acoustic guitarist

By Lee Jeske

(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: April 1982)

Thousands of pages and gallons of ink have been spent on the discussion of the form of jazz called, for better or worse, fusion. The smoke has yet to clear from the battlefield, but it is fairly obvious that, here in 1982, many of the more inventive purveyors of the form - Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, Jean-Luc Ponty - have gone on to other things. Oh sure, they still dabble in electronics, and there are dozens of others who still turn out plugged-in head-thumpers, but any creative musician can't be expected to sit still and churn out the same old thing for very long.
John McLaughlin was there at fusion's beginning. His work with Miles Davis, Tony Williams' Lifetime, and his own Mahavishnu Orchestra helped forge the music. In fact, McLaughlin had an astounding impact on the guitarists of the '70s - his dazzling speed and faultless control set the standard for jazz-rock plectrists. The original Mahavishnu Orchestra - Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, Rick Laird, and Billy Cobham - reached a plateau for electric interplay and depth of feeling that has, to these ears, never been equaled.
"It was a great band," says John McLaughlin in a deserted conference room at Warner Brothers' New York offices. "I tried to put it back together for one benefit concert a few years ago. There is a lot of bullshit that's been said and written about that band, and I wanted to demonstrate that, in fact, the bullshit wasn't in existence. I asked everyone to participate for no money - it would have been a benefit concert - they would just have had to do it for love. But I couldn't get everyone to agree to do it."
John McLaughlin cut quite a different figure in those days - stern, short-haired, white-pajamed, humorless. He was a disciple of the Eastern philosophies of Sri Chinmoy then, an alliance that caused some resentment and bad feelings amongst the members of the band. "I still don't fully understand what happened," says McLaughlin. "I confronted the parties concerned at one point to just get it out in the open. But that didn't work, so it continued and I realized that it was actually harmful to the music. A couple of the people stopped talking to me and refused to resolve the problem. Unfortunately, that got carried on-stage, and that's bad for the music, because the music was talking about love. Maybe it was an ego problem, or maybe we just had success too soon. Of course, problems may have come at some later date, but perhaps they would have been able to resolve themselves."
"I don't have any regrets, I feel happy that the band was much loved by a lot of people. It was a great band with a great spirit - while it lasted. In fact, it was against financial reasons to break it up, because we were really starting to make a lot of money. It was a great band and I would have liked to play a benefit concert in New York and just played, just one more time. It's a pity that acrimony can last so long."

McLaughlin is, clearly, a different person today. His thick black hair touches his shoulders, he is dressed, on this occasion, in a striking red velour shirt accented by a red scarf, and he keeps a pack of cigarettes by his side. His current relationship with Sri Chinmoy is, he says, "one of affection. I don't consider myself a disciple of his, but I'm extremely grateful for the time I spent with him. Those five years were immensely enriching and helpful in the clarification of some very difficult existential problems. The essential principal of my search, shall we say, has changed now. My teenage years were a search for myself: 'Who am I? What am I?' I am now of a different mind. I don't want to find myself, I just want to be lost. I want to be totally lost in music or golf or tennis or whatever I'm doing.
"The fundamental difference between now and then is the fact that I cannot impose upon myself any kind of classification in the spiritual sense. That's one thing, I feel now, that causes a lot of problems. The simple fact is that between a Christian and a Moslem, you can have two men looking at each other who don't see two men: they see a Moslem and they see a Christian. And there's an inherent evil in that to me. What I want is for two men to see themselves as two men, two human beings. That's one good thing about music: it's transcendental. It's trans-cultural and, in a sense, music is higher than religion."
Another obvious difference between the John McLaughlin of the early '70s and the John McLaughlin of the early '80s is his choice of instruments. Not only does he no longer approach the stage armed with a double-necked monster of an electric guitar, he hasn't even touched anything but an acoustic guitar for years. In fact, his insistence on playing an unplugged instrument caused his well-publicized rift with Columbia Records. They wanted electronic records, he wanted to play acoustic. Both parties claimed breach of contract and, after a lengthy legal battle, McLaughlin landed at Warner Bros.
"It was a flat-out rejection," says McLaughlin. "In the contract I had any number of acoustic albums which could be made and four electric albums - four. Two had been done and I wanted to make an acoustic album; I was just rejected out-and-out, and I can't live with that.
"When Warner Bros. approached me, my first reaction was, 'What is the prevailing attitude of the directors regarding this misnomer, this misunderstanding of electric vs. acoustic music? What kind of attitude would they have towards me?' I need to be completely free, I need it for my sanity. But, happily, they've given me the freedom to do whatever I want. And, of course, out of recognition of that very dignified gesture towards me, I want to justify their belief. We have a contract now that will cover about six albums." The first product of that union is his self-produced Belo Horizonte, a set of pyrotechnic acoustic guitar explorations over a slick electronic background.

