By Paul MacArthur
(Reprinted from Jazziz magazine: April 1996)
Jazz/Rock pioneer John McLaughlin, whose technical prowess has sent its
share of guitarists back to the practice room, has been expanding the
guitar vocabulary for close to three decades. Stylistically, he has set
very few limits on himself; he has played fusion, rock, blues, classical,
Eastern music, straightahead jazz, and whatever else has interested him
over the years. It should come as no surprise, then, that McLaughlin's
latest efforts cover several musical territories, including straightahead
jazz, rock, and fusion.
One of McLaughlin's latest recordings, After the Rain (Verve), is a
mainstream jazz tribute to John Coltrane featuring drummer Elvin Jones and
organist Joey DeFrancesco. The combination is powerful, with all three
musicians turning in inspired performances, evoking the memory of the late
saxophonist. Three of the songs were written by Coltrane; two others are
considered standard Coltrane repertoire. Given the musical selections and
the presence of Jones, it seems natural the recording would be a Coltrane
tribute. McLaughlin, however, says that was not his original intention.
"I'd been dreaming for about 30 years to play with Elvin," McLaughlin
says. "I've played with most of the great drummers in the world, except
Elvin. I always had this real soft spot for drummers, and I've been
listening to Elvin for so long, and finally I said, 'Well, gee, I've got to
do it before I die. Maybe I should do it now, when I'm feeling good,' " he
laughs. "I called him and he was really thrilled about the idea."
"There's some tunes that 'Trane recorded, not just his compositions but
pieces that have rarely been recorded since. Things like 'Afro Blue' and
'Crescent,' which I don't think I've ever heard recorded by anyone else.
When I started to speak to Elvin about the recording, about these pieces,
he was really happy because he said they should be played. It wasn't really
my intention to make an homage to Coltrane; it's just kind of like 'Trane's
presence is very evident, I guess from those tunes; and of course because
Elvin was the powerhouse behind those tunes, it ended up that way."
"There is this other kind of indirect homage, I would say, to Larry
Young. Elvin didn't do much recording during the '60s, outside of 'Trane's
group. But he made a couple of recordings with Larry Young in the Hammond
organ format. Of course, I loved Larry and I grew up with Hammond organ,
which is one of the reasons I'm working with Hammond organ today. Larry was
the first Hammond organ player to break away from the Jimmy Smith/Jimmy
McGriff kind of groove-which is beautiful, I love it, don't misunderstand
me. But this new school that came out from Miles and 'Trane with his
chordal harmony-Larry was really a great exponent of that. There have been
very few, if any, who've done that kind of work with that kind of music,
that kind of feeling, that kind of mood. He was really the first. So in a
way it was in memory to him, too, because I miss him. He was a real
A stunning album, After the Rain is McLaughlin's second release in the
guitar/organ/drums setting in the past two years. The other, Tokyo Live,
features McLaughlin's latest band, the Free Spirits. The Free Spirits is a
fire-breathing trio that puts McLaughlin in the company of DeFrancesco and
former Parliament/Funkadelic drummer Dennis Chambers. The group, which is
touring the United States this March, inspired McLaughlin to go electric
for the first time in several years.
"As soon as I had the idea-and I loved the idea-I said, 'What am I going
to do, play acoustic with that? I'm out of my mind. No way. It's
impossible,' " McLaughlin recalls. "Dennis is a very powerful drummer, and
Joey's a very powerful organ player. I had to plug in. But since I've been
playing acoustic guitar for the last 12 years, it was difficult to just
feel comfortable with a solid body guitar, so I ended up with an acoustic-
electric guitar like they used to play 20 years ago. I really like the tone
that I'm getting out of this guitar. It's warm and it's kind of rich. But
I'm still experimenting. I'm working on some distortion pedals, when it's
got to go that way. You know: when you got to go, you got to go."
