John McLaughlin - Evolution Of A Master
by Chuck Berg
(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: June 15, 1978)
John McLaughlin is one of contemporary music's towering forces. Two days
after he arrived in America from England in 1969, he was in the studio with
his idol, Miles Davis. That summit was but the first in a long series of
peaks that have helped recharge and redefine the course of music in the
In the midst of recording with Davis, Lifetime was born. The collective
vision of Tony Williams, Larry Young, McLaughlin, and later, Jack Bruce,
Lifetime blazed the jazz-rock fusion trail. McLaughlin then put together
several editions of the Mahavishnu Orchestra which further extended the
realms of fusion.
McLaughlin's studies of Indian music and the teachings of Sri Chinmoy led
to the formation of Shakti. Melding the musics of East and West in a
pan-cultural acoustic setting, Shakti gave new meaning to the concept of
fusion. McLaughlin also explored music's spiritual essence with fellow
guitarist Carlos Santana.
Now, after a decade of musical and spiritual evolution, John McLaughlin
has come full circle. The title of his new Columbia album tells all-Johnny
McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist. An exciting reunion with such former
colleagues as Tony Williams, Jack Bruce, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea,
Jerry Goodman, Billy Cobham and Stanley Clarke, it promises to be one of
the jazz events of the year
John is currently on the road with the One Truth Band. The members of the
band are, L. Shankar, of Shakti, on electric violin: Stu Goldberg, of the
last edition of Mahavishnu Orchestra, on keyboards: T. M. Stevens, on bass:
and Sonship, drums.
McLaughlin, like his music, is articulate, spontaneous and reflective. In
recounting his career, he tells it like he lived it, without pulling
* * *
McLaughlin: I was born in Yorkshire, England on January 4, 1942. I think
that makes me a Capricorn. Fortunately, I was born into a family of
musicians. So there was encouragement as far as music was concerned,
especially since I was the youngest of five children. In fact, I have three
older brothers and an older sister and I owe a great deal to each of them.
My brothers really helped in developing a musical awareness at an early
But basically it started before I was aware that something was going on.
I remember when I was about seven or eight, one of my brothers, an avid
classical music listener, tuning into the BBC a lot. One night I heard
something that was very beautiful which impressed me. We got a gramophone
about that time, too, which was quite a rarity. Another distinct memory was
listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It made my hair stand on end.
Berg: Any particular movement?
McLaughlin: It was the quartet at the end. I was aware of the effect it
was having on me. The fact that something could have such an impact on me
was very profound in my youthful mind. So when I was nine, I asked if I
could start studying piano which I did for about three years.
Berg: What was the nature of your studies at that point?
McLaughlin: Just the usual basic stuff. But when I was about 11 my
brothers, who were then in high school and the university, were sort of
into this blues thing which hit England about 30 years ago. One of them
even got a guitar. So I was exposed directly from about 11 onwards to the
music of Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and Sonny Terry.
Berg: Did the music grab vou immediately?
McLaughlin: Exactly, it grabbed me right away. In a way, it's impossible
to speak about music. How can you talk about something that is beyond
words? But I can say that it had a tremendous gravity for me. Also, there
was a guitar in the house that had come down through the family and finally
arrived at me. One brother taught me some chords, which was a revelation to
my mind. I felt it was my instrument.
Berg: So Chicago blues was the first essential influence?
McLaughlin: Yes, I would say so. At the time, though, I didn't know it
was Chicago blues. I thought it was more Mississippi delta, especially
Muddy. Back then he was playing with Little Walter, and playing in a very
different way than he does now. I still think back to him with great
Another influence, again thanks to my brothers, was flamenco music, which
had an equally powerful effect on me. There was a sense of freedom like
that in blues and jazz. There was also improvisation. And there was a
passion that hit a certain spot in me. That was when I was about 13.
So I got involved in flamenco, and classical Spanish music as well. Mv
piano became sort of neglected. After a year of flamenco music, when I was
14, I heard Django Reinhardt. That really turned my head around. I became a
great fan of Django's and developed a linear approach to the guitar which
was really Django's thing.
