JOHN McLAUGHLIN FULFILLS THE PROMISE

By Matt Resnicoff

(Reprinted from Guitar Player magazine: April 1996)


A classical guitar perches in an over-stuffed white chair, gleaming. The instrument's back is criss-crossed with lines of abolone-from a few feet away, the design picks up the pattern of the houses speckling the rocky hills just outside the window of John McLaughlin's Monte Carlo home. In a far corner stands an aging 17th-century French fountain, filled at the bottom with squat, charred candles. In a considerably smaller space just down the hall, a computer is running through sound files for each title on McLaughlin's new record, The Promise. Squiggles on the screen dance to familiar voices: "El Ciego," featuring Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola, presents a surging acoustic orchestra of a trio; "Jazz Jungle," with Mike Brecker on tenor sax, shouts out fusion-real fusion-at its most ruthless; "Thelonious Melodius" finds organist Joey DeFrancesco and drum cannon Dennis Chambers detonating all previous notions of swing; and, of course, there's the sharp cry of Jeff Beck's guitar, whose performance on "Django" threatens to revive the tune's namesake.
So where's John McLaughlin? He's chopping endive and apples and polishing up some new music. He fingers a tiny instrument from the mid-1800s, one so delicate it can barely stand to be tuned, then approaches the computer and sings along with the dazzingly complex lines of a new piece called "Spirito," which he's about to send Paco and Al for an upcoming reunion disc with the Trio. In McLaughlin's hands, technology has been attuned to more personal ends-his software produces a meditation chanting tone for those moments when he's not within reach of the salon's drone-producing sruti box.
It can be said with no small measure of assurance that John McLaughlin lives better, and, apparently more happily, than any other man on the planet who dares to play such uncompromising, bloodthirsty music. You could say he jets his huge silver Mercedes through the AIps with the same fearless, fearsome precision as when he navigates the fingerboard of any fretted instrument. The Promise is a grand display of such living symmetry; it isn't so much a traipse down Memory Lane as a snapshot suggesting the currency of McLaughlin's many passions. That's no small thing, since those passions have helped dictate every upheaval in jazz since the late '60s. Just checking in randomly with his work over that time-Miles Davis' aggressively off-the-cuff landmark A Tribute To Jack Johnson, Mahavishnu Orchestra's The Inner Mounting Flame, the transcendent Indian aggregate Shakti, even last year's After The Rain trio with Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones-gives a handsome and surprisingly accurate update of modern guitar history.
History is an obsession of McLaughlin's, taking its place alongside art, philosophy, and foreign culture. All of these are borne out in his surroundings, in how he communicates-each time his phone rings, the ensuing conversation takes place in a different language-and even in photos of himself playing and laughing with masters like Herbie Hancock, Miles, Paco, Elvin, the members of Shakti cross-legged on the floor of his old Manhattan loft. One photo, a rare shot from a very early date with Davis, is particularly telling. There, among the afros and electric pianos, is one of the few images of a young, scruffy McLaughlin with a Fender Mustang. But his stance isn't the now-familiar skybound bird of fire; rather, it's the tentative posture of an unformed student, even greener than the bright face in a nearby photo of his very first skiffle band.
With Miles, McLaughlin had found his path-a succession of often painful challenges he still embraces and celebrates, days after celebrating his 54th birthday and decades since becoming a guitar superpower. So rides forth this former truck driver, who developed his taste for caviar while peddling the stuff to English hotels between R&B gigs in the '60s. He's not only a musical marvel but a perfect gentleman, so well preserved by his environment and delighted by its many amusements that you'd never suspect the ravenous beast within-it comes out when he closes his eyes and plays. "Complacency," he says, stepping out into the cool Monte Carlo air, "that's an indulgence we can't afford." He smiles and stares out to sea. "I could leave it all tomorrow. Art is the only thing that's real. There is nothing else."



Did the symphonic Hendrix tribute you did with Sting and Vinnie Colaiuta, In From the Storm, incite you to gather so many contexts onto The Promise?
Actually, that came in the middle of this record. The Hendrix project was the guitar player's choice. Eddie Kramer came to me and said, "Pick a bass player and drummer and do one Jimi's tunes." So I chose Sting and Vinnie to do "The Wind Cries Mary." I thought Sting would just play bass and they'd use some vocalist, but he wanted to sing, which I was happy about. I'd never played with Vinnie; he's a beautiful, crazy drummer.
The idea of jamming with Sting like that is suprising. He talks a lot about Jaco, but he's sort of a Phil Collins-someone who abandoned improvising for songwriting.
