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
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,
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
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
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.