McLaughlin's work with the Free Sprits has been rewarding for the band
and audiences. Both Tokyo Live and their performances have been well
received. McLaughlin attributes that, in part, to the capabilities of his
bandmates, who he says bring him up a level. Given their histories, that's
almost expected. DeFrancesco has been tearing up the organ since he broke
on the scene as a teenager; Chambers is a versatile drummer who has a solid
reputation in the jazz and funk communities.
"Joey's phenomenal," McLaughlin says. "He's just one of these gifted
people. He's such a natural. He can do what he wants with a Hammond organ.
He's got a tremendous swing, phenomenal technique. The independence from
his foot with his two hands. The sound. Plus he hears everything, too. He's
got tremendous ears. He is very much aware of the new school, the 'Trane
School, because Larry is one of Joey's heroes. Have you ever heard him on
piano? He can play like Oscar Peterson. It's just so easy for him. I hate
this kind of guy," he laughs. "Us poor slobs have to work."
"Dennis is a dream. He may be the greatest player today. He's just
unbelievable. He can do anything. Any time signature, whether it's hip hop
or funk or straightahead or just wide open. He's tremendous. To play with
those two guys is really a dream. It's just so easy to play with them, to
work with them. It just happens."
In addition to his work with the Free Spirits, McLaughlin is reminding
the rock world that he is still a powerful force in that idiom. Last fall
he appeared at the Jimi Hendrix festival in Seattle, where he was reunited
with Narada Michael Walden and Ralphe Armstrong for the first time in
nearly 20 years. He also appears on the all-star symphonic tribute to
Hendrix, In From the Storm, produced by Eddie Kramer. Teamed up with Sting,
Vinnie Colaiuta, and Dominic Miller, McLaughlin's performance on "The Wind
Cries Mary" is almost out of control and would have made his late friend
"That was really nice," he recalls with excitement, "because I know Eddie
going back for 30 years. He called me up and said, 'Just get a bass player
and a drummer and we'll add some orchestra.' So I got a hold of Sting and I
said, 'Do you want to play bass?' and he said, 'Yeah, I want to do it.' He
ended up singing. He sang his ass off, too. In fact, they didn't put the
orchestra on after all. They decided, 'Forget it-the cut is really
happening, it doesn't need any orchestra.' I don't even know where they
could put it on. It was the first time Sting and I got together. He's a
really fine musician."
Other McLaughlin projects include a fusion recording that has already
been completed. The release, called The Promise, has McLaughlin in several
settings, including a duet with Jeff Beck. "Jeff Beck is my favorite guitar
player in terms of style," he says. "We did a tune together, "Django" by
John Lewis - the first take was it. It was a real great reunion for us,
because we hadn't played together for years. Jeff's got the sound, he's got
a phrasing that's so unique." McLaughlin also reunites with Paco de Lucia
and Al Di Meola for the recording. "It was really cool. In fact, we may do
something. We're talking about it right now. We were all very happy just to
get together again. You've got three very distinct styles, but something
just happens on stage. Of course people say, 'You're just running up and
down the fingerboards.' In a way, yeah, but hopefully the music's there
too. These guys are playing my instrument, and they're playing the shit out
of it. We get together, [and] everybody's like, up each other's nose," he
laughs. "But in any event, we have a lot of fun. That's definitely part of
making music, too."
Future plans for McLaughlin include further work with the Free Spirits, a
possible tour and/or recording with de Lucia and Di Meola, and continuing
to explore different musical paths. It is easy to be mesmerized by his
resumÈ, for his accomplishments and diversity overshadow guitarists of his
and subsequent generations, but McLaughlin keeps things in perspective as
he looks towards the future.
"My goals are the same as they've been for a long time: to become who I
really am and to try to be that in music," McLaughlin says. "That's about
as much as I can ask in life. I suppose spontaneity is the most honest way
of being. It's a lot of hard work. It sounds strange, but I work harder now
than 20 years ago. The more I learn about music, the more I realize I don't
know. But that's great, too. It's very exciting for me. I'm continually
excited by music. I'm continually exploring music, because it's endless.
There's no way you're ever going to get to the end of anything. You just
keep going. What could be better than that?"
For the music Iover who hears McLaughlin, not much. Not much indeed.