A Continual Process of Discovery

by James Rotondi / Photography: Rex Miller

(Reprinted from Guitar Player: July 1992)

THERE IS RIOTING in the streets of Paris. The stress between France's emerging political parties has erupted. The city is at a standstill, and John McLaughlin is stuck in traffic, late for a round of interviews. Frankly, it's difficult to imagine the 50-year-old guitar virtuoso in this predicament. He's always leading the pack, helping other drivers find their direction. And he always seems to sail through the green light an instant before it turns red, leaving the others in a jam -- horns blaring but engines idling -- while he enjoys the open road.
It can also be difficult to be objective about John McLaughlin. His overwhelming technique, improvisational brilliance, and quasi-messianic mystique have made musicians and writers trip over themselves on declamatory banana peels. His relationship with Indian guru and musician Sri Chinmoy has certainly added to McLaughlin's bigger-than-life persona. If he hasn't been touched by the hand of God, he's come close: Miles Davis, Zakir Hussain, L.Shankar, Jimi Hendrix, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Paco de Lucia, Al DiMeola, Tony Williams -- he's played with some of the greatest musicians of our time. From dizzying electric frenzies to brilliant acoustic masterpieces, McLaughlin seems to have done it all.
So if John's been all over the musical map, his present group, a trio featuring French bassist Dominique Di Piazzza and Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, constitutes his home coming -- not in the sense of returning to his roots, but of crystallizing the myriad impulses and creative turns of his career. In Gurtu, McLaughlin has found the perfect percussion foil. His innovative setup incorporates tabla, exotic percussion, and electronics. With a crisp snare and thundering floor tom/bass drum, Trilok follows John from Indian seven-beat to swing to polyrhythmic ecstasy. And it sounds like fun.
McLaughlin's newest release, his first on Verve, is Que Alegria, a studio follow-up to 1990's breathtaking Live At The Royal Albert Hall, (featuring Gurtu and bassist Kai Eckhardt). From John's broad smile on the album's cover to the blues-bop fret-races contained within, Que Alegria punctuates its meditative soundscapes with humor and warmth. Using Phi Tech's Photon MIDI interface, John layers shimmering chordal washes and evokes keyboard sounds with the push of a pedal - all without sacrificing the tone and response of the Abraham Wechter nylon-string guitar he uses for the entire album.
McLaughlin's music continues to reflect his spirituality, passion for life, and great discipline. Before his U.S. tour, John spoke to us about his new album, his unique gear, and his continuing exploration of new musical spheres.