Also, Django was playing with Stephane Grappelli. My mother was a
violinist, so there was this thing about the violin that touched me. As a
result, I think the combination of guitar and violin effected me in a way
that maybe wasn't realized until many years later on.
Berg: How passionate was your commitment to music at this time?
McLaughlin: From the time my hair stood on end, music was it. Nothing
else did that to me. It's not like I said, "Oh, that's it, I'm going to be
a musician." Rather it was a situation where music made everything else
kind of pale in comparison. So I didn't really think of anything else
seriously. But at 11 or 12 you don't say, "Yeah, I'm going to be this or
that." At that age you live in a daydream world.
My daydream world was immersed to the core in music. I used to spend all
my time listening to records. Finally when I found the Voice Of America
coming from Frankfurt with Willis Conover through the static, I discovered
After Django, I was starting to play and I was using my fingernails to
pick. I also picked with the little finger because of my studies in
classical Spanish and flamenco music. But, it wasn't working. So finally,
when I was about 14 or 15, I picked up the pick and tried to work with it.
Then I heard Tal Farlow.
I was walking by a record store in the city near where I was living,
which was just south of Scotland on the northeast coast of England. I heard
a record with a guitar player. I couldn't believe him. He just knocked down
my socks. I ran in to find out who was making this incredible music. It was
Tal Farlow. So Tal Farlow became my real hero. His harmonic concept, even
now, I think is stunning. He was quite a revolutionary on guitar. It's
unfortunate that he kind of dropped out. Actually, I had the fortune of
meeting him once at the Newport Jazz Festival when I was playing with Tony
Williams. Just to see him was a thrill.
But as it developed, several of us discovered through our research that
there were two schools of music going on. I'm talking about the '50s. There
was a West Coast school and an East Coast school. And, really, one was
white and one was black. The East Coast was the hard hop school and that
was what we subscribed to. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers became the
big thing for me. I also heard the Birth Of The Cool recordings with Miles,
you know, and that was part of the hard bop era.
One day I was fortunate enough to hear Milestones with the revolutionary
group that Miles had in the late '50s. He just turned my head around
because of the simplicity of the concept and its beauty. Of course, the
musicians that he had, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, were superb.
But, really, it was the concept of the rhythm section that in itself was a
revolution to me.
Berg: Could you specify what it was about the rhythm section that made it
McLaughlin: If you go back in time you find that the drummers were
swinging, but it was a more traditional kind of swinging. With Philly Joe's
beat, instead of going "chung-chunka, chung-chunka," it went "ting-ting,
ting-ting." It was less but more intense. If you listen to those recordings
you'll understand what I'm trying to say. Another factor was the way Red
Garland was playing suspensions. That helped open the thing out. Then, of
course, there was Miles and the whole modal concept. I can't say enough
about what Miles has done for music.
That's not to say there weren't other major figures, because Charlie
Parker was also a hero, but in a different sense. For me, he was still part
of the old school. I was looking for the new school.
Another man who had an amazing influence on me was Charles Mingus. He had
a revolutionary concept too. There were also strong social and political
dimensions in his music which I liked. With Dannie Richmond's drumming it
was musically very strong. And Mingus, like Miles, introduced a great many
brilliant musicians to the public. Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy and Ted Curson
all played with him. Mingus was a very important influence on the shape of
Then, Miles' Kind Of Blue came out, which I think is still a classic
album. The people in Miles' group were, of course, also major influences.
So when that group broke up, I followed them individually. Coltrane left to
join Monk and then establish his own group. Cannonball left and formed his
own group with his brother Nat. This would be the '60s now.
Then A Love Supreme came out, which I couldn't understand the first time
I heard it. Of course, knowing Coltrane's work with Miles, seeing his name
on the jacket, I knew it had to be great whatever it was. But when I got A
Love Supreme I couldn't really hear it. Too high for me, I guess. I
couldn't grasp this very rarefied concept that Trane had managed to
conceive. But I was able to perceive Miles' influence on Trane, especially
in Giant Steps, which came out before A Love Supreme.
