Spirit Of The Sine Wave

By Howard Mandel

Photo by Paul Natkin / Photo Reserve
(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: March 1985)

"You know the old adage," John McLaughlin smiled winningly, perched on the bed of his neat-as-a-pin hotel room. "If you don't practice for a day, you know it; if you don't play a few days, your colleagues know it; if you don't play for a week, everybody knows it." With fondness and respect, he lightly brushed his Ibanez acoustic laying within easy reach in its open case.
"I feel nervous without a guitar," he admitted quietly. "It's part of my body. I've felt that way since the beginning, since I first picked up a guitar when I was 11 years old. That same day I was taking the guitar to bed with me, so that gives you an idea what I feel about it."
To see McLaughlin brandish his instrument on-stage, one senses the guitar was cast for him, as Excalibur was made for King Arthur, the hammer for John Henry, the saxophone for Bird. Far from guessing McLaughlin's gone a day or two in his life without fingering a fretboard, everybody knows one thing about Mahavishnu: his Orchestra's been dormant too long.
Last fall McLaughlin and Warner Bros. corrected that, by issuing a remarkable album titled simply Mahavishnu with a reconstituted Orchestra (saxist Bill Evans, keyboardist Mitchell Forman, bassist Jonas Hellborg, drummer Billy Cobham assisted by Danny Gottlieb, pianist Katia LaBeque, and Indian musicians Hari Prasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain) and following it up with a first-class U.S. tour.
"I've been asked a number of times why I called this group the Mahavishnu Orchestra," McLaughlin explained patiently, "and for me, personally, the kind of spirit that was established in my first ensemble with that name, something I love very much, is now present in the new band. We play a strong, joyful kind of music that's in the tradition, for me, of the old band. Of course, I don't really want to go back and play the old hits-though there are certain tunes that even the guys in the band want to play-because there's so much new music that's been written, and that's been my primary concentration. But I think on the next rehearsal we'll look at some of the old tunes. Even so, they'll have to be re-arranged, because we're not going to play them the old way."