He likes to play. In fact, I called Phil to do drums with Jeff and me, but he was doing a movie. Sting's into it. After all these years, we'd never met, so it was a good opportunity, no? He's not just a pop star; he's very aware.
Why does that jam last only a minute or so?
Because it's a flash-that was the real meeting. We plugged in and that was it. [Laughs.] I mean, Vinnie's unchained. I heard the first ten seconds and called Sting, and said I'd just like to use that tittle bit, and he said, "Yeah." There's about 15 minutes of it. Also, it's a crazy transition on the record, because we're coming out of "TheWish" with Nishat Khan and Zakir Hussain and Trilok Gurtu, and suddenly you fade into this ridiculous, raucous roar. That goes into this jungle thing. You know jungle music? Like, '70s drum grooves that need to be programmed because it's an unplayable double tempo-instead of a hit you've got a roll, with 96 db of silence between the bass drum and snare hit.
That's a drum patch on MIDI guitar?
No, live drums. The guitar is the harmony behind it. The drums are outtakes, maybe Dennis', but completely twisted. It's crazy, because a big 747 jet comes in at the end. But without madness or fantasy, music's boring. In society we're determined to be rational and logical and coherent-and we are-but underneath, we're nuts too.
Moving between the electric and the dainty like that forces a huge shift in consciousness.
I want to shift my consciousness; that's what I do in life. When I sit to chant and meditate, I'm altering my consciousness, and I want that all the time. As soon as you do it, you see differently, and seeing is where it's at. In music, hearing and seeing is the same thing-to hear yourself play is like seeing yourself play. And I get bored. I want to break out. You need certain automatisms when you're playing, because you cannot think and play-you're playing or you're thinking. Of course, you replace habits with others, because they must become part of the subconscious playing process. So they're useful, but at the same time it's easy to get trapped in habits, so you gotta sweep 'em out and replace them. I regularly break my chains of the way I perceive, the way I see music, its phrasing and harmonic movement. So when I work, I want surprise. Maybe it's shocking, but shocks are good too. It's not like I'm trying to rationalize the process, because how do you rationalize a 747 at the end of some drums?
In the 14 years that the Trio with Paco and Al was dormant, did suitable ideas ever occur to you that you didn't bother to pursue?
In fact, I wrote "El Ciego" five years ago, and Paco, who I see every year at the holidays, said, "Juanito, I need a piece for recording." So I gave him the cassette. Two months later I asked him how he liked it. and he said, "It's great, but I don't know what you're doing, so I didn't do it." Paco does read very slowly, but then he plays the stuff marvelously. If he had the score it could have worked, but he likes to figure it out with his ear, which he wasn't able to do. But we both liked the piece, so later we recorded it with Al in Paris.
"JazzJungle," with Mike Brecker and the New York contingent, is the sort of aggressive electric jazz you just don't hear on new records anymore.
You know, by discipline I'm a jazz musician. In general you have a classical and maybe a jazz discipline. But I like fusion too, and the guys on the date were really happening [whistles]-I could tour the world with that band tomorrow. I'd played with Michael going back to the '60s, the New York loft scene. He's just a soulful guy, the best tenor man around. I really like tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas too-The Kold Kage is special. That's the new music right there, cause we're all retracing, recapitulating. Sometimes it's necessary to bring your past up to date, and that's big work, but this neo-bebop thing sometimes is boring. It's like records like Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew don't exist. Or Super Nova from Wayne Shorter-that fusion period. The new boppers all stop in '68, then jump to '93.
There's a fierce negativity toward real fusion in the mainstream press. In a recent article that misspelled your and Joe Zawinul's names, The New YorkTimes, which worships Wynton Marsalis, reported that electric jazz is a blemish on the music's development.
What idiot wrote that? We should keep things in perspective: A guy like him is paid to write about musicians, but musicians will not write a tune about that guy. So whatever he has to say is valueless compared to any third-rate musicians. Everybody's allowed to have criticism, but to wipe out a quarter-century of music seems to reflect colossal myopia. I'm not even thinking about what I've done. I mean, if anybody's the king of fusion, it's Miles! Do we just write that off? It's like, "The paintings between 1970 and 1995 don't exist"-it's just as stupid as that. There are great pictures painted every day by artists known and unknown. How can you wipe that out? I can't believe that. What a wally.
To me, "Jazz Jungle" is jazz fusion, but I don't even want to label it; it's just a way we all grew up playing. You're gonna write off Michael Brecker? Do you know what they're doing on that record? They're killing! I have the same problem with the conservative jazz guitar players: Wes Montgomery did it all. You don't have to play like him. Just have the courage to be who you are and advance it. Fusion goes as far back as Ravel and Debussy becoming suffused by this Hispanic influence. What about George Gershwin, you wanna write him off too? Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Scott Joplin?
