John Mclaughlin

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 brother."
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 Jimi proud.
"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.