No one would expect simple revival, or any other form of stagnation, from McLaughlin; he's been the "Go-ahead John" of so-called jazz-rock fusion since bursting onto the American scene in the late '60s with the Tony Williams Lifetime, with his own hallucinatory Devotion (recently reissued by OAO/Celluloid) and ethereally acoustic My Goal's Beyond, then joining Miles Davis to create In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, and a host of other electric extrapolations-not to mention Inner Mounting Flame, Birds Of Fire, Between Nothingness And Eternity, all passionate products of the first Mahavishnu Orchestra. An avatar's humility, dedication, and power remained McLaughlin's hallmarks through the '70s as he restlessly met Carlos Santana (Love Devotion Surrender), Jean-Luc Ponty (Visions Of The Emerald Beyond), and the London Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas' baton (Apocalypse).
Then there was his One Truth Band, the quasi-Indian Shakti, and several albums of McLaughlin with a mixed bag of collaborators, featuring in turn his electric guitar, his European sophistication, his virtuosic trio with Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meola. Always new compositions, ever new challenges overcome, finally the discovery of a musical invention that fires his imagination-you guessed it: the digitally synthesized, computer-interfacing electric guitar.
"I love the electric guitar," McLaughlin protested right out front. "For certain things it's irreplaceable-but for other areas it's a little narrow, not very subtle, misses a certain depth. So, for me, the Synclavier guitar is actually a revolutionary instrument. It's infinite, as far as sounds are concerned. It allows me to create sounds that are my own. It's not just 'okay, you've got some programs-play marimba, play tom-tom, play flute, play this, play that.' There are, of course, sounds that are flute-like, or brass-like. But more significantly there are sounds I've created, that are very personal, that belong to me and have become my voice. I don't adopt sounds arbitrarily and gratuitously-I hope to say something with this instrument, because its capabilities are phenomenal. It's what I can do with it that's really important."
"It's a Roland guitar, of which the electronics have been quite extensively modified by New England Digital, the Synclavier people," he said. Actually, all that makes it look different from a standard electric axe is a cigar box-sized panel jutting out from the body below the strings.
"The programming's done at home, on the computer, with a keyboard on which you can alter parameters and a terminal where you can do really fine-tuned work. It offers 16 bytes in real-time sound, which is very powerful, in computer terms. So you just start off with a fundamental, a sine wave, and you go from there. You build. You can change the sine wave-you can do anything with it, anything. I've been working on the Synclavier for more than two years now, creating sounds and timbres; the guitar's quite new, this year, but I've been waiting very impatiently for it. Together, their capabilities are so big I feel I should continue to work."
"On the guitar there are these modular buttons that allow you to address the computer. Because you can record directly from the guitar if you want, you can record in digital memory. You can play back; you can transpose; you can assign a different timbre to each string, if you want. You can pre-program sequences that you can play at any time; you can record on top of it, if you want to play it back. You can call up your banks of information-each bank, for example, can hold eight entirely different timbres, and you have eight banks, so at any moment you have 64 entirely different sounds. And the programming of the sounds is really up to you and your imagination. Your imagination is really your tool."
"Learning how to use the computer was difficult, yeah, but I just hacked away at it. You have to understand logic, the logic of computers, and know how to figure them out-if you can't get what you want, how you can access it. And then, how to manipulate the information, how to transform it, how to work all the numbers-because it's numbers that transfer into sound."
"It's work," McLaughlin agreed, "but the results are most satisfying. The sounds originate from the computer, finally, but I can trigger them either from the keyboard or the guitar. And I think this is a credit to Synclavier: when it's triggered by the guitar, it has a guitar feeling; it's not a keyboard feeling at all. Through a terrific research program on the guitar's peculiar characteristics, they've been able to translate this weird information about the shape of the string's wave, its dynamics, into digital information-an amazing thing to do."
"But I have to play," he stressed. "I have to do something with it. That's my philosophy. What am I going to do with it? What does it say to me? What does it touch in me? How do I feel about it? What can I give to that?"
For initial answers to these questions, one must turn to his new album and absorb the variety of sounds-each evoking some pre-mental response-McLaughlin's designed. On "Radio-Activity", the opener, this guitar screams like a missle's arc across the sky; on "Nostalgia" it's a goatherd's lissome pipe, reedy high and full-blown low; on "When Blue Turns Gold" one is hard pressed to distinguish between McLaughlin and Bill Evans' flute (for most of the album, Evans on tenor or soprano offers a raw-edged vocal tone in contrast and syncopation to McLaughlin's guitar; live as well as on record, their duets soar). Forman and LaBeque on Minimoogs and Prophet keyboards summon their own quite complex sounds, as (I assume) the Olympic fanfare introducing Evans' composition "Clarendon Hills", and Hellborg's bass, which he's adept at playing arco, has its own electric sheen. In fact, it's a relief to hear McLaughlin use his good old Les Paul Custom on "Nightriders"-maybe not Mahavishnu's most elaborate or ambitious track, but a hot one nonetheless which, with the rave-up "East Side West Side" and some other relentless passages, proves the guitarist's off-hand and undetailed comment that the Mahavishnu Orchestra's music is "a littleńcrazy."
Crazy in terms of unpredictable, inexplicable, highly energized, and even sometimes wild. And better that McLaughlin should retain that willingness to follow his musical whims than have packaged all his influences, from Tal Farlow and classic bebop records through the British blues towards Coltrane's jazz, then Ravi Shankar, Sri Chimnoy, and Miles, Chick, Keith, Weather Report, flamenco, Western symphonic history-he asserted "the barriers between pop and classical musics are really falling now"-into one smooth formula. What will young listeners think of his experiments (and those of Pat Metheny) with digitally synthesized sound?
