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The Rolling Stone Interview: John McLaughlin

The British jazz guitarist performs in India this month with his jazz fusion band 4th Dimension

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Narendra Kusnur Apr 02, 2014
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John McLaughlin on the cover of ROLLING STONE India's April 2014 issue

John McLaughlin on the cover of ROLLING STONE India’s April 2014 issue. Photo: Ross Halfin

The swinging Seventies had just begun, and the term ”˜jazz-rock’ was in vogue. While masters like vibraphonist Gary Burton, saxophonist Charles Lloyd and guitarist Larry Coryell had experimented with this genre in the previous decade to woo younger audiences, the success of trumpet­er-composer Miles Davis’ ambitious, multi-artiste 1970 project Bitches Brew was a major turning point. wDavis had assembled a virtual who’s who of the world’s best young jazz musicians to play on the iconic album, 13 of them in all, including names like Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, Chick Corea, Larry Young, Billy Cobham etc. Amongst them was a rela­tively lesser known British guitarist John McLaughlin. But within the jazz circles, the 28-year-old was already being hailed as one of the most innovative musicians around, having made his big mark on Miles’ 1969 album In A Silent Way. So im­pressed was the legendary trumpeter by McLaughlin’s work on Bitches Brew, that he created a separate track from the outtakes of one of their sessions, and called it John McLaughlin. The guitarist would go on to have the unique distinction of Miles naming another track after him, “Go Ahead John” on his 1974 album, Big Fun.

The legendary Jimi Hendrix too was taken in by McLaughlin’s talent and in­vited him to take part in a one-night jam session in March 1969, making him prob­ably the only musician in the world to have played with both Hendrix and Miles. With his marvelous technique, improvisational abilities, loads of ideas and a fire in the belly, McLaughlin took the jazz-rock and global fusion worlds by storm in the 1970s, setting up two of the greatest jazz fusion bands of all time ”“ the celebrated Mahavishnu Or­chestra in 1971, and Shakti in 1975 with its blend of jazz with Indian classical melodies and rhythms. The great guitarist Carlos Santana once described Shakti as the most intense music he had ever heard.

Of course as is well known, the names of the bands came from McLaughlin’s interest in Indian philosophy and classical music. “Jazz and Indian music share a lot of common ground,” he once said, “There are marvelous improvisers in India, rhythmic improvisers, and this gives us a lot in common.” A long-term follower of the spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy (who gave him the name Mahavishnu), he has been a frequent visitor to this country. But in early April, he will make a rare trip as a musician to play two concerts in Chennai and Mumbai with his latest band 4th Dimension, the electric jazz-rock fusion ensemble that he has fronted since 2007. Accompanying him will be keyboardist Gary Husband, bassist Étienne M’Bappé and Mumbai drummer Ranjit Barot. The India shows are part of the band’s long Asian tour that has so far wound its way through Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand, Korea, Japan and China. The band’s latest CD, The Boston Record, was released on this tour.

McLaughlin highly prolific career graph has now spanned six decades, straddling the worlds of both electric and acoustic guitars. Having started playing the guitar at age 11 in his native Yorkshire, in England, his early influences were flamenco and jazz, listening to the likes of French guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli. After being part of the London jazz and blues scene in his youth, McLaughlin moved to the US in1969 to join drummer Tony Williams’ group, The Tony Williams Lifetime. Next stop was the Miles Davis group, which gave him a new musical approach.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra, which fused jazz and rock with eastern influences, was a quintet originally featuring McLaughlin, violinist Jerry Goodman, pianist-keyboard­ist Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird and vir­tuoso drummer Billy Cobham. The albums The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire are considered all-time classics, though McLaughlin later recorded and toured with a different line-up, which included the cele­brated violinist Jean Luc Ponty. After a long hiatus that started in 1976, he relaunched Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1984, bringing back Cobham on drums, with Jonas Hell­borg on bass and Mitchel Forman on key­boards, and the great Bill Evans on saxo­phone. Cobham quit within a year, but the group played on until 1987.

4th Dimension: (from left) Gary Husband, Ranjit Barot, John McLaughlin and Etienne M'Bappe. Photo: John Bouchet

4th Dimension: (from left) Gary Husband, Ranjit Barot, John McLaughlin and Etienne M’Bappe. Photo: John Bouchet

McLaughlin’s second major group Shakti, formed in 1975, had L Shankar on violin, Zakir Hussain on tabla, T H ”˜Vikku’ Vi­nayakram on ghatam and R Raghavan on mridangam. The sound was a unique amal­gam of north Indian Hindustani music, south Indian Carnatic music and jazz, with McLaughlin using a specially modified gui­tar. The group released three outstanding albums ”“ the self-titled live debut, A Hand­ful of Beauty and Natural Elements ”“ before disbanding in 1977.

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After Mahavishnu and Shakti, McLaugh­lin played in the unique Guitar Trio band , with the great Spanish guitarist Paco De Lucia (who passed away on February 26th) and Larry Coryell, who was later replaced by Al Di Meola. Numerous solo, duet or trio projects followed. The 1992 album Que Alegria featured Indian percussion­ist Trilok Gurtu and the 1995 release The Promise had a long list of guest artists including Sting.

In 1997, McLaughlin and Zakir got back together to re-launch Shakti as Remember Shakti was born.With Shankar unavail­able, the line-up had flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia. There was a further change two years later, and that lineup has stayed ever since. The band still tours occasionally, with McLaughlin, Zakir, mandolin wizard U Shrinivas, vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and kanjira player V Selvaganesh.