Giant Steps was another record I had difficulty really grasping. Again a
little bit too advanced for me. The beautiful thing about Miles was that
although he was playing that stuff, he had such a directness that I was
able to tune into it and understand what he was doing. So Giant Steps came,
with Trane's devastating technique. But I could't grasp it. Then A Love
Supreme came out, and I couldn't grasp it. Then about in 1964, there was
the album Miles Davis At Carnegie Hall with Miles, George Coleman, Herbie
Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. When I heard Tony Williams, that was
it. The guy was unbelievable.
So I was following Miles all the way along, through every phase. Then
there was A Love Supreme, which was like Dolphy. I couldn't hear Dolphy the
first time. He was too much for my tiny mind, you know. But I pursued it
and finally it just dawned. Then Coltrane made sense to me. At this time I
was about 20 or 21 and it was about 1962 or 1963.
By 1964, I'd been working with all kinds of blues and jazz groups. One of
the groups I was involved in was the Graham Bond Organization, with Ginger
Baker and Graham Bond, God rest his soul. Although we didn't work very long
together, Graham had quite an influence on my life.
I was raised without any religious instruction apart from the dust they
serve you up at school. I won't say that it's that way for everyone because
I'm sure there are some enlightened teachers in the schools. But for me,
the dust was just pushed down my throat and didn't mean anything. And my
parents didn't do anything.
By the time I was about 19 or 20, I'd taken some acid. And I'd been
getting high for quite a while, you know, just smoking regular old
marijuana. Graham, however, opened up my eyes to a side of myself I was
unaware of. I started thinking about possibilities for myself, what my own
Then the album of Trane's came along. I couldn't hear the music but I
read the back cover. I will always read that back cover. It's a statement
by a great noble human being.
So things were happening on the inside of my life, a beginning of an
awareness that there was something missing. I remember being very young and
living in a state of magicalness, insofar as I knew there was something
magical about life, though I didn't know what it was. But I knew that it
was there, and that it was something that connected everybody together. So
when this sort of stuff came round I realized I had to do something. So I
joined the Theosophical Society in London and made an attempt to discover
what religion really means, and what religions mean in the comparative
Graham had an influence on me because he had gotten involved in the
occult. We used to talk about all kinds of things. He suggested a number of
books about things I didn't really understand. So I started reading these
books of a more esoteric nature and going to the Theosophical Society,
which in itself was very boring. You know, there were all these ladies
coming to speak, but I can't even remember one thing they spoke about. But,
they had a fantastic library, books that you don't find in a regular
library. So the library was quite a source of information.
I got involved and finally discovered India, which I had never thought
about seriously. All I knew was that it was over 12,000 miles away. So I
was exposed for the first time to the tenets of Eastern philosophy and was
stimulated to think about the possibilities latent in man. There was also a
book with concentration exercises. So I started learning a lot of
superficial information. But it was encouraging and fertilizing to the
ideas that I already had inside of me. I also started to do some yoga
exercises, you know, breathing exercises and trying to do something about
my body. In fact, just the process of concentrated relaxation is a very
As this went on, I was having different problems in my musical life. I
was working with this group and that group. I was really into r&b, which
was the Mingus thing because he's really r&b to me. Blues and roots, but so
vital. But I'd listen to anybody. For me, the jazz music coming from New
York was the art.
As time passed by I was exposed to Indian music through being involved
with the culture. Again, it was something I couldn't hear. I couldn't grasp
it. But there was something about it. In particular, there was a sitar. As
I remember, I think it was Ravi Shankar. The sitar was significant because
it was a stringed instrument.
Also, for a long time I'd been disenchanted with the guitar as far as
jazz music was concerned because I didn't feel anyone was approaching the
height and inspiration of Miles and Coltrane. This was my own personal
feeling. I don't know what it was, but guitar players didn't have it. Of
course, Wes Montgomery was great. I loved his music when I first heard him.
But when I pursued it further, I couldn't get out of it what I wanted, what
Coltrane and Miles gave me.
So I realized there was something in Indian music and that it was
important for me to know what was going on. I pursued it and I Iistened to
it. Finally I heard it, and it had a very devastating effect on me. It's
absolutely phenomenal, the music of India. There was the vina, an ancestor
of the sitar which is from south India. There was also a north Indian vina.
So I finally discovered the two schools of Indian music by the time I left
Europe to come to America.
Before the move, David Holland and I had shared a flat together in
London. We had even played together. When he joined Miles, which was a coup
for an Englishman, we were thrilled to bits.
