By Mark Gilbert

(Reprinted from Jazz Journal magazine: November 1996)

Just when it seemed John McLaughlin was slipping gracefully towards retirement with his largely acoustic world music trio, he surprised his audiences in the early nineties by appearing with a Gibson Johnny Smith, a new, enhanced straightahead vocabulary and an updated version of the classic organ trio. Britain's most famous guitarist talked to Mark Gilbert shortly after the release of his wide-ranging Verve album, The Promise.

How did the Free Spirits trio come about?
"I really wanted to play with Dennis Chambers, and the idea of a Hammond organ trio was very attractive to me, because I grew up with the Hammond organ trio, or at least the Hammond organ - Georgie Fame, Graham Bond, Larry Young, Mike Carr. And the idea of playing acoustic guitar in a Hammond organ trio was just ridiculous. But it had been so long since I played electric guitar that I needed to have a big guitar, I mean an acoustic-electric guitar, so of course you've got to go and find all those jazz guitars."

That was the first time you played that kind of guitar?
"No, it must have been '65 - '66, I did some sessions for about a year and I had at that time a great Gibson guitar, a 1960 I think, an L4C with a carved top and a Charlie Christian pickup. It was like the perfect jazz guitar, and I used that for everything. It was just a great guitar. And I've had an L7 and a Gretcsh, both hollow bodies."

But you've been known mostly for playing solids when you've played electric. Les Pauls, for example.
"Yeah, from the time with Miles. But with Miles at the beginning it was a hollow body round hole, a Gibson Hummingbird, a folk guitar. Later I played electric with him, but not only did they want it, I wanted it. Everything was getting louder and there were physical limits for an acoustic guitar beyond just feed back. The instrument is out of control, you can't play, it's just a pain in the neck. That's why solid bodies were invented, to avoid feedback."

But you don't get feedback problems with this guitar now, do you?
"No, not really. But that's a Johnny Smith which has a slightly thinner body and is less susceptible to feedback. I don't use an amp on stage. I go straight into the PA. I have a monitor. That helps to bring down the volume on stage."
"I have three different Johnny Smiths - a '62, a '68 and a '77. I use all three, because sometimes one has to go to the shop. They're used, and I use them a lot."

The sound you get is very good, considering there's no amplifier. Is there a box between you and the PA?
"Oh absolutely. It's a Sony M7 I think. All it does is transform a mono signal into a stereo output so that itself makes it a broader sound generally. It's a very powerful unit generally in terms of tone. Instead of a treble knob and a bass knob, you've got a parametric equalizer. It's a lot of work to get to the point where the sound just starts to feel nice."

You don't feel inclined to get a combo and get the sound of the speaker right and then mike that up?
"No. I record the same way, straight into the desk. But I need to have some return, whether it's monitors or, as on some of the recordings on The Promise, I made a split and plugged into two amps, because I have to listen with my body, not just my ears, you know. It's like drums, you need the physical sound."

You have some effects in between? It sounds like there might be some chorus.
"Yeah, it's the Sony M7. You can put chorus, and I use ring modulator. It's a crazy sound and I don't want to use it too much, but on something like "Jazz Jungle" or "Shin Jin Riu", where there's a little more going towards jazz-fusion, I wanna get some. It's like the saxophone players - just by changing their embouchure, they get this rough sound; it's just harmonic. And that's basically what a ring modulator does, it just messes with your harmonics. So it's just another way to change the tone, because at certain points, where the music's on its way out, you're left with "ping, ping, ping", when the music and the feelings are getting stronger."

Before we leave the guitar, the other thing that's particularly characteristic of your guitar-playing now is your use of the vibrato arm. What unit do you have on there?
"It's a Bigsby, an old Bigsby. It's a technique I'm working on. It's tricky, but I'm learning how to control it more. I really like it, because it reminds me of Indian music, and sometimes they'll just drop a quarter-tone. It goes to show you that you just need a little bit. I know sometimes I go nuts, but I'm a little nuts."
"Then there's Miles. Miles would drop his note. Trane would do a slurred run down but Miles would bend the note. You can go up on the guitar. You can bend it up. But to bend it down is impossible, unless you begin with the note bent up and release it. I tried to do that with Shakti guitar, and that's one of the reasons I had the scalloped fingerboard. But it's hard that way, a very tricky technique."

