The electric/acoustic tango would continue, however: Mahavishnu
Orchestra, Shakti, guitar duos and flamenco trios, the One Truth Band,
an updated Mahavishnu Orchestra, and continual sideman dates,
including a role as house guitarist with leading man Dexter Gordon in
the '86 film Round Midnight.
But, with two very important - and diverse - releases in 1990, "Johnny
McLaughlin, electric guitarist" appears to be headed for extinction.
We may be talking about the end of an era in guitar history. One of
music's greatest guitarists appears to have arrived at a distillation
You see, the man looks and sounds extremely satisfied with his new
acoustic arsenal. Advances in guitar technology appear to have given
McLaughlin the best of both worlds: centered around MIDI conventers
and synthesizers, the electric guitar's power, dynamic range, and
array of options are now wedded to his acoustic guitar, an instrument
loved for its dexterity and feel, tonalities and warmth.
Given such a wedding, the solid-body electric takes on the appearance
of a former lover, attractive only to a point. "I haven't played it in
five years," McLaughlin explained. "I don't even know if I'll play it
again....But if I get the urge, I'll pick it up and play it."
"The urge." That's it in a nutshell. "If I had the appetite, I would
have played it again." (Note the past-tense usage.)
The appetite for any kind of guitar was interrupted last year, thanks
to a near-fatal accident. McLaughlin was doing a bit of furniture
rearranging when a TV set fell on one of his hands. Cancellation of a
major 1990 spring tour has been the only apparent fallout. It did,
however, take him two months before he could touch, let alone play,
the guitar. How close a call was it?
"Well, I've got a big bump here," he said, pointing to his left index
finger. "I don't think it's ever going to go away. But," as if it
wasn't delightfully obvious from the previous evening's performance,
"I can play. Fortunately, I missed the bone by a sixteenth of an inch.
I was very lucky."
In case anyone's wondering, the two key 1990 albums referred to
earlier are The Mediterranean, with the London Symphony Orchestra and
duets with longtime associate/keyboardist Katia Labeque; and Live At
The Royal Festival Hall, with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu and
electric bassist Kai Eckardt-Karpeh (see "Reviews Aug. '90). Of the
two, it's the Festival Hall recording with the John McLaughlin Trio
that begs comparision with Shakti, a stunning, "world music" band from
the mid-'70s that combined John and his acoustic, 13-string guitar
with Indian musicians playing tabla, mridangam, ghatam (all percussion
instruments), and violin. Both bands are vivid examples of East-West
syntheses, with the Trio suggesting elements of McLaughlin's electric,
and ferocious, Mahavishnu days. Could there have been a design to the
"No, I don't think so. I didn't set out to look for anything in
particular. But," McLaughlin grew reflective, "it reminds me of a
song, a very popular song that Trane [John Coltrane] recorded: 'My
Favorite Things'. We all have our favorite things, and sometimes we
even forget what they are, but they nevertheless stay there in the
As with Shakti and its dazzling tablaist Zakir Hussain, the John
McLaughlin Trio is surrounded and driven by rhythms. In this case, the
"chair," since 1988, has been held by percussionist Trilok Gurtu, an
all-purpose drummer who's carved out a solo career alongside gigs with
McLaughlin and the pioneering, world-music band Oregon. To see and
hear him perform is like taking in a one-man, world-of-percussion
menagerie. Sitting, squatting, kneeling, standing, using sticks,
brushes, bare hands, and "traps" with the fervor of an Elvin Jones,
tablas with the dignity and precision of a sage Indian classical
musician, and assorted percussion instruments not unlike another
master of the genre, Airto. All this without a thing to sit on. The
man must be in tremendous physical condition, considering the fact
that he not only uses all four limbs, but is constantly changing
position to better avail himself of all that surrounds him. Only by
seeing (and hearing) can the viewer believe what is happening.
Needless to say, Trilok Gurtu adds an incredible dimension to the
virtuosic playing of John McLaughlin.
And yet, the East-West parallels with Shakti were nonexistent as far
as Gurtu was concerned. "When I asked Trilok to join me in a musical
venture, it was without any thought of Shakti. I love the way he
plays. He has a very interesting concept and approach to time. In a
way, he's like a mirror image of myself, coming from the Orient -
because, he's a jazz drummer, he's a classical, tabla-trained, North
Indian classical musician. But, he's a jazz musician more than an
Indian musician. I mean," McLaughlin related, "I had classical
training, but I'm not a classical musician. I don't even pretend to
be. I don't even want to be a classical musician. I'm happy to be the
kind of musician I am.