I'd also done some studio work and television, but it was devastating
working with a free group. It was somewhat anarchistic but at least I was
free. I was living in pretty abject poverty in the bargain. But you don't
mind if you're playing the music.
Once Dave and I were playing together and did a jam with Jack DeJohnette,
who had come into town with Bill Evans. We played with just a trio-guitar,
bass and drums. For the first time I was playing with a real drummer.
That's not to knock the English drummers. They're great drummers. But what
I mean is that Jack is someone who had grown up in the jazz tradition. He's
a great drummer. So it was a thrill for me. And Dave was playing. Dave, of
course, is a great player. So we played. What I didn't know was that Jack
had recorded it.
Later, after Jack had returned to America, he saw Tony Williams and
played the tape for Tony. Tony had also spoken to Dave about me because
they were both with Miles together. So, Tony called me in November, 1968,
and said, "I'm thinking about forming a group." I said, "When you're ready,
you just call." It took some time to get it together. But by early
February, 1969, I got the call.
After I got to America, everything broke for me. My life's really
blessed, I feel, because I walked into a situation where I met all my
heroes. Two days after I arrived, I was in the studio with Miles, which was
beyond my wildest dreams. And I felt at home. The crowning point in my
career was to go into Harlem and play in Harlem. Because Harlem, for
Europeans, is the home of jazz music. It's the source. So to play in Harlem
was a high that I've never really come down from. And Tony was still with
Miles, which was lucky for me because that's how I met Miles.
By the time I got here I was thinking more seriously about what's real in
life, what's the purpose. Of course, there's also a purpose in music. I
mean that music has no "message." It is the message. But to discover that
is something. Growing up with a European background, you grow up with these
intellectual conceptions and misconceptions which can really throw you.
Berg: What are your feelings at this time about the meaning of music?
McLaughlin: Ah╦confused. The thing about music was that I loved it. But
it took me years to discover that real concentration is perfect love.
Because love is effortless. Concentration is, in a sense, an intellectual
conception. Therefore, it cannot be whole. Love, however, is perfect
concentration and whole because it involves the whole inner being. These
are, of course, just philosophical propositions. But these are the things I
was involved in, you know, in the process of trying to find myself.
I'd made my first album before I came here. It hadn't even come out when
I left. That was Extrapolation for the defunct Marmalade label. In fact,
Dave was supposed to be on that. But when he got the call to go with Miles,
everyone wished him bon voyage.
Meanwhile, back in the States, I was working with Miles and Tony. It was
the best of all worlds. In fact, Miles asked me to join his group
permanently. But by this time, Lifetime with Larry Young was underway. I
thought that Larry was the greatest organ player in the world. I remember
his album with Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson and Elvin Jones, Unity. Marvelous
album. So here was my favorite organist with my favorite drummer. I was in
the perfect set-up. We were making pennies, but I felt it to be a part of
The most unexpected thing in my life was for me to turn Miles down
because Miles was my idol. I'd been listening to Miles since I was 15. I
was 27 when I got to America, so I had been into his music for 12 years. I
knew the man so intimately and loved him and admired him, and here he was
asking me to play in his group, and I had to say no. That was something for
me, but it made me very much aware of what I was involved in with Lifetime.
Lifetime was a musical thing that I realized was helping me into my own.
I stayed with Lifetime, a decision I haven't regretted for a second. With
Lifetime it was possible for me to really make a compositional contribution
which I don't think I would have had as much of with Miles. It would have
been more directed. And he'd been directing me for 12 years already. Not
that I didn't like his direction. He's such a marvelous man.
As Lifetime developed, I began to realize the influence of New York. It's
an amazing city because it either makes you or breaks you. There's a very
strong jazz feeling here. In Europe there's a completely different attitude
and way of life. I also realized that I had so much to do in music to
develop myself. So I started getting more and more into yoga and trying to
tune myself. And I was exposed to the writings of Hazrat lnayat Khan. Every
musician should read the second volume of The Sufi Message Books, which
deals with music and is called The Mysticism Of Sound, Music, The Power Of
The Word, And The Cosmic Language. It's a masterpiece of enlightenment as
far as music is concerned, in my opinion. I was also getting very much more
involved in meditation. I meditated with various yogis. Then I met Sri
Chinmoy and within a week became a disciple of his.