John McLaughlin was born 40 years ago - though his boyish appearance doesn't let on - in Yorkshire, England. After receiving his first guitar, he moved through various listening and playing phases: blues, Django Reinhardt, flamenco, Tal Farlow. His early professional experience came in London with such British leaders as Graham Bond, Brian Auger, and Georgie Fame, leaders who combined elements of rock, jazz, and blues in their presentations. In the late '60s McLaughlin found himself hanging around with Dave Holland and John Surman, playing an early form of fusion. The fairy tale portion of the story is well known: Tony Williams hears a tape of McLaughlin, invites him to join his about-to-be-formed Lifetime and, two days after his arrival Stateside, John McLaughlin is in the studio with Miles Davis cutting In A Silent Way. He recorded and performed with Lifetime and recorded (with Miles) such albums as Live-Evil, Jack Johnson, Big Fun, and the seminal Bitches Brew, which includes a Davis original titled John McLaughlin. ("That was the biggest surprise to me," says McLaughlin somewhat sheepishly. "I mean, I saw it on the record. I was shocked, really shocked.")
The players Miles surrounded himself with during that period were to set the pace for the next decade: Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, George Benson, Billy Cobham, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, Airto Moreira. There have been rumors that Miles had little input into many of the compositions that bear his name; that, in fact, they were composed and arranged by Zawinul or Corea or other members of the ensemble.
"Yeah," says McLaughlin, "but Miles directed. And without that, it wouldn't be what it is, that's for sure. It happened to me too with certain things - you make a suggestion and then it's just rearranged in form. But I can only give credit to Miles because he puts a print on it that's particularly him and particularly whole. I don't know how else to describe it. He has a genius in bringing out in musicians what they want to do which corresponds to what he wants. In A Silent Way is a perfect example. When Joe Zawinul brought it in originally, there were many more chords. What Miles did was to throw out the entire chord sheet. He took Joe's melody and turned it into something that was far from what we'd been rehearsing in the studio. He made that piece into something of lasting beauty."
Miles, at one point, even asked McLaughlin to leave Lifetime and tour with his band, but McLaughlin reluctantly turned him down. "I had too much music invested in Lifetime," he remembers. "I had a freedom there that was irreplaceable. But when I started chafing at the bit in Lifetime, it was Miles who suggested that I put my own band together."
That band was the first version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. After that group dissolved, amidst ill feelings, there was the second Mahavishnu Orchestra, featuring Jean-Luc Ponty. It was while that unit was in existence that McLaughlin tried a fusion of a different sort-adding his acoustic jazz guitar to a setting of Indian classical music, specifically Carnatic music of South India, which is based on modal improvisation and ensemble interplay and has, as one of its mainstays, the violin, an instrument that McLaughlin was quite comfortable with, and an instrument that has been married to the jazz guitar since the days of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, and Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.
"There were two movements paralleling each other," says McLaughlin. "There was the electric music and there was Shakti. I began realizing, in 1975, that Shakti would have to be given more and more importance because, musically, it was too important to ignore. I was in a position where I couldn't divide myself anymore. By the end of '75, the Mahavishnu Orchestra ceased to exist, and Shakti began on a permanent basis."
The combination of acoustic guitar, violin, tablas, and mrindagam was intriguing and delightful. It also helped L. Shankar, the violinist, to broaden his audience; he and Shakti's tablaist, Zakir Hussain, have recently released an album of Carnatic variations on ECM Records. Shakti lasted for two years before the guitarist decided to return, briefly, to the electric guitar and a jazz setting.
"Shakti broke up because I'm a Western musician and harmony is my roots. Shakti's music is non-harmonic and I need, for total satisfaction, harmony. In a sense, the music began to permeate its way through me, into my consciousness, and become more and more harmonic to the point that I realized that I had to do something about it. I couldn't ignore the harmonic music coming out and forming pieces and compositions and things like that. I also had certain desires to improvise in a harmonic context, in a harmonic environment. I have to follow the music; I'm kind of led by the nose." (During the week that we spoke, McLaughlin was in the middle of rehearsing with L. Shankar for a regrouping of Shakti to tour India.)
After Shakti splintered, McLaughlin recorded his swan-song Columbia LP (Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist), before turning his attentions back to the acoustic guitar, which, he says, "is the instrument I loved from the beginning. It's a beautiful sound."
