told them long ago, that they have to play it their own way. I tell them that I don’t want to hear what they think I might want to hear; I want to hear what they want to play, I want to hear that person and how strongly they feel about what they are doing musically. So we all have freedom even in a structured way. This was one of the most important lessons I learned from [iconic jazz trumpeter] Miles Davis. He wanted us to play with him, but most of all, he wanted us to be completely ourselves. This is also my philosophy.
Now while it’s true I write the music, when I give the scores to the musicians, I’ve told them long ago, that they have to play it their own way.
Your team-ups with Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix are well-known and often discussed in articles about your music. But are there any musicians that most of us do not know about by virtue of them not being in the limelight who you would like to give a shoutout to?
I have been a fan of Vilayapatti Subramanyam, the greatest thavil player of all time, in my opinion. He plays at the level of total genius. I am also a great admirer of [mridangam player] Karaikudi Mani and [percussionist] Palgh at Raghu. I’ve teamed up with Jeff Beck in the past, and he is one of the greatest guitarists of all time. There is another guitarist in the U.S. called Jimmy Herring who is playing some fantastic guitar, and we have collaborated in concerts together. He is really something.
You’ve been a pioneering voice in the jazz/rock fusion space. Some of your peers like John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Scott Henderson and others are known for their own matchless styles too. Are you close friends with any of these guitarists, or with any other jazz/ fusion guitarist on the music circuit? Also, at your level of musicianship, do you, as a guitarist, still compare notes with other innovators from your field? What is the process like?
They are all dear and old friends. We’re all old hippies! Of course I admire all of them and enjoy their music very much. We don’t compare notes; we don’t need to because as musicians, we can hear everything that’s going on with development and evolution in the recordings themselves. This is really how we speak to each other. Of course it’s always a joy to run into them at this or that festival, or sometimes in an airport.
A lot of musicians call you the best guitarist alive today. What do you make of these compliments? Is there ever a pressure to keep living up to that perception?
I find it very difficult, if not impossible, to accept the concept of a ‘best’ in music. It’s flattering of course, but I can only take it with a pinch of salt. My biggest competitor is my own ignorance and egocentrism, but I’ve been working at it for a long time so I don’t worry about it!
Who are your favorite Indian classical/fusion musicians from the younger lot? Any collaborations in the pipeline?
On “Floating Point,” which was recorded in India, I had an opportunity to play and record with some of the best young musicians in India. Flautists Naveen Kumar and Shashank; sitarist Niladri Kumar; the younger brother of Srinivas, Rajesh; slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya — all of them great players — and of course, the great Ranjit Barot on drums, and who else but Sivamani playing percussion! At this time, I am working closely with [playback singer and classical vocalist] Shankar Mahadevan on a project that is very dear to both our hearts. We have already done much work on this project which began about two years ago. It is a very big project, and we are working towards a release for next year. This is a completely new collaboration between East and West, and is truly amazing.
In your previous interview with Rolling Stone India, you had lamented the lack of innovations in the field of jazz, but also expressed hope that it will improve. In your opinion, how can the industry [record labels/promoters/distributors/venues] as well as artists contribute towards a culture of musical innovation, especially in a country like India where formal music education has always been in crisis?
The entire musical world is in crisis, and has not gotten any better in the past few years; to the contrary it has worsened. There is the prevailing attitude that if something’s on the Internet and is free, it’s okay to take it. This is a disastrous situation. I am very pessimistic about the future of the music industry. There are young musicians coming up who are fabulous players, and they have absolutely no chance to get a record contract. During my lifetime I’ve sold millions of records, and today my colleagues and I make records knowing we will not make any financial gain. We do it because that’s what we’ve always done, and it’s done for love only. My personal opinion is that we have not yet reached the bottom of the crisis. Worse is to come in the music world.
Apart from playing the shows in Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore on this tour, are you going to be traveling around the country too?
Not this time since we have concerts in Australia, Bali, Indonesia, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and even Bangladesh! So those three concerts are it.
Mumbai must be special for you because it is home to many of the musicians that you have worked with previously? What are you looking forward to most at your performance at the NCPA?
Yes it’s true, Bombay has always been special to me. The great musicians, the friends, the traffic! Frankly, I’m just happy to be in India. India has been part of me for the past 50 years and I even think I lived there in another life, that’s how dear it is to me. So basically I’m just happy to get to the NCPA and rock!
This article appeared in Rolling Stone India Issue 0092: October 2015.