What kind of strings do you have on your Johnny Smiths?
"D'Addario, .010 - .046. But just recently, I think they're too light. Maybe because I've been playing, acoustic recently, over the holidays. I hadn't played it since recording last June (six months), but I played it over the holidays and it was nice, you have to really play it because of the resistance. Then last night I played the Johnny Smith and I found the strings a little light. On the acoustic I have ordinary classical strings. I haven't played steel-strung acoustic for a long while, and now I don't have an acoustic steel string, except Shakti guitar."

Your recent renaissance is based around you playing straightahead, in other words in a style I don't recall you having done much before - only in the sixties and briefly in the film 'Round Midnight. So I wonder, have you been woodshedding in recent years on that approach?
"I never stop working, Mark."

In that particular idiom? With Trilok Gurtu you may have done occasional jazz numbers - "Blue In Green" or "So What", for example - but your playing wasn't so obviously full of jazz licks, whereas now it's very chromatic.
"I think in the last few years l've been working systematically on trying to find new harmonic approaches to the guitar. Like when you start to play a blues, like "No Blues", or "I Got Rhythm" structure, or a piece like "Vukovar", there's some very very interesting harmonic movement. How you move from A to B can be done in a great number of ways, and so I work on that. Let's face it, you can never get to the end Mark. I can never get to the end of a 12-bar blues. I mean you can never get to the end of where you can take it, and still stay in the blues."

This is the thing for me in your new recordings - the harmony of the solos is so rich, whereas in your acoustic things it seems more modal.
"Oh absolutely. You're absolutely right. A lot of work has gone into just examining my own compositions, and looking at the harmonic structure, and how can you get from A to B and not bore yourself to death. You systematically have to wipe your old ideas out. You have to have habits - you cannot go on stage and think. You've got to go on stage and play. You cannot play and think, so you have to have a lot of things relegated to the level of automatism, right? The only thing is that I get bored with the automatisms. I don't want to be directed by my automatisms and so I will break them. I have to do it constantly, because you get to the point where you're happy with it and as soon as you're happy with it, you start to be unhappy with it, so you start to break everything up. I don't think it ever stops. Of course we all have our stock phrases and clichÔs, and you have to have them, 'cause that's part of the basis from which you play. And that's part of your style I suppose."

Well, your playing now sounds very modern, very contemporary, and I hadn't heard you play in that particular harmonic style before. On the other hand, I'd heard the general harmonic gist of that style in other players in the eighties. Do you have some favorite guitarists from then?
"I've got two - I mean Scofield and Pat Metheny. They're my two favorite guitarists in the conventional sense."

I think of John Scofield when I hear your recent records-not suggesting that they're derivative in any sense, but there's a similar kind of vocabulary which you just didn't hear in the seventies from jazz-rock players, or jazz players. So is there perhaps a link with Scofield?
"Not on a conscious level, except that I have a tremendous amount of admiration for John, and for Pat also, although I was extremely disappointed with the record they made together. I thought that was dreadful. I couldn't believe it actually, I just couldn't. I mean both of them, these two monsters and they're just like terrible."

The expectations were so highä
"No, no, you can expect from Pat Metheny and John Scofield, c'mon. Why not? There's a minimum you can expect from them, but the minimum wasn't even there. I thought it was terrible. I threw it out of the window, I couldn't stand it. It bothered me terribly. But it doesn't lessen my admiration of either of them. At the same time, when I hear someone like Allan Holdworth - and of course he doesn't play his solos at all in the same manner - it's very interesting, and his chordal thing is just killing. It's killing, and the sound he gets. I went to see him a couple of years ago and I went backstage and I said, 'If I knew what you were doing I would steal all of it, 'cause I have no idea what you're doing'. You know Allan, he just blew it off in his way. He's such a sweet person, but this guy is amazing. Frank Gambale, also. I know a lot of people criticize him, but Frank is like reinventing the guitar. I've gotta take my cap off to him, because he's doing revolutionary work in guitar technique. Give the man time to come up with the musical goods as well. Already it's tremendous what he's done. I mean, even Eddie Van Halen - amazing things."