Well, the one merit to the purist argument is that we shouldn't forget tradition-or let the living culture lose sight of, say, Freddie Hubbard because Miles put a wah-wah on the trumpet.
But none of them were ever lost. They're all doing great. And in fact, every time he played, Wynton Marsalis betrayed himself. He'd criticize Miles and then he'd play, and you know he was on his knees in front of Miles, in total adoration. So you don't have to pay attention to what he says; just listen to what he's playing because that's what they're really talking about. It's a case of taking two steps back to make one step forward, but that's pretty natural.
Is that what you mean about using your discipline?
No. A discipline is how you master your instrument. You could say there's a rock discipline, but very few people╦Jimi had a rock discipline, and there are some great players out there now who don't have a jazz discipline. A new discipline has been brought to life by Satriani, Stevie Vai, Eddie Van Halen, and this guy Frank Gambale, who doesn't play what I would call jazz, but has invented revolutionary new techniques for guitar. I mean, can you ignore that because one little mind says it's not "pure"? That's bullshit. How fuckin' arrogant can you get? I wanted to play with Michael Brecker and do "Shin Jin Rui" with Dave Sanborn because they're great jazz musicians, but they don't need jing-jing-aling to swing-they're swinging before they even start playing. So is Gary Thomas wrong? [Laughs.] No, he's absolutely right, because he dares to do it. Good for him
You've known Jeff Beck since Mahavishnu Orchestra toured with him, but you haven't worked together since.
He's number one in that style. A killer. He plays that guitar, man, like nobody I know. We had a lot of gigs together. I had the quartet with Narada, Ralphe Armstrong, and Stu Goldberg, and Jeff had a great band with Pretty Purdie, Wilbur Bascomb, and Max Middleton. And every night we'd get the two bands on to finish the gig, and it was great. I wanted to record "Django" forever. It's apropos, written after Django Reinhardt's death, really lyrical, and who better to play it? It's very slightly modified. It just used to be a little more dainty. We walked in, plugged in, and we had it-so easy, so easy. In the end, that what's beautiful about music, because with people you love and admire, you can go into the unknown. Some wonderful things happen on that take.
Jeff told me that in his whole career, the accolades he got from you were most suprising. He couldn't believe it.
He knows it's real. We had too many great gigs. He's a beautiful guy. Of course he's nuts. So what? We all are, but you can get weird in music and it's cool. I was just glad to play with him. For me, this whole record was joy from start to finish. I actually would have liked to reunite Shakti, but I haven't been able to get hold of Shankar for a long time. And the original Mahavishnu Orchestra-that would have been nice, but I gave up on that ten years ago. I was stubborn; I always felt music was stronger than petty feelings, but I was wrong. Originally the holdouts were Jerry Goodman and Jan Hammer, and then Jerry was cool and Billy Cobham wanted to do it, and Rick Laird would have done it. But to hold a grudge for so long, you've got to be really weird.
It's got to to be about division of profits, right?
No, no, strictly free. C'mon, Jan is a multi-millionaire. "Miami Rice"? "Bombay Rice"? [Laughs.] Every day they show it somewhere-France, Italy, Germany. The guy's rolling in royalties. And anyway, from the beginning I said, "No money-do it for charity, for someone else's benefit, but not the musicians'. Do it for love or not at all." And he didn't do it. There's not enough love there.
Rumor has it that you used to put on two metronomes at different tempos and have them click that weird rhythm as you did your thing around the house.
I'm intrigued-I have to try it [Laughs.] But I invented a special metronome that I misplaced about two years ago-a very fine unit I asked a friend to hand-build 20 years ago. You take a principal beat, which you can subdivide into up to 99 beats-that's A. Then you have B, which also subdivides independently the same rhythm up to 99 beats-you can have 98 against 99 if you wanted. Then there was lever C. So say I wanted a cycle of seven out of the B cycle, which would give a hit on the "one" of every seven from B, and if I pushed the button in, it would be every five from cycle A. So suppose you've got 60 beats a minute and letter A is divided into, say, five. Then you have B cycle divided by seven, so for every "one" you'd have five and seven-A and B. It's the same bar, subdivided differently. And with lever C, I'd say, "Give me 'one' every three from the seven," which would then come out only three times every 21 beats. But then you'd turn down the volume of B and have only C, which is a variation from B-which is unheard-against five. I mean, that's very strange, but you can get into some interesting mathematics. I should commercialize it, but I can't find it!
You had a weird tone on your last tour-you weren't even using an amp onstage.
