John McLaughlin: A Promise Delivered

By Jon Chappell

(Reprinted from Guitar magazine: May 1996)

In a perfect world where talent, contribution, and historical significance are rewarded with fame and fortune, John McLaughlin would be king among kings. He cannot be topped in terms in guitar technique, versatility, output, or influence. Virtually every guitar icon-from Beck to Page to Clapton-bows to McLaughlin, becoming humble and reverent when reflecting on his astounding technique or the impact his guitar work had on them. The image of McLaughlin is not only one of a certifiable genius, but of a deeply spiritual man committed to religion and philosophy. His persona-with visions of him in his Mahavishnu attire of white suits and open-toed sandals-when coupled with his otherworldly technique, is almost daunting to his peers, not to mention his audience. It may even be this aura of mysticism, the transcendent quality of McLaughlin's music, that has made him something of an enigma to newer and more casual listeners. After all, an Eric Clapton blues song is much more accessible than the explorations of Mahavishnu or Shakti.
But to study John McLaughlin is to study the history of jazz and rock music itself. McLaughlin invented fusion guitar, burned it up with Miles Davis, Larry Coryell, Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius, John Scofield, Al Di Meola, Carlos Santana, Paco de Lucla, and led both the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the acoustic dynamo Shakti. He set the killing pace of "The Trio," comprised of himself, Di Meola, and de Lucia. No less than the great Segovia once said of McLaughlin, "My God, the fastest guitarist in the world." Never has there been a guitarist who has placed a more indelible stamp on the jazz-rock movement or has possessed such sweeping, renaissance versatility. For John McLaughlin is electric guitarist, acoustic guitarist, composer, rocker, jazzer, leader, sideman, master of technique, student of all things Indian, and ever-evolving artist. What would a meeting with John McLaughlin be like? I was about to find out...
To the objective observer, the situation would appear pretty relaxed-an exchange of good-natured ribbing between co-workers. Here were three people standing in the hall of PolyGram Records' Midtown Manhattan office, deciding where to conduct an interview. Jodi, the record-company publicist, said, "Well, I have a really ugly office over here, but it is private." John McLaughlin decided to have a little fun and began teasing her: "A what? An ugly office? As opposed to a beautiful office?" He continued with feigned indignation. It's an office! You don't have to say it's ugly, we know that. Jon, would you ever describe any office as beautiful?" Surprised and terrified at being dragooned into his game, I of course took McLaughlin's side: "You kiddin'? It's a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron." The publicist remained nonplussed and flashed a coy smile as she led us to the door. "Very funny, John. In you go." McLaughlin shot me a mischievous grin and a wink as we passed through.
This is the high priest of fusion? The avatar of alternate picking? He seemed more like some regular guy at work engaging in a bit of water-cooler banter. Here I am, afraid that I'm going to burst into flames by being in his presence, and he's goofing on people in the hallway? Well, the humor may have been "regular" enough, but as my suspicions confirmed, there could hardly be anything less regular or more extraordinary about the man behind the jibes.
As we talked, it was clear that there are as many facets to the man as to the music he creates. But McLaughlin (which is pronounced Mi-GLOFF-lin, by the way) is also a deeply humble man, a religious man, a thoughtful man. He can at once talk about God and His importance in music, and then discuss what a hassle it can be when you stab yourself in the thumb with a fork while unloading the dishwasher. He is human, not divine, and even during the gruesome details of the fork-skewering, he proves to be a man of wit and pathos. Mostly, he is one hard-working man, a tireless artist. On The Promise (Verve), his latest release, McLaughlin presents a diverse landscape of musical settings, from the muscular cacophony of "Jazz Jungle" (featuring jazz superstars Michael Brecker and Dennis Chambers, among others) to the exotic "The Wish" (with Indian musicians Zakir Hussain, Nishat Khan, and Trilok Gurtu) to the lyrical "Amy And Joseph" (McLaughlin on solo acoustic guitar and overdubbed keyboards). The Promise treats listeners to feasts and flashes of the great playing that has adorned McLaughlin's work throughout the more than 25 years of his recording career. He talked about the making of the album, his influences, and gear-and refrained from making any more office jokes.

