"I'm a little bit mad,"
guitarist John McLaughlin confides with a gleam
in his eyes. It's his first interview of a press day planned to promote his
latest release, The Promise, an album that reconvenes an historic array of
people McLaughlin's met, reconstruing the worlds they've created.
"I've always been fascinated by different forms and have liked to
experiment using music from different cultures," he says. "From time to
time it's a pleasure to go back, bring relationships up to date, get
friends together, play with our minds of today, so different from our
perceptions of five, 10, 15, or - as with Jeff Beck - 20 years ago."
Jeff Beck!?! Ain't it mad to ask the Bad Brit of Hot Licks, the rudest
guitar player the Yardbirds ever had, to wax and twine sympatico with
electric McLaughlin on the ballad "Django"?
"Well, we toured together in the late '70s when he had his
Blow By Blow
group - Pretty Purdie, Wilbur Bascomb, Max Middleton - and I had Narada
Michael Walden, Ralphe Armstrong and Stu Goldberg," McLaughlin explains.
"Every night both bands massed onstage to jam. And I knew this tune was
right for him. When Jeff heard the tape I prepared for him, he called -
'It's so beautiful.'
"It is a beautiful song, and I arranged it to keep its integrity. We get
down a little more, perhaps, than the MJQ, but structurally, harmonically
and rhythmically, 'Django' is exactly as written."
So the guitarists shift between yearning swing and a hard-rock groove,
evidently having great fun. Are they mad? "Look," McLaughlin says, setting
things straight, "musicians please themselves. That's all we're interested
in. Still, there's a very interesting process - recapitulation if you like
- that's beyond getting together with friends such as Paco [de Lucia] and
Al [Di Meola], Nishat Khan, Zakir Hussain, Trilok [Gurtu]." Also featured
on The Promise: David Sanborn, Sting, Vinnie Colaiuta, Jim Beard, Don
Alias, James Genus, Free Spirits Joey DeFrancesco and Dennis Chambers.
"To make one step forward, I sometimes feel I have to make two steps
back," he concedes in acknowledgement of his earliest Extrapolation through
late-'60s out-classics, including some big fun with Miles; from his soaring
Mahavishnu Orchestra and sublime Shakti through a slew of sophisticated
electric and acoustic combos to symphonic works prepared by such conductor
pals as Michael Tilson Thomas and Dennis Russell Davies, and most recently
on to reconfigurations for guitars of pianist Bill Evans' music and
interpretations with Elvin Jones and organist DeFrancesco playing the works
of John Coltrane.
But again McLaughlin asserts: "I'm involved in today as the only day I
have - yesterday is gone, the future is completely neutral. I forget what
I've done. If from time to time I have to remember, I listen to old
records, which is great, and even go back to when I was a kid to recall
musical experiences that are relevant to me today. But basically, The
Promise just grew out of a desire to play with some people."
"Michael Brecker and I played together but had not recorded. It's been 14
years since I played with Paco and Al. I haven't played with my Indian
colleagues for awhile, and I never recorded before with [sitarist] Nishat
Khan. To get him with Trilok and Zakir in a 75-percent Indian East-West
formation, that's perhaps better balanced than Shakti!" Clearly, it was a
consummation devoutly sought.
"I had a piece I'd written or arranged to accomodate the musicians'
comforts and be provocative at the same time. From the start, I intended to
string these pieces together with certain transitions, specific verses of
poetry" - a whisper of Dante, a burst of rain, a haiku, chirping cicadas, a
Lorca couplet, temple bells, a 72-second "English Jam."
"It all fell into shape in the mix, done by Max Costa, with whom I always
work. Recording is easy," McLaughlin laughs, "if you prepare well.
Logistically, this album was tricky - going here, recording there, in the
middle of tours, everyone else on tour, too. For the dates with Brecker and
Sanborn, I flew from Japan to New York for three days, had sessions on two
afternoons, the third day flew back to South Korea. Nutty, but it was that
or not have them."
Which was not an option. The rough and open "Jazz Jungle" with Brecker is
15 minutes, the more laid-back "Shin Jin Rui" with Sanborn (both boast the
rhythm squad of Beard, Genus, Chambers and Alias) slightly longer than 10;
so they might serve as centerpieces, if The Promise weren't so
exceptionally rangy and more than 73 minutes in duration. Not that
McLaughlin claims length or variety as an accomplishment.
"Don't forget, I got into jazz in the late '50s, early '60s. Miles and
Trane, Bill Evans, Cannonball were amazing. Ornette, Mingus and Monk - what
a phenomenal period. Compared to what they were doing then, we're not doing
much new today. The only thing we can really say is, 'Nobody can ever do it
like I do it' - because we're each of us unique."
"The standards of what's been done are incredible, but to be stopped by
that is the wrong kind of vanity," he considers. "Vanity is not necessarily
bad - we can hope to transform it into pride. Anyway, you have to be vain
to get up and pretend," he laughs, "that you can play. You end up going on
faith, which is, sometimes, blind. But you have to go for it, trust in it."
"You may not get what you're going for - you never know if you're going
to get that thing, spirit or whatever you call it, where you're liberated
and it's wonderful. It doesn't happen so often. You go out with the hope,
you work to be ready when it happens. We're all waiting for the same thing,
everybody knows when somebody gets it, and it's very infectious."
"But sometimes it's a battle royale. You see a concert and the guy is
fighting his instrument. This can be very beautiful: a person struggling to
get through his own conscious or unconscious barriers, to free himself -
because we are free, we were born free and we'll die free."
"To articulate that is what music is about - music is one of its
greatest, most elegant ways of expressing that, when it happens. When it
doesn't, that's something I don't have any control over. I don't know who
What of the spirits he says he's most indebted to? Did Miles and Trane
have the personal freedom and musical discipline to consistently summon
music, to turn it on? "Two giants of disparate natures," McLaughlin muses.