"I approach the instruments differently in that the style of playing demands it. One of the fundamental differences is that, with the acoustic guitar, the notes die out very quickly. This is a more tragic sound, it's more poignant in a beautiful sense. So, that in itself compels the player to modify, in some far-reaching ways, what he'll play."
McLaughlin's appetite for the acoustic guitar was further enhanced by a chance encounter with Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco De Lucia, whom McLaughlin first heard on a French radio station (McLaughlin, a self-styled "Francophile," currently resides in Paris).
"I heard him and said, 'This guitar player is really extraordinary.' I really wanted to play with him - guitarist to guitarist - but I wanted to work with him, not just record one cut. I've liked flamenco music ever since I was 13, and I'd seen a number of [flamenco] guitarists and dancers. I wanted to get closer to this culture, Paco in particular. For me, he's the greatest flamenco guitar player alive. So I called him and he came by to see me in Paris, from his home in Madrid. I told him not to bring his guitar; I said, 'We won't play, we'll just talk and eat a nice meal and drink some wine and just get to know each other.' But in 30 minutes, we were in the other room with the guitars, and we just kept playing for the next two hours. I immediately felt a rapport with Paco, and he was just as enthusiastic. So we arranged a tour of Europe with Larry Coryell; it was such a great success that we just kept going back to the same places, and there was a big, big satisfaction. That's the guitar - that's my instrument - and I love to play with two other guitar players. The guitar has this quality of pulling another guitar with it." (There have been several tours with Paco De Lucia - featuring either Coryell, French guitarist Christian Escoude, or Al Di Meola on the third guitar [see Caught, db, Apr. '81 and an LP with De Lucia and Di Meola reviewed db, Nov. '81]).
Another synthesis with which McLaughlin is planning on experimenting is jazz and classical music - something that has been attempted dozens of times, but never with much lasting success. His current girlfriend is a classical pianist, and he has been discussing an appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"There is more and more interest by the people involved in classical music to participate, in some way, with jazz musicians. This is a relatively new event, because the classical listener is notoriously puritanical, as are some jazz listeners. Same thing with flamenco music and Indian music - there are purists everywhere. The Los Angeles Philharmonic suggested that I do Rodrigo's Concierto De Aranjuez [the basis for Sketches Of Spain], but I can't do that. I've heard the Spanish National Orchestra do it, and it was incredible. I daren't do that. What I want to do, and what they agreed upon, is write a concerto for guitar and orchestra. I'm afraid, but I'm more excited than afraid because I can write my music and I can improvise. I need to improvise."
One thing that is evident from talking with John McLaughlin is his obvious contentment with his past work. Many musicians tend to be highly critical of their output, but McLaughlin seems to be satisfied that he has been captured effectively on record. He is not always that pleased with his live performances, however. "Sometimes I'm completely merciless with myself," he claims, "and some nights I play like a shit - I can't do anything, I seem to be fumbling around. I'm always very happy that the audience is less critical than I, but it hurts when somebody compliments you when you know you've played badly. But what can I tell them? 'You jerk, you don't even know anything!' But I cannot escape this certainty that the audience should never be underestimated. I can't fool an audience - I don't think it and I don't feel it and I don't believe it."
"From the point of view of going to concerts myself - if a musician is struggling that night and he's fighting and he doesn't have his shit together, the fact that he's fighting is, for me, something beautiful to behold, because it's a human being fighting with his feelings. He wants to get the notes out, but he has to formulate them, to go through the notes and go through the rhythms - and not repeat himself - and be elegant and accurate and eloquent and profound. That's something beautiful to see. And sometimes, if after a whole hour that doesn't mean anything, there's five minutes or one minute before the end of the concert where you're really liberated from everything that's gone down before, then it's worth it. That's really what I'm living for, that one moment."
The word fusion has been much maligned, but John McLaughlin is its very essence. He was one of the first and most successful at fusing the powerhouse instruments of rock & roll with the musical interplay and improvisation of jazz. He has also fused the ancient, classical music of South India with jazz, and has helped bring the traditional flamenco music of Spain into the jazz realm. Now he is beginning to study classical modes. Fusion is the perfect word for all of it.
"I'm an eternal learner," he says. "I don't think I'll ever stop learning; it's a personal idiosyncrasy. I'm looking all the time for a way through music - searching, in a sense, for those different ways - harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically. For me the big joy of life is to play-that's the big joy - just to play music."