Berg: When was that?
McLaughlin: We're talking about the spring of 1970. In the meantime,
Lifetime had existed for a year as a trio. Then Jack Bruce came into town
for a gig. We spoke on the phone and I asked him to come down to the
session because Lifetime was making a record. He came down and he thought
it was the world's greatest band. That was my opinion also. Anyway, he
played and tried to fit in. We were a very tight trio. We'd been working
together for a year. So bass guitar was hard to fit in. But Jack fit, and
Tony asked him to join the group. He did and we stayed together another
year and the music was phenomenal.
However, there were some bad things going down with Tony's management. I
was being pressured to sign with them and I didn't like it. And then there
was the way they were handling Lifetime. I think Lifetime could have been
out there, especially with names like Tony Williams and Jack Bruce. I mean,
at the time, nobody knew Larry and me. With Jack and Tony we had some
weight. But they were sending us to high school gyms and ridiculously
obscure dates. Just absurd. I didn't like the attitude they had towards
Tony and the group and resented their pressure to sign me.
I talked to Miles about it because I was worried and he said, "John, if
you want to make some money, go and see Nat Weiss." Those were his very
words. He gave me his number so I called and went to see him. I had a very
good rapport with Nat immediately. He said, "I'd like to manage you." And I
said, "I'd really like you to manage me." So that was that. But there was a
terrible scene with Tony's management. They were very abusive to me. And
then there was this bad deal about the record.
Berg: What bad deal?
McLaughlin: The record that Lifetime was going to make of the music we'd
been doing for about a year with Jack Bruce. Jack was singing and the
material was very new. It was revolutionary and just incredible but there
was such a bad scene going down between the management and the band that
the recording never got made. It's a shame. That group was one of the
greatest in the world. I mean I wouldn't have hung in for so long if I
didn't believe it. Anyway, I finally had to leave because it was so weird
and the album never happened. It's really tragic.
So I did some dates with Miles. We were talking one night and he said,
"John, you have to form your own band." So I started thinking about it
then, you know, seriously. I made an album called My Goal's Beyond, where I
had the chance to meet Jerry Goodman and Billy Cobham. It wasn't exactly
what you'd call a Mahavishnu context. What I wanted to do was make an
acoustic record. On one side there was Charlie Haden, Badal Roy, Dave
Liebman, Jerry, Billy, and me on acoustic guitar. We played two pieces. On
the other side I played a lot of standard tunes that were almost like
etudes for the guitar. I really like that album.
So the session gave me a chance to sound Jerry and Billy out about this
new band that I had in mind. Later I was talking to Miroslav Vitous and he
said, "Listen man, if you're looking for a piano player, call this guy in
California who's with Sarah Vaughan. His name is Jan Hammer." And so I did.
He was very far out, and as vou can see, he's still rockin' and rollin'.
But, he wouldn't play with me on my new album.
Berg: Why not?
McLaughlin: Because I'm too associated with jazz. It might taint his rock
image. It sounds ironic, but it's absolutely true. It's a total absurdity
because as soon as he puts his hand on the keyboard, you hear all that
stuff coming out. But anyway, that's just in passing.
So the band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, got together, and it took off, as
they say. Became very big. But there was a lot of tension because I was a
disciple of Sri Chinmoy. I have very definite ideas about development.
Maybe they found it too hard, too demanding, but I demand as much from
myself as I do from anybody. I don't know. Maybe the tension was there
because I wasn't hanging out with the boys, as it were, and goofing off
My life and music are serious. You know, I don't like to take myself too
seriously because you become a parody. But music is serious and life is
serious. This is just what I feel. One cannot live in one's own little
world and ignore what's happening on the rest of the planet. It's serious
It's also Iight. I mean, you've got to have humor everywhere, including
music. But anyway, there was too much tension. It erupted, in part, because
we were very successful. Having success is probably the most difficult
thing. People got involved in their little things to the point where the
attitude on stage was the opposite of what it should have been for making
Berg: Were people taking superstardom too seriously?