"I've been paying homage to them all my life. I don't stop paying homage to
them." But the answer is: them neither. Are you mad?
No, though McLaughlin can be irked by the notion that his main men -
besides Miles, Trane and Bill Evans, Delta blues guitarists Robert Johnson,
Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters and Fred McDowell - seem to have
fallen out of fashion. Surely they'll return.
"And maybe in three generations we'll get back into fusion," he joshes.
"In fact, I wanted to get that fusion feel back on The Promise. I love
fusion; it's part of me. It's degenerated, but I don't care. Whatever
anyone says, I'm happy with how those pieces with Michael and Dave turned
out, full of very live playing and collective improvisation."
"I don't know if you remember, but the Mahavishnu Orchestra used to get
into collective improvisation," he becomes earnest. "Not that I invented it
- it's New Orleans. Nor am I trying to play traditional New Orleans jazz.
But collective improvisation lends itself to the fusion environment."
"That environment - fusion's vocabulary, volume, particular techniques,
even arena size - doesn't affect the music's content," McLaughlin
emphasizes. "But it affects the vibe in the band. On 'Jazz Jungle' I'm a
little crazy, but not in a wrong way. I believe we're all a little crazy.
And if I can bring some of this madness into the music, why not?"
"To do so, one needs an encouraging environment. 'Jazz Jungle' was set up
so we could go out and let it be as crazy as we wanted - which I s'pose
could be termed indulgent.ä"
"The thing is, it's musical. When you play spontaneously in this way,
it's good, not indulgent in the ordinary sense of that term. Maybe you
allow some subconscious things to come out - there's some screaming on that
cut, but it's beautiful, like what Trane was doing - a soul, crying. Not to
put myself up with Trane, but his influence was so powerful that's it's
still with me. Anyway, I don't mean to wave the fusion flag, but I don't
think it's as somebody called it, 'a pestilence in the land of jazz.' "
If McLaughlin can't wave the fusion flag, who can?
"This is the nature of life," he waxes yet more reflective, "there's the
personal, subjective life we live, full of madness and fantasy, and thank
God for it. Would I be a musician without fantasy? Probably not. Contrast
that with life's necessary constraints: One has to be rational, logical,
the opposite of what we really are. Without some kind of madnessä" he
sighs, helpless to even conceive that. "Just my existence and the existence
of the whole world and the fact that I'm witness to it - that's pretty
amazing, and not rational or logical at all, not at all." He grows quiet at
the idea of such cosmic enormity.
Yet that's the true hallmark of the fervent, out-bound "fusion"
McLaughlin has championed: that fantasy can exist, writ large. Fusion's
purveyors take fantasy seriously, not to escape but to address big
questions - how to reach huge audiences, how to weave far-distant threads
of tradition and innovation, how to admit, nay, celebrate the world's
hilarious, mysterious, enormous contradictions, which are, after all,
indicative of many societal strains in our day. More rigidly controlled,
orthodox musics work to contain fantasies and contradictions within
comfortably familiar structures - delaying rather than excising or
confronting the conflicts. Fusion, as purveyed by musicians of McLaughlin's
maturity and experience, looks the world that encompasses high-tech and
underdevelopment square in the face.
"When Coltrane abandoned conventional structures, blew 'em up, he left
most of us behind," McLaughlin says. "Hear Trane today, and your hair
stands on end! What can you say to that? He's so powerful it makes you weep
- but it's not conventional. So what? So what!?!
"We need the restraints of convention and structure to help us avoid
self-indulgence, since we are all self-indulgent to some extent. How do you
know you're being self-indulgent? I don't know. In the end, everything's a
question of taste, I suppose - up to the point when taste disappears, and
you're in a state of grace where taste doesn't matter." Now he's thinking
and speaking of himself, playing on some present-day stage. "You're in
another reality, an altered reality, an altered state of consciousness.
Well, who wants to be in the usual state of consciousness, as it's been
fabricated by society? The intellectualization of everything, the
discrimination of everything - and we take that as being the most real!"
"I don't buy that," says John McLaughlin, emphatically. "I think the
world is music and the world is madness. I do, I really do. I thank God
every day that I have another day, because it may sound trite, but it's a
miracle to be alive. And so here I am, and I'm going to do whatever I can,
and that's it! It's as simple as that!"
He laughs, and the interview's over.
"I'm using a Johnny Smith Gibson electric guitar. I've got a couple of
models - a '68 and a '77 - those are the years they were made. I carry one
at a time. I'm playing the red one right now, which I like just because
it's red, and so beautiful. But fortunately, it has a great sound, too."
"I use a Sony M7, which means I don't have to schlepp an amp around. As
opposed to just having bass and treble on your amp, it's got some very nice
equalization on the inside, and from that I can go directly out to a board
or to a tape console. Though in the studio, I use monitors - playback from
the board, or I'll plug into an amp just to have the physical sound. Like
when you hear the drums, you want to hear them in your body, not just your
headphones. And that's it."
"I use a little guitar synthesizer on the new album, in a very discrete
way: little bits on 'Tokyo Decadence' and also on 'Shin Jin Rui', the piece
with David Sanborn. Actually, I'm just doubling James Genus' bass." His
guitar synthesizer is a Roland, with the electronics modified by New
England Digital, makers of the Synclavier."
"My acoustic guitar is made by the great Abraham Wechter, a luthier from
Michigan, and the microtechnology is by Larry Fishman, a Massachusetts
transducer maker: it's a little preamp, with a cardoid mic for the purest
sound possible. Microchips allow me to take a signal from the bridge and
send it to the MIDI interface."