"But here we have somebody who's grown up in the Far East, in the
Orient, who has this remendous love for jazz music. And the way he
plays, too. And of course, since the acoustic guitar is pretty
sensitive to volume, a regular trap kit is really tough, it's really
hard to play with because it's too loud. You start beating on the
drums, and my guitar starts shaking like this [demonstrates with a
wave of his hands]."
So, for McLaughlin's purposes, there is now the virtual meeting of
East and West in a percussionist/drummer. There's also the meeting of
the past with the present: Billy Cobham playing "hand in hand" with
Zakir Hussain and a coterie of bangers, tinklers, and special-effects
specialists - so to speak.
To the group of casual listeners (to which I inadvertently assigned
myself), therefore, the John McLaughlin Trio appears to revolve around
a strong rhythmic foundation, much like early Shakti. Harmony and
melody account for a great deal, but isn't Gurtu's presence
"With one extremely important exception. In fact, I can't agree with
you, from my point of view, because the harmonic movement that goes on
in this show is quite complex in some pieces. It may not be evident
because there's no keyboard playing behind me. You don't hear it, but
the construction is there nevertheless; and some of it is quite
complex, which never existed in Shakti.
"This became a problem in Shakti, because I really wanted to
contribute more Western music to Shakti. Shakti was a wonderful group,
but as long as I kept going on in the Indian tradition, Northern or
Southern, you revolve around a tonality and you can change a raga or
change a scale, but harmonic movement is definitely a no-no. I would
do it, in a kind of spiral movement around the central tonality, and I
would expand on it that way. And I would tell [violinist L.] Shankar,
'You can put this scale over this, even though it sounds funny.' Or, I
[would try to] put this chord over that tonality, because we have the
drone all the time.
"I wanted to work with Shankar to develop more incorporation of
Western movement, which is really, more or less, harmonic. Indians
know a lot about melody; but harmonically, this is really the Western
contribution to music. But, you know, with people who are already
accomplished musicians, it's really tough to get them to change the
way they think.
"The trio is very much harmonic movement, but you don't hear it, you
hear it in a linear way because there's no keyboard pad."
And no lush chords. But even with Shakti, there was...
"I had a 13-string guitar for that; but then we had a violin player,
which went great with a guitar. But that's why I like bass guitar even
more than bass, because it's bass guitar. On a bass, you can't play
chords; on bass guitar, you can play chords."
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the original
Mahavishnu Orchestra, with activities of all kinds taking place. With
keyboardist Katia and Marielle Labeque, McLaughlin has produced (and
contributed material to) a new jazz recording, Love Of Colors, due out
in July on Sony Classical. This past February in Paris, McLaughlin
performed his second concerto for guitar and orchestra to standing
ocations. Titled Europa, he employed the full-scale, 85-piece
Orchestre de Paris. This summer, the John McLaughlin Trio, with new
bassist Dominique Di Piazza, will be on tour throughout North America.
Stops will include Seattle, Vancouver, and JVC/Saratoga.
As with any great musician, McLaughlin's rich musical past continues
to shine through to the present. Recent CD reissues of classic
Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti material include Visions Of The
Emerald Beyond, and Shakti, With John McLaughlin. Other CD reissues
will include spring releases of the "complete" Tony Williams Lifetime,
with organist Larry Young and McLaughlin on Emergency! (the Lifetime
material with bassist Jack Bruce awaits CD reissue) and McLaughlin's
leader-date premier, Extrapolation.
From that fertile late '60s, early '70s period of jazz meets rock,
perhaps McLaughlin's most stirring work was with Tony Williams, and
Miles, particularly on Bitches Brew and A Tribute To Jack Johnson. The
music that came from these collaborations gets back to that Hendrixian
maxim about music "moving all the time." "It's true I recorded some
records with Miles during this period. The work I did with Tony
Williams and Larry Young, those two years we spent together ['69-'70]
were very important. Tony is a kind of drummer, a kind of musician
that forces you to adopt a different approach, which is necessarily
good. I'm a great believer in that, and I even do that to my
"We are all creatures of habit, in a way; some habits are good and
some not so good. So, we replace the not-so-good with the good. But
then the good habits, they don't stay good; unless you rework them,
they'll fail you. You have to constantly rework habits, ways of
thinking, in approaches to music, in approaches to playing. And so,
I'm a great believer in smashing those things and being obliged to
look for new ways."