On Que Alegria and Live At The Royal Albert Hall, you've settled into a style that integrates music you've experimented with before -- Indian classical and flamenco, for instance.
Yes, that's true. It's organic -- a much abused word, but a good word for it. Trilok is Indian, and with Shakti and the work I've done with Indian musicians, it's just something that we can step into like an old shoe. It's very comfortable. On some of the pieces, like "Belo Horizonte," a piece I had recorded a long time ago but completely revamped for the trio, the character of the solos is very different from the ones I did 8 or 10 years ago. There's definitely a more Hispanic influence, but this too is something I feel very comfortable with. Or "Pasha's Love," which has a very strong flamenco feeling -- this is something that we go into naturally.
That "old shoe" theory seems to hold true in respect to blues and bop as well.
That's part of it too, and the little R&B thing. I hope it doesn't come off like a big potpourri. I'm sure it will get accused of that, but I'm not trying to make any kind of fusion -- it just happens that way.
How did your North Indian classical and flamenco experiences enhance your original bop approach to improvising?
Just to be able to play with these people, you have to know the music and the rules governing the music. You may have suffered to learn what's going on, and how to deal with the rules, but when you have the chance to play with these people, believe me, you're the one that's enriched.
For me, the joy of playing is really it. When I played with Paco in 1978, I had to learn things about his music, the same as Shakti in 1973. But I'm the real beneficiary of these experiences. As to what they specifically changed in me, I don't know. I can't step out of myself and view my music very objectively, because it's like part of my breathing. But even as far as music appreciation is concerned, I can put on a record of Indian or flamenco music and understand what's going on -- I'm able to appreciate it. I get a great deal of satisfaction from that, although the greatest satisfaction is to be able to make music with these people. It's an interesting question. If I have the time to reflect on it, I'll probably come up with a list of things.
A friend of mine, who studies North Indian classical music at the Ali Akbar College (in San Rafael, California), is amazed at your ability to play the alap (the unmetered exposition/invocation of Indian ragas).
That's nice, but I really don't think I mastered it, especially when you hear someone like Hari Parasad Chaurasia [an Indian bansuri, or bamboo flute, master]. I must point out, however, that I don't want to be an Indian classical musician, or a flamenco classical musician. By discipline, I'm a jazz player. But I derive a tremendous amount of satisfaction from being able to move in different music spheres. It's not because I want to create some kind of fusion. It's basically entirely selfish and self-interested [laughs].
The vicious truth comes out! What is it about the nylon-string guitar that holds so much satisfaction for you?
It's response is very different from the steel-string. Its been at least 13 years since I switched. It's not just a tonal thing; the response of nylon strings in the upper registers is much better than steel. In addition, because the response is so rapid, you've got a percussive thing that comes off the guitar that is difficult to get on steel strings. It also goes back to my childhood. When I first discovered guitar at age 11, it was a five-dollar acoustic nylon-string guitar. I didn't know what acoustic or electric guitars were.So maybe I'm entering my second childhood [laughs]. I feel very happy with this guitar, the way the acoustics sound, and to have the transducer technology to be able to use MIDI with an acoustic guitar.
It's all part of my continuing experiments with MIDI. I'm using Yamaha technology, which includes FM synthesis and sampling. It's really amazing, and quite new for me. The possibilities are staggering. I've a tremendous amount left to do on it.
There's one particularly voicelike sound at the introduction to Trilok Gurtu's composition "Baba."
I mix it with all kinds of stuff, because with the Yamaha TG77 [sound generator] you can use four different complex elements and then program them in such a way that they are all moving in different directions at the same time. I'm concerned with making a sound that evokes something in me, that creates an atmosphere for the other musicians and for the listener. But it should bring us into new territory, and the programming is a lot of work, apart from the work I do on guitar.
The Photon works with your nylon-string, so you don't need a special guitar controller like the Roland.
That's what's so great. Everything's done live: I just play, bring it in, bring it out. You have a lot of very interesting functions like the arpeggiator. I can start to play a phrase and it keeps going on. Or I hit some notes or chords and hold them while I play. You can have layers going. You can hear this in something like "Hijacked," where it sounds like I overdubbed. In fact, the whole thing is played live. There are many possibilities, and this can provoke Trilok and Dominique into different directions.
As well as giving you the ability to create tonal centers to improvise over.
Oh, yeah. Even with what I have, I've got a lot of work to do. There's a tremendous potential. I really like the sound, too. I can get three different sounds including the guitar, all in unison together. That goes back to bebop -- the old unison playing. It provokes something in me that makes me want to keep going. It also demands that I look at my phrasing in a completely different way, and this is good. You get on your own case.
Does it change your chordal or linear style as much as the Synclavier did when you used that?
Even more, because the Synclavier worked with the electric guitar, and sometimes the electric guitar and the synthesizer are too close. What's great about the acoustic guitar is that it is so different from the synthesizers. The contrast is what really pleases me. Like in the introduction to "Que Alegria," whereI hit a chord and hold it, but as I hold it, I cut it off. The synthesized chord still holds, but when I play over it, it's just pure guitar. Then when I take off the held chord, the synth comes back in immediately. To be able to move and accompany yourself in this way and have this contrast between synthesizer and pure acoustic guitar is really great.
Do you use foot pedals for this?
Yeah, you just kick in, kick it out. You can bring it in when you want.
Can you also program it to harmonize with your lines?
Sure, I haven't gone into that yet, but that's something I want to look at when I get home this weekend and start preparing for the U.S. tour.
Are you still playing an Abraham Wechter guitar?
Absolutely, with two Fishman transducers. I've got a classical guitar transducer that goes through a mini preamp in the base of the guitar. And Larry built me a bridge transducer that goes down through these tiny microprocessers by the preamp. He's done such a great job. I've got the same acoustic-quality sound as with a natural bone saddle.
Do you use any of the new acoustic amps?
No. Since the beginning, I've gone into DI boxes and then the console. Boom, you're off. I like the idea of not schlepping amplifiers around, too [laughs]. You know what I mean?
And you never shred those nylon strings with the pick?
Never. The top three strings are good for a year. It's amazing. I really destroy the bass strings though. I get about two, three concerts out of them, maximum. You can wash those nylon bass strings in warm, soapy water. Then you rinse them thoroughly, swing them around your head, hang them out to dry, put them on, and they're as good as new. I've been using D'Addario classical strings for 20 years now.
Do you ever miss having scalloped fretboards like you used to?
I do, but it really doesn't work with nylon strings. This is the one thing about nylon strings which is a shame. The trade-off is okay, though, because the Photon would freak out with a scalloped fingerboard and a lot of big bends.
Que Alegria has a very relaxed vibe, like you were really having fun.
Absolutely, because there are no overdubs, no solos done later. We set up in the studio and jusy played a concert. What you hear is what you get. In the trio, the playing together is so important, we have to get that on record, and not just put a rhythm track down and put a solo on top. We could have done it in a concert hall. The difference is basically psychological and physical, in the sense that in the studio you don't start indulging in things and letting pieces go long. You have to be more restrained and economical, which is not so bad. It obliges you to be more essential, and I'm able to put more pieces on the record.
In your present approach to improvisation, are you running changes in the bop sense, or playing around a loose tonal center?
I want to work more towards the linear movement that suggests verticality; to be able to incorporate the chord changes and the harmonic movement into a lyrical line. That's a tall order, but this is the essential for me. This is what I would like to master.