"I hope they're going to hear the tradition behind it," he responded immediately. "I believe nothing is contemporary unless you can feel the tradition behind it." But what part of the tradition does he employ in these experiments-or the earlier ones with form and amplification, in league with Williams, Larry Young, and Miles? "I had my jazz discipline. Without a discipline, I wouldn't know what I was doing. You have to have a discipline, whether it's classical Western or classical Eastern or jazz or rock & roll- though you don't need much theoretical background in harmony or rhythm for rock.
"I believe," he went on thoughtfully, "if you listen to Shakti or the Belo Horizonte album or the guitar trio LPs or Music Spoken Here-that's just guitar. I'm a guitar player-that's what I am primarily; that's what I'll always be. I like to write music, but a guitar player's all I ever want to be. I want to be better and better, just as I want to be a better person. I want to be more articulate; I want to be able to utilize space better, to play silence more profoundly. There are many things left for me to do; there is much work to be done. And that can all be accomplished on acoustic guitar. Acoustic guitar will never die. It's impossible."
"I think the technological advance for guitars is similar to what's happened to keyboards. You have keyboard synthesizers that are very much part of contemporary music, because they're new instruments of tremendous potential, and they stand on their own as instruments-they aren't a hybrid. But I know when I speak to keyboard players, they still say there's no comparison between an electronic instrument and a fine grand piano."
"Take someone like Joe Zawinul, a real flag-waver and leader in synthesized work, one of the great innovators. He still plays acoustic piano, and wants to more and more-for personal satisfaction, and expressive capability, if you like. But he's not going to stop his research with the synthesizer-and thank God he's doing it, because it's inspiring. He's opening doors to us that wouldn't normally be open, that we wouldn't even know existed. But because he's playing it, and it's music, doors open to the listener, and I think that's wonderful. Hopefully, Pat and I will do the same thing with this guitar."
"I must say that the guitars that are available so far for such synthesis still lack some capacities, but it's so new. As the technology improves, they too will improve; there's no doubt about it. As for me, the people who've created the new instrument for guitar are the Synclavier people, but I think we'll see in the next five years a really big evolution going on in guitar synthesis."
And what about the kid who's inspired by this evolution but finds guitar synthesizers far beyond his or her budget? "Well, before a kid wants to go out and spend a lot of money on a guitar synthesizer, they've got a ton of work to do on acoustic guitar. A five-dollar guitar can provide you with an unbelievable amount of work. I think there are a number of keyboard synthesizer players who don't have a lot of technical means, but have these programs-and today's factory programs are becoming so complex and interesting, software development is snowballing-but these people with slight means are able to get a good sound and get by. From the playing point of view, we have to distinguish the difference. It's one thing to play sounds; it's another thing to play and play. A guitarist with a $15 acoustic has work cut out for him-it was the same for me, all those years when I had this real cheap guitar."
"Now, I'll create a sound, and it will stir something in my imagination that never happened before. Because of certain feelings it evokes in me, it will put me in another place. But I can't just go out and play sound, saying, 'Isn't it great?'
"The analogy I can make is to an artist's palette. With the synthesizer guitar you have a large selection of colors, but what are you going to paint is really the big question. You're not going to just throw sounds at people-it's boring, and not even that: there's no meaning. BasicalIy, when you play music, it's your life that you're really talking about, that's expressing itself through music. That's why music's very rich, because it comes from the life of people. And there are things spoken in music that cannot be said vocally, or any other way for that matter. So we have to keep the horse before the cart. Nothing can replace work in music, and discipline. I can only speak personally, but these are my musical parameters. When I'm listening to music, I want to feel the person's life; I want to feel the personality, the character of the individual, and individuals together."
"I think we learn everything from other people-everything, philosophy, what we think. I need to be inspired in my life, and for me, all great musicians are spiritual people-in fact, everybody's spiritual, really, and music is the language of the spirit. That's it, if anything is-because music speaks from the heart of the player to the heart of the listener. And no, we don't care what language, what culture, what nationality-music doesn't pay attention to any of those things-that's why music is so great. So music, globally speaking, is the spiritual language. And everybody loves music, so who doesn't have a spirit? Everybody wants to listen to music."
"My work in music is a work of the spirit; it's a development of my spirit, and the development of myself as a human being," concluded McLaughlin, who prefers to be more discreet about his spiritual and religious enquiries than he was back in the days when he accepted the Hindu name Mahavishnu. "These words 'spiritual' and 'religious' can be very easily misunderstood. But what I really feel in my heart is that music is higher than any religion, which is probably heretical to at least half-a-dozen religions in the world, but be that as it may, that's what I feel. We don't know if there's a God, but if there is a God, I think music is the face of God."
Had we come far afield of discussing digital guitar synths? Not if they're to be understood as keys to unlocking the music that people have inside. "Religion's a paradox; I'm sure we all see that," sighed McLaughlin. "If you have no religion, you probably revert to blatant materialism, which must be sheer hell. But organized religion? I'm against it. It divides people. The absurdity of it all is staggering-the less said, the better." Far better to organize an orchestra, through hard work and discipline, and practice one's own approach, every day, to inexplicable music itself.


On the recent Mahavishnu tour John McLaughlin's electronic excursions came via his modified Roland GR-303 guitar interfaced with the Synclavier Digital Music System. The more rock-oriented material was performed on a Gibson Les Paul Custom with a Tom Scholz Rockman. Acoustically, it's his Gibson custom-built by luthier Abraham Wechter. McLaughlin's only on-stage outboard effect was a Yamaha R-1000 digital reverb; the processing and chorusing was mixed at the board by sound engineer Brian Risner. McLaughlin's amplifier of choice is a Roland Jazz Chorus 120. He has been experimenting with different strings and hasn't yet settled on any particular set. Off-stage he serenades his hotel suites with an Ibanez acoustic. His at-home treasures include acoustic axes custom-built by Wechter, Richard Schneider, and Gibson.

Photo by Paul Natkin / Photo Reserve