Can you see anything else that guitar players can do that hasn't been done yet?
"I would have said no until I saw a young Indian guitar player recently. He had like an archtop guitar with sitar and sarod strings and this guy's just unbelievable, terrible."

But new things on six strings?
"When I think about the variety and the development that have happened on the guitar in the last 10 years I think it's extremely rich. What's going on on piano? The only big thing - apart from the great pianists, Chick and Herbie and Keith Jarrett - the greatest thing to come out is Gonzalo Rubalcaba. But you listen to Gonzalo Rubalcaba's fusion records and they're killing. He's a monster. In fact there's one track we recorded together live. I wanted to put it on The Promise and I didn't have time. It was a meeting, the first time we ever played together. It's unbelievable what he's doing. Another guy I've got to take my hat off to in fusion, cause I love fusion too, is Gary Thomas. Great stuff. I mean weird. I listen to Gary and I get pulled into his records and that's all I'm waiting for. Imagine having to read that stuff and play it. He makes sure he gives them all headaches."

He's a new voice on the tenor, but some people don't agree.
"I know, but there's a great wave of puritan conventionality moving in now. People don't have to do what's already been done and been done better before."
"I like acid jazz too. I like D-Note. On my album I had a little bit of jungle beat from England. What's nice is you see this creative imagination. And it's just like well let's go for it, screw the consequences and whatever people say. They're happy to do what they want to do, and I'm happy to see that. It's like Branford Marsalis doing his hip-hop Buckshot LeFonque thing. I've done concerts with Branford where he was with like a classic Coltrane quartet, and he's killing on this thing in a different way. And why not?"
"Wynton though is an enigma to me. When l met him he must have been about 18 and already he was knocking Miles, but of course every time Miles put his trumpet to his mouth Wynton was on his knees in front of him in total adoration. And just recently I saw the end of one of his concerts, and he's back into like New Orleans; I didn't really hear enough of it to judge, but why not? To go forward he's gotta go back, and I understand that. I have to do the same myself."

You're the opposite to Allan Holdsworth, in that he's very legato, left-hand biased, but you pick almost every note you play. Is that right?
"There are a few pull-offs, but before you get to the pull-off you've got to be there and sometimes it's very difficult. I've worked at it all my life basically, but it hasn't stopped Mark, that's all I can say, because I am constantly finding new things that I'm incapable of playing."
"Guitar is weird. It's not like a piano. You have a good technique, a good jazz technique on piano, you can do almost anything. You have a good classical technique like Gonzalo, and you can do anything. But on guitar, because you've got maybe several ways of playing the same thing - which position are you going to adopt and where do you make the shift - I think you have to reinvent your technique on the left hand. And if there's some harmonic device that I want to be able to play I have to find a new technique, not only with the left hand but with the right hand. So the work just keeps going on, and over the years you find your way not easier but you have more means at your disposal with which to attack difficult articulation problems."

So did you develop this technique where you pick a lot accidentally, or did you particularly like that staccato attack?
"I like the rhythmical possibilities of right hand playing. I didn't really think about it, but I know on reflection that I like the rhythmical phrasing, which is where the right hand comes in. Allan is absolutely phenomenal, but I wouldn't want to play in that way because I'd miss the impact, where I'm able to directly interact with the drummer, for example. But that's my way, that's the only way I can go, I can't go against my nature. I have a lot of fun interacting directly with the drummer."

What is it about Yorkshire that has caused it to produce two of the world's most innovative guitar players of the last 30 years?
"Eh, I don't know lad!"