The very first cut of The Promise features a lovely duet with Jeff Beck called "Django." There's some delicate interplay between you two, as if you're finishing each other's sentences and thoughts.
Absolutely. Jeff and I, we go back a long time.

How long do you go back? I know you were on tour in the '70s, you with Mahavishnu, him for the Blow By Blow tour.
Twenty years.

And you played together on that tour.
Of course we did-not just me and Jeff, but we had the whole band onstage.

What was it like playing with two bands?
It was great-two drummers, two bass players. It was Jeff with Bernard Purdy and Max Middleton, and me with Narada Michael Walden, Ralphe Armstrong, and Stu Goldberg. We were all onstage. But Jeff and I hadn't played for 20 years, so I called him. I wanted us to do this piece for a long time. I thought this was very powerful, really poignant, for Jeff and I to get together to play "Django." We went into the studio, we plugged in, and it's like 20 years just disappeared in the blink of an eye. It was spooky. We just played, and it was on the first take also, the one we used.

Was there a concerted effort to get your sounds to match? There were a couple of times I could barely tell the moment you traded off.
No, Jeff's got a unique sound.

But you didn't try to get the qualities similar?
No! We plugged in and played. That's it, really. No tricks.

What was your sound setup for the Beck song?
I went through a Sony M7 [effects processor], with a stereo output going into two amps-I don't know which ones. In fact, I only used the amps like onstage monitors. Jeff had some old standards in a cabinet, and they were miked and pretty loud. But I used my amps just as a monitor. It's not enough to just hear the music with the headphones, you need to hear the drums, and hear it through your body too-the bass, you need to hear it. So that's all. But I don't think the amps are recorded on the tape. I'm recording direct.

What do you like about the Sony M7?
It's a very powerful unit, in the sense that you have digital delay, but what you have I think is very powerful. It splits the signal into stereo, and you have very powerful digital graphic equalization. You have so many parameters in there, and just to get the sound involves a lot of going inside to check each parameter. I'll be glad when they get some software for the Macintosh, so that I can adjust all the parameters onscreen instead of one at time. But, it's a very good unit. Also you have special panning features in the stereo output, all different kinds of panning, and it can be like a random thing, but you can control it in such a refined way. You don't really know what's happened to the sound in there, only that it's somehow moving in some unusual way, in a random way. In the end, it becomes quite a natural sound, and it's taken quite some time just to do it, but I really like it. I like what it does.

Michigan luthier Abe Wechter has been making your nylon-strings for years. Have you found in his guitars what you're looking for?
Yes, because Abe's guitars are great. I mean, there's always room for improvement, but these guitars were made for me, including my current one, "Notre Dame," as they say in France. The guitars prior to that were more like standard classical cutaways. I was very happy just to play them the way they are. But I think between Abraham and I, we probably went about as far as you can go in the development. We've been working many years together on acoustic guitars. These guitars are really made for me, with my physiognomy. Because I have long arms, and I'm tall, I need a big-body guitar, which is one of the reasons why I play an acoustic-electric guitar today. A little solidbody is lost on me now. After all these years of playing acoustic guitar, I want to feel a body, I need to feel it. It's weird, but it's true. So this guitar, the size is perfect for me. I have a student, and it's too big for him.

You've said something to the effect that nylon strings are better percussively.
Yes, that's absolutely true.

My understanding of "percussive" is a sharp attack and a rapid decay, which is really more characteristic of steel strings than nylon, isn't it?
Not my strings.

Can you explain that?
I don't know how, but you have more of an impact from a nylon string than you do from a steel string. A wider impact. A steel string will sustain longer, too. I'm talking about upper register. The nylon strings are only three; the others are silk and nickel. So I'm talking about the upper-register nylon strings, G, B, and E, and, I mean, there's no doubt about it, you have much greater percussive impact.

Can you play a nylon string louder than you could a steel string?
No. Not louder, but you have superior dynamics.