As for Miles, "If I had a hat, if I had a wig, I'd take it off [to
Miles], because Miles has played more than a small part in my musical
education, and in a lot of people's musical education. He's a real
master in that sense of working with musicians. You just have to see
Miles, and see how he works. I think it's obvious that my views are
really just a reflection on his constant research. He's never betrayed
himself, and, by doing that, never betrayed me as one of his greatest
admirers and listeners.
"And, in spite of the fact that people might be extremely attached to
a certain form, especially the middle and late '60s form with Wayne
[Shorter] and Tony and Herbie [Hancock], he would just break you
apart. I mean, he'll create something extraordinary. But the minute he
fears it's not going the right way - and he doesn't necessarily know
where he has to go, he just knows he's got to go somewhere, because
life is like that.
"I don't know what the next development will be; I have no idea. I
don't think Miles does. But he knows what he likes, and his intuition
is impeccable. In fact," McLaughlin stated with utmost sincerity, "we
all have impeccable intuition, if we just listen to it...Miles is
continuing the same tradition he began so many years ago."
What about the current wave of young neoboppers, for the most part led
by brothers Marsalis? Certainly, McLaughlin said, the original
Branford/Wynton band was derivative of mid-'60s Miles. Things have
changed since those relative halcyon days of the early '80s. Maybe for
appearance's sake only. "In spite of all his words, Wynton loves Miles
more than anybody in the world," he declared with complete certainty.
"Every time he plays his trumpet. I mean, I know he's doing more
dixieland now. It was always a surprise to me how the music of Miles -
particularly prior to the period when I began with him - was much
neglected in the United States. And so, we have to thank people like
Wynton and Branford Marsalis for bringing that up to a greater level
of public awareness....
"You cannot belittle what Branford's doing, or people like that.
Branford's quartet is like the classic Coltrane quartet, of which
there exist very few examples; his is one of the only ones. For me,
it's important, first of all, because he's a wonderful man, a
wonderful player; and he can give great inspiration in that way. And
so, it's difficult to just reduce [what they do] to a carbon copy. We
can't really belittle the importance of the classical expression of
It all sounds wonderful, but aren't we talking about two kinds of
musicians here? "Yeah, it's a double-bladed sword. If you think about
it, if you just remove yourself from the situation, you'd be happy not
to be bogged by this - it's like a bog. Bit it's bigger than me ... I
don't have a choice, I have to go with it, that's all. And music is
incapable of lying to anybody, especially to musicians. Only we can
lie to ourselves; the music cannot lie.
"So, I trust it implicitly, and I have faith that I will be going in
the right direction, whatever it is. But," McLaughlin grinned, as if
recalling Hendrix, "you know, sometimes I envy these people who have
found this little niche."
The John McLaughlin Armoury
John McLaughlin's bridging of musical worlds can be seen in his
ongoing quest for the perfect guitar make-up. His Abraham Wechter
acoustic guitar is equipped with a Fishman hexaphonic transducer
capable of providing a separate output signal for each of the guitar's
six strings. Those signals are sent to his Photon guitar synthesizer
(made by PhiTech) via a built-in PhiTech MIDI connection and forwarded
to two book-sized Yamaha TX-7 synthesizers.
The signal from a Fishman Piezo transducer, used to pick up the
guitar's acoustic sound, is sent through a TC digital 31-band
equalizer and BSS DPR 901 dynamic equalizer. In addition, McLaughlin
uses two Lexicon reverbs (PCM70 and LXP 1) and a Neumann KM 85
microphone with a Klark Teknik DN 360, 31-band equalizer.
From that length list, McLaughlin is particularly fond of his TX-7s.
"It's a very, very intelligent unit. For example, you can program it
so it responds to notes on the guitar, which means you can call up
patches and you can program different sounds, whatever you want, up to
16 synthesizers. On a given note, on the fretboard, it will call up a
configuration, or a new MIDI cofiguration. Everything's done from the
fingerboard, you don't have to touch the machine. It's very smart.
"Plus, I get to play in unison. I can play with the guitar, one TX7 or
two. So, the melody definitely can carry more weight. From the guitar,
I can build up polychords in a way that's normally only possible on a
keyboard. This is very interesting, because the guitar is there all
the time, which is the sound that I love. I can bring an element in at
a moment's notice, and this is very interesting for the trio."
He continues to use the scalloped, scooped-fret guitar fingerboard he
made famous while playing Wechters's drone-stringed acoustic (seven
drone strings and six regular strings) with Shakti.
McLaughlin plays D'Addario strings.