McLaughlin: I guess so. I've got nothing against ego because ego, that's
you. It's a very complicated point. But let's say the other side of human
nature, which is not the nicest side, started coming out. We all have our
unpleasant sides, you know. It's nature. But music is about love. Musicians
are talking about love really. So when the nastier side of human nature
starts up, the music becomes negative.
The negative side can work only briefly. You can make some great music
out of negativity, but only for a very limited time. So this thing started
to happen and I realized that it was the opposite of what the music needed
and what I needed. You can get angry on the stage and scream through your
instrument which can be nice. It's very much needed for a lot of people,
but you cannot just keep doing that. You have to have the other side as
well, in any relationship. So I realized the love affair was over, and it
was a shame. But there's no point in continuing something that you know to
Then along came Mahavishnu Two, which was liked by many but not as liked
probably by an even greater number. And I was getting more involved in
Western classical music again. Cycles have a peculiar way of reoccurring as
time goes by. I recorded Apocalypse with Michael Tilson Thomas and the
London Symphony Orchestra, which was a marvelous experience. Then I had a
group with a string quartet, and quite a few other pieces which over a
period of a couple years got whittled down. I guess I was entering a
different phase. It became necessary for me to play and solo in an extended
way. And so finally the group was reduced to a quartet. But it still wasn't
right. In the meantime Shakti was cooking underground.
Actually we had known each other for several years. During all this time
I'd been studying vina at Wesleyan University. I was working with one of
the resident teachers there and getting deeper and deeper into Indian music
which is really the ultimate in extended soloing. It's quite similar to
what John Coltrane did. Anyway, I was in Connecticut one day and met a
percussionist who was playing with my vina teacher. That was in 1973. He
was Shankar's uncle. So this percussionist said, "You must meet my nephew.
He's a wonderful violinist." I said, "I'd love to." So he brought Shankar
around to my house and we just sat down and played. We almost composed a
piece right then and there. The rapport was incredible.
A similar thing had happened with Zakir Hussein. It was in 1971 when the
original Mahavishnu Orchestra did a benefit concert at the Dorothy Chandler
Pavilion in Los Angeles. Clive Davis, who was then president of Columbia
Records, said I could name my own beneficiary. I said fine, so we did it
for the Ali Akbar Khan School of Music in California. The next night we
were up in San Francisco and Ali Akbar Khan invited me to dinner. I arrived
with a guitar. Zakir, who is the son of the great Alla Rakha, arrived there
with a tabla. So we sat down before dinner and played for Ali Akbar Khan.
We'd never played together but we played this thing where the rhythm was a
cycle of 7. It was unbelievable. There was a fantastic rapport with Zakir.
He's a phenomenal musician, so quick and intelligent.
Later, when this happened with Shankar, I asked him if he knew Zakir,
since the same thing had happened with the two of us. He said, "Of course I
know him. He's a well known person." So I said we should really get
together and just play because if what happens between myself and each of
you happens between the two of you it's going to be incredible. So
Raghavan, who is Shankar's uncle, came on mridangam, which is a south
Indian drum. We made some studio music, one side of an LP which was
supposed to come out on a double album. However, Columbia asked me not to
do it. They said people will find it confusing. So we passed that up. Maybe
it was a blessing in disguise because we put a live album out later which I
thought was great.
Anyway, we started doing little underground concerts at churches,
community centers, places like that. We did one thing on TV. Then we had a
concert coming up out at South Hampton College. I had a premonition about
it and called Columbia and said you've got to get an eight-track machine
out there. I told them it was going to be a great concert. I just knew it.
So they did. It was recorded but it sat on the shelf quite a while because
I was making my final album with Mahavishnu which was Inner Worlds. After
Inner Worlds, the group didn't have enough cohesion and I myself had other
things on my mind since Shakti was becoming more important to me. So
finally after making Inner Worlds, I said I have to go with Shakti, in
spite of popular opinion.
So basically that's the story, except that in 1975 I had a disruption in my
personal life. I'm not what you'd call an active disciple of Sri Chinmoy
except that I have a very deep love for him. ln fact I saw him three days
ago. He had a meditation at the United Nations. As far as my feelings are
concerned, I need the grace of God as much now as I did then, if not more.
