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
"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
"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
"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
"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."