John McLaughlin has