McLaughlin’s association with Indian musicians also comes across charmingly on his 2008 album Floating Point, released after he joined the label Abstract Logix. The line-up featured ace keyboardist Louiz Banks, and drummers Ranjit Barot and Si­vamani, with guest appearances by a host of Indian and international musicians.

His biggest achievement though has been as an innovator of the jazz guitar. In his electric work, McLaughlin incorporated hard jazz with the new sounds of Eric Clap­ton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and others, very often being compared with the rock greats. And in his acoustic endeavors, he fused styles as diverse as Indian music and jazz, layering them with Bossa Nova and Flamenco. From the 1970s onwards, one has heard some outstanding jazz guitarists like John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Larry Cory­ell, Pat Metheny, Lee Ritenour, Paco De Lu­cia, Al Di Meola, Larry Carlton, John Aber­crombie, Pat Martino, Scott Henderson and Mike Stern. But when it comes to diversity and improvisation uniqueness, McLaughlin is a class apart.

With these and so much more that he has contributed in the evolution of modern jazz, it is no surprise that McLaughlin has been has been hailed by the likes of Jeff Beck as ”˜the best guitarist alive.’ Zakir addresses him as John bhai, and the younger Indian musicians call him John-ji. We spoke to some of his equally famous collaborators and friends to talk about him.

In this freewheeling interview with ROLLING STONE India ahead of his In­dia tour McLaughlin talks about his long career, his music, beliefs and love for this country.

 

Let’s begin with your forthcoming tour, which includes Chennai and Mumbai. You have been playing with your new group the 4th Dimension for over six years. What has the experience been like?

Over the years, I’ve had quite a few groups, and all of them have given me a great deal of pleasure. The 4th Dimension is an exception. The musicians who com­prise this band are themselves exceptional musicians and human beings. There is a complicity amongst us that gives the pos­sibility of spontaneous interaction that can lead to experiences of a liberating character. This is very special. The music in our reper­tory comes from the 1970s to music that’s never even been recorded. Having said that, we are ready with a new CD of a concert we recorded in Boston last summer. This is re­ally such a fine recording.

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How has the 4th Dimension been differ­ent from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, in terms of sound and compositions?

First of all, the 4th Dimension is a quar­tet whereas Mahavishnu was a quintet. Sec­ondly, our pianist Gary Husband is also an outstanding drummer. Étienne M’Bappé, our bassist, is originally from Cameroon and has been in Paris for the past 25 years. He brings his culture and knowledge, along with his formidable technique to the group. Our principal drummer Ranjit Barot hails from India and has integrated the wonder­ful world of Indian percussion and vocal ko­nokol to his drumming which is extraordi­nary. All in all, quite a different sound with textures and colors that were unavailable 40 years ago.

 

Nearly five decades on the scene, what are the major changes you have noticed in the jazz world and more specifically in jazz guitaring?

Over the past 20 years, there has been a kind of dissipation in jazz which troubles me somewhat. The movements of “smooth” jazz and “funky” jazz is jazz music riddled with cliches and does not conform to my conception of jazz, which is a music of lib­eration and passion. The guitar has been heavily featured in these forms of jazz, and reveal a similar surfeit of clichés. That said, I am in touch with some of the most won­derful young jazz musicians of today, and I have no fear of the future of music. What I find missing are really new concepts in jazz, but I believe the disastrous situation of the record industry is mainly to blame for this lack of innovation.

 

Let’s go back to your early days. A lesser known thing about you is that you started off as a guitar salesman at Selmer’s store, and even sold a Fender pro amp to Pete Townshend of The Who. This is something he mentions in his autobiography. How much did you enjoy that job?

Not one bit, but you have to eat! I sold Pete his first guitar also, but then I also sold caviar at the London hotels to survive. I drove vans and trucks, repaired instru­ments, a lot of things.

 

In your earlier days as a musician, you played a lot with drummer Tony Wil­liams and trumpeter-composer Miles Da­vis. What are your recollections of those days? How did Miles help in shaping your thinking?

I began playing with Tony and Miles in 1969, and it was the most marvelous op­portunity for me and my music. When I was not touring with Tony, I was playing with Miles. So I had the best of all worlds. I’d been following Miles since 1958, and became a fan of Tony in 1965. The great difference between the two people was that Miles encouraged me to bring my experi­ence in rhythm ”˜n’ blues to his recordings and concerts, and Tony encouraged me to write music for his group Lifetime. I can say that much of the preparatory work for Mahavishnu was made with Lifetime. However, it was Miles himself who sug­gested I form my own band, which was Mahavishnu.

 

The name Mahavishnu was given to you by your spiritual guru Sri Chimoy. In fact, your association with India began through two areas ”“ spiritualism and mu­sic. How did you meet Sri Chinmoy and how did that association help you grow as an individual?

By the time I met Sri Chinmoy, I had been practising Hatha yoga for a couple of years, and was frequenting the Sufi centre in New York. Sri Chinmoy was a very intense medi­tator. Frankly, as the only way to some kind of self-knowledge is through meditation, I began to learn much about myself and my inner life. Personally, I am convinced that everything we do in life is based on our in­ner existence. This includes music. The five years I spent with Sri Chinmoy were piv­otal in my development as a human being. I have to add though, that the musician and the man John Coltrane, the great jazz saxo­phonist, also played a very significant role in my musical and spiritual development. He was a huge inspiration.

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