I had two amps in the studio. I asked, "Do you have guitar amps? Plug me in." And I put them on 11 and off we went. In fact, on the CD you're not hearing any amp. To get the thing to break up I have this handmade little distortion unit. You start making it break up, but not at the expense of the note. I'll sometimes grab a MIDI controller and then bring on some ring modulation-with a little distortion, it's ready. But on tape, the amp is too much with everything on 11. But I need to feel the amp to play.
But your Johnny Smith is your main ax for all your blaring electric work? It's an unusual choice.
Maybe it's partly nostalgic. In the early '60s I did studio work for 18 months. It was great money, but I was dying, couldn't stand it. One day I cut everything and was poor again. I had to sell my guitar, a great carved-top 1960 L-4C with a Charlie Christian pickup. And two years later I went back to the guy I sold it to, and he wouldn't sell it back. I learned my lesson because it was just incredible, acoustically and electrically. So I looked for the same one and found a good one with a plywood top, but I was getting hum problems. The other problem was, I'd just spent 12 years playing this acoustic [points to Abe Wechter guitar on couch]. I mean, I have long arms. After 12 years, you put on a Stratocaster, and it's like there's nothing there.
So did you have a special Smith that inspired your search?
Never before. I had my old '58 Les Paul, a beautiful one. I loaned it to a friend for years since I wasn't using it, because a guitar is much better played than left in the box. So I found a Johnny Smith I liked, with a long scale. I like the bigger body with the floating humbucker on the carved top. And my hum was gone. So I traded the Les Paul for three Smiths, a '62, a '68, and a '77. Crazy, eh? For me it's a great deal, but I'm not buying them as an investment. I only took the last one because I never owned a red guitar, but it sounds great too. But I play a lot, and I'm doing very physical things, so one's always in for service anyway.
Your last disc, After The Rain with Elvin Jones, was an undeclared tribute to Coltrane.
And to these great tunes. But every time I play I'm paying a tribute to Trane, to Miles, to Bill Evans, people I love and who inspire me, even non-musicians. There were also a couple of originals, including one in 5/4-I heard Elvin play in five with Grant Green, so I thought I could get away with it. I feel very sensitive to drummers in general and Elvin in particular, because of what he and Trane did to my head, opening my eyes to seeing music and rhythm. I knew Elvin loves Hammond organ trios because the first time I heard Larry Young was with Elvin on records with Grant, and with Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson. To hear Larry and Elvin swinging away-oh! I've played with organ trio a lot, even when I lived in the U.K. I thought of the formation as a nice tribute to Larry too. He's been dead for a long time, but I still miss him. We're actually playing two concerts with Elvin, but it had to be set up where I'm his employee. He's a legend-even unknowingly, I couldn't be in a situation that was disrespectful.
You've said that your knees buckled when you learned Trane had died, after you'd spent months listening to his music and trying to understand.
It's like, you're in the dark, and then one day, for whatever reason, suddenly the light goes on, the veil falls, the portal opens, the light streams in, and you're able to hear what he's doing and see it at the same time. But you can understand anything if you persevere, and I was just entrapped, in awe. And McCoy Tyner's accompaniment just had the greatest sensitivity, but in the harmonically provocative way Trane wanted. McCoy's quartal harmony had never been revealed in this way, where a group of fourths could be altered by one semitone. It's unstable, floating in the air, wide open-you can impose things that normally wouldn't work, and resolve in ways that normally might not be logical.
When did you discover how dedicated you were to music?
I left home when I was 15 or 16 and never went back. I wasn't doing too good at 16. I've been playing guitar since I was 11, and I had to work on that, but at the same time I did a lot of jobs just to survive. You have to live in hope that when you're up at six in the morning driving a truck and you get back at night just shattered, you can still make the extra effort to pick up the guitar and work. [Laughs.] Did somebody tell you it was easy when you came down here to this planet? They didn't tell me! And it's still not. But who wants it easy? If it was, everybody would be doing it. That's what makes it interesting, because you go for it and discover what you're made of. We underestimate our own capacities so dreadfully. I know that spiritually we have infinite capacity. We can do so much more than we think. And that's from the heart, man. Don't ever forget it.
I certainly won't now.
And you gotta go that extra mile. However much you put into music, you get paid back manifold, but only if you go the extra mile. You sleep less, work harder. Otherwise it stays superficial. But life is too deep and too mysterious not to want to explore it further. That initially requires some dedication, and after that, you're hooked-you don't need nothin'. I'm too curious to need a push, I know less about life now than I thought I did when I was 25. I know almost absolutely nothing about absolutely very little. But that's great, because this feeling of wonder, it's the greatest sensation in the world. It keeps me alive.