Hopelessly in love with the Guitar

By Jesse Nash

Photo by Rico D'Rozarlo

(Reprinted from JazzTimes magazine: May 1990)

"The guitar is an incredible instrument," says John McLaughlin. "I fell hopelessly in love with it at the age of 11, and I've never recovered." McLaughlin was born in Yorkshire, England, and moved to the United States in 1969, where he joined the jazz group Lifetime, before starting the brilliant jazz fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Shakti, a synthesis of Eastern and Western musical genres.
Always seeking innovation and the joy of musical creation, McLaughlin has teamed up with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu and African-German bass guitarist Kai Eckhardt-Karpeh to form the John McLaughlin Trio, which has relesed a new album on JMT/Polygram Records, Live At Royal Festival Hall.
The LP is "exciting" to McLaughlin, who points to one of the tracks as particularly interesting, "On 'Passionate Love' I use a synthesizer with the guitar. This is a new development. It brings a kind of orchestral element that's really beautiful," he says.
"Orchestral" is an important word in John McLaughlin's vocabulary. Over the years, he has drifted between jazz and classical forms. In 1985 his Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra "Mediterranean", commissioned by the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Ernest Fleishman, was first performed, with McLaughlin as soloist. It was hailed by audiences and critics. A record of the concerto can now be found on CBS Masterworks with the London Symphony Orchestra.
But it is jazz for which he is best known and most often associated with, and McLaughlin has appeared with some of America's best known artists, including Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.
Although he came to the United States to become part of the jazz scene here, McLaughlin is critical of the way we have treated a national musical treasure. "It has always been marginal," he says, "You have great painters, great designers, and great architects. But this is a form of music that was largely born in America, and it's a shame that it's not better respected."
McLaughlin has long been impressed by the quality and quantity of innovative American artists-people like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, and Thelonious Monk, to name just a few. As a European, he says he has "adored" them since he first heard them. "To me, they were absolute giants, and they still are. So, nothing too much has changed in America; jazz is still acknowledged outside of the U.S. as a real art-form more than it is in its own country," he says.
One major reason jazz has not received the widespread approbation it deserves in America, McLaughlin says, is economics: "From the point-of-view of budgets, or the subsidies from state and federal governments," he says, "jazz is the black sheep of the family. For example, classical music could not survive without subsidies. And of course, rock 'n' roll and pop don't need it because they're a billion dollar business."
Inspite of the paltry support that jazz has received, in general, over the years in the U.S., John McLaughlin's work has enjoyed substantial popularity. His trio was to have toured the states, but a terrible accident forced the tour's postponement.
"I smashed the first finger of my left hand," McLaughlin explains. "It's an open fracture with a broken bone. I can't play until it heals."
He describes the incident as a "stupid accident." He was moving a television set, and in a moment of carelessness, his finger became jammed between the appliance and a mounting rail. The doctors have assured him he will play again.
"It could have been much worse; I didn't break the joint-I missed it by an eighth of an inch. It could have been a catastrophe," he says feeling very lucky that, in a couple of months, he will be able to play his beloved guitar again.