Have you ever played fingerstyle?
Yeah, I tried. When I was young, when I first picked up the guitar, I didn't even know what a pick was. I didn't even know what an electric guitar was. I tried, because I was listening to blues first, Mississippi blues, and I became enamored of Muddy Waters, Leadbellyäand that was fingerstyle, of course. But it's when I got really taken by jazz that I realized I needed a pick.

Even with your association with Paco de Lucia?
Yeah. I mean, Paco is phenomenal on his instrument with fingerstyle. In fact, I would go as far to say-and I'll get a lot of flack for this, but-flamenco technique is superior even to classical.

Because you use four fingers [rather than the standard three for flngerstyle-ed.], you strike the strings in addition to picking them, and then you have the tremolos.

But you never found how it could be useful for you?
No, because the thing is, this kind of phrasing in flamenco is wonderful if you're playing that style, and I love it, but it's not jazz music, and somehow it doesn't lend itself in the sense that the pick does in jazz music. Jazz guitar grew up with a pick, with the exception of Wes Montgomery. There are other exceptions, like Jeff Beck. Jeff plays great things without a pick, as does Mark Knopfler. They're amazing. But, for your average mortal like me, I'm a pick man.

But there are wonderful fingerstyle jazz players other than the ones you mentioned.
It's true. I admire them, whether it's Earl Klugh or Charlie Byrd, or Laurindo Almeida. But I cannot, nor do I want to, let go of this particular school, shall I say of jazz, which I really grew up with-people like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, and then later of course with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock Their approach is essentially linear, which is why I play the way I do, because of my predilection in that direction. If my nature is to go that way, I don't want to fight with my nature, so I just go. And it doesn't stop me from admiring the great fingerstyle jazz players, but since I grew up with this school, I have a preference for that way of playing.

What guitar did you use or "El Ciego," the trio cut with Al Di Meola and Paco?
The same guitar, the nylon-string.

And the panning setup never changes with the Paco, John and Al trio?
Right, except this is the first time we recorded with Paco panned to the middle. Usually, I'm in the middle, and Al's to the left, but the way the melody was, I thought Paco should be In the middle.

"The Wish" has a North Indian influence, much like your work with Shakti. I was surprised to hear this song with electric guitar; I expected to hear acoustic.
Well, Shakti was 75 percent Indian-North and South-and me. Now it's again 75 percent Indian, with the simple difference that Trilok [Gurtu, percussionist] is an Indian who adores and plays jazz, and I really like the juxtaposition of Trilok and myself with him playing percussion in a jazz way. It has a very nice association with electric guitar-acoustic-electric guitar-as opposed to playing with a [miked acoustic] Shakti guitar, because in a way it's balanced from the point of view of West and East, when you look at them like this. Trilok and I have a very strong complicity, and he has this feeling for jazz that's incredible for an Indian percussionist. It's phenomenal. So I like this kind of juxtaposition of tabla and sitar, which Is pure North-Indian classical, and you have Trilok coming with his percussion and his pots and pans, and me playing electric guitar. For me, I like the way it came out. And of course it's a surprise, because you expect the Shakti sound. But I was looking for more equilibrium between East and West. And I like it, too, because there's a point where it really shifts. The rhythmic cycles are identical and the song continues, but we move in different degrees that interpret these cycles in different ways. Like the way, for example, the Indian musicians play the triplets. And then the jazz guys would come in with their version of triplets and it's a totally different interpretation-really Western. Now, I wouldn't be able to do that-to bring more of this world into the music-which is one of the reasons for Shakti, I wanted to bring more Western music into Shakti, at the end of it, but it was not easy. You have to find the right way to do it.

Have you considered doing a reunion Shakti?
We did. But just in India.

Why not bring it to the U.S. and Europe?
I don't know, maybe we will one day.

So it's not something that you've evolved past and couldn't go back to. You'd entertain the idea?
Are you kidding? What a beautiful group! In fact, I should have been in India most of this year, but I had schedule conflicts. There are so many wonderful musicians I want to play with. I have very close associations with India, be it philosophically or culturally or musically. I have a very strong attachment to India. I am a student of their music, culture, and religion.