I continue to pray and meditate for direction and inspiration and strength.
I guess the break was a matter of my assuming total responsibility for my
I got to the point where I was in such an artistic and spiritual upheaval
that I had to sever every tie I had to everything. I didn't play for many
months. It was almost a year. And then Shakti came out and met with a
thunderous burst of indifference.
In part, I think the record companies fail to understand the overall
situation. I think the listening public is grossly patronized and
underestimated. It's really an awful state of affairs. Shakti was handled
in a commercial context like everything is in America, where the basic
question is "Will it sell?" If it had been taken in an artistic context,
which is the only relevant context you can take music in, the approach
might have been, "Listen, we have something here that is original and is
happening. We have to look at it from a different point of view." It's our
responsibility if we care about music to make people aware of what this
group is and what it's doing, instead of just trying to sell it like a rock
band. In fact, the record companies fail to understand that people get
tremendous enjoyment from discovering something that they didn't know
before. Even if it's just about the rhythm, the way the rhythm is counted,
they want to understand. People want to know what's happening. But they are
Even down beat is tainted with this awful attitude. It's missing the
entire point that the music is the music is the music. It doesn't matter
what color you are or what you're playing. If you're playing music, that's
the beautiful thing, that it's just music. But it should be available to
anybody and helped on its way. With the media you get the contrary, you get
suppression. There's a suppression that exists in the media that is
compounded by the capitalistic attitude of record companies.
It doesn't have to be the way it is. Maybe I'm being a little hard, but I
think I'm being pretty accurate. Anyway, there are some good people around
and a company is only as good as its people. One man can change a whole
magazine. One man could change a record company. One man can change a radio
station. Two men can do miracles. And 100 men could change the world, if
you know what I mean. But anyway, that's another story. Probably the same
one, part of the same story, and the world needs it. God does the world
Berg: Do these factors ever cause you to doubt your direction?
McLaughlin: To the contrary. It's not that Shakti has been rejected,
rather that there's been just an overwhelming indifference. That appalls
me. I'd rather be abused than be treated with indifference. I've been in
groups that have been booed off stage because of the music I was playing.
But I don't mind that, because that makes you aware of really where you are
at in yourself and what you are doing, and you either stop what you're
doing or it makes you stronger. To be criticized by a foot is the highest
compliment anyway. So it helps you keep perspective.
Berg: What directions have evolved because of Shakti?
McLaughlin: The directions are articulated as accurately as possible on
the records. I couldn't even speak about it except to say that Shakti, and
my great love of Indian culture and music, helped me pursue my researches
into the different aspects of the theoretical side. Also, I think I was
very fortunate to have had some theory lessons from Ravi Shankar, and from
other master players.
But over the years, especially over the last year, I've felt my own jazz
roots bubbling inside of me. You can sense this in the last Shakti album.
Not only that, Shankar, who is probably one of the most extraordinary
violinists around, also has quite a desire for theoretical and practical
knowledge of jazz music. In jazz music and Indian music you have one big
common denominator and that's improvisation. In fact, when you listen to
the modal approach of Coltrane and of Miles you're dealing with a scalar
and a linear approach to music which is precisely like Indian music.
I've been teaching Shankar jazz harmony and ways of perceiving moving
harmonic progressions, and he's been teaching me the theory and practice of
melody and rhythm which are the essences of Indian music. Last summer all
my roots came bubbling up inside me, so I was carrying around a tape
machine with Coltrane and Miles. I just wanted to listen to Coltrane and
Miles all the time. And Don Cherry too, who has made some wonderful albums.
So I had all this flying around inside my system. The time was right
because my contract was running out with Columbia. They said, "We'd really
like you to make some electric albums." And I said, "You know, this thing
is happening in me that I'd really like to make some electric albums
because the one thing with Shakti that I miss is the jazz element."
With harmonic progressions you need a keyboard or at least you need a
moving bass. So I started writing music last summer and I finished it and I
made this record just recently which I'm very, very happy about.
It was a chance for me to reacquaint myself with a lot of old friends,
and bring people like Tony Williams and Jack Bruce together with myself,
which made me very happy. The way they play together is a delight. It had
been to the point where it fell apart and nothing ever happened. So it's
nice just to make good music with them again.
Another track is with Chick Corea, whom I've known since the day I
arrived in America, and Jack DeJohnette whom I've known even longer, and
Stanley Clarke. I also wrote a piece, in a sense, like the original
Mahavishnu sound. Jan, you know, wouldn't play with me. But Jerry Goodman
came in, and Billy Cobham came in, and it was great. It was kind of like
the old wounds were healed. And I like that. There's too much
misunderstanding that's perpetuated.
I also did a thing with Alphonso Johnson, Dave Sanborn, Patrice Rushen
and Tony Smith. And there is something with Carlos Santana. The whole thing
was very exciting for me because of the new music I'd been feeling coming
out of me. And I was so fortunate to record it, and to have a company that
was interested in it, too. In fact, they're more excited about this than
anything I've done, which is an indication of what we've already spoken
Berg: Well, to me it sounds great.
McLaughlin: Thank you, I love it myself. Of course I see looming faults
in it, but that's part of the deal.
Berg: I would imagine there was a lot of magical stuff going on because
of the reunion itself.
McLaughlin: Yes, the atmosphere at every session was special. The one
with Carlos is a simple kind of tune but perfect for the two of us
together. We both share a lot of similar aspirations.
Berg: What will be happening tomorrow, next week, next year?
McLaughlin: Well, I have to go to Europe to take care of some family
business, but I want to play electric guitar more. So I'm just looking
around for musicians at the moment.
Berg: So there will be a band coming up?
McLaughlin: Yes there will.
Berg: And you'll be on the road?
McLaughlin: Yeah, that's where I belong. I've been on the road since I
was 16. I don't intend to pull out now. 20 years! I'm 36 now. 20 years╦
Berg: The new album is called Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist.
What's the story behind the title?
McLaughlin: Well, not that I was pushy, but I used to go around to all
these places and say, "Mind if I sit in?" Since I was 15 I've been doing
that. And that's how I ended up on the road. But I thought I'd go classy
and have a little card made. So I did. It had "Telephone," nothing, because
I had no telephone. And it had "Johnny." I was known as Johnny in those
days, that's what my mother calls me. So it had "Johnny McLaughlin,
Electric Guitarist," and the address underneath. That was it. My class-A
Anyway, last year I ran into two of my old friends who were part of the
hard times that I mentioned when I was 14, 15, 16 years old. One of the
guys had one of those cards. He had kept it all these years, and he said it
would make a great album cover. Coupled with that is the fact that I am
probably one of the least photographed children in the world. There's only
one picture of me as a child, at 12 years old. So they want to put the card
and picture on the cover.
Berg: Since your plans call for touring with an electric band, what is
the future of Shakti? Will it still be a working group?
McLaughlin: I hope so. As I said before, we need enthusiasm for music. I
would just like the audiences to be enthusiastic. Maybe I'm asking for too
much. I would like people to be just as enthusiastic about the music that
I'm doing, whether it's acoustic, electric, whatever. The fact that they're
more enthusiastic about the electric album is something we've already gone
over. As for Shakti, I want to share it with other people. It's too good to
lose. If it's a minority of the audience, I don't care. It's important that
people hear these musicians.
Berg: Exactly how does the audience affect the music?
McLaughlin: Audiences are important. If they come unconditioned, with no
preconceived prejudices about how people look, what they wear, how they
sit, and if they just love music, the music has the possibility of just
transcending everybody and becoming itself. But it's not the whole thing.
Like I said, I've played for people who have booed. But we just kept
playing anyway because when you're on stage it's your turn. It's your turn
Some of the greatest playing can happen during rehearsals. It's happened
to me. The music will suddenly explode with a lyrical beauty and power.
Then the next day you have a concert and its only got 50 per cent. Still
great, but that's the nebulous nature of inspiration. You never know. You
try to set up the situation physically and mentally. You try to get through
the superficial stuff and get to the jewels inside of people. But that's
something you can't ever count on. It's something that you continually work
That's what I'm doing now. I haven't played a concert since last
November, and I don't know when I will. But you just have to work every
day, pray every day. Hopefully it will come together and we'll go on the
road. And I hope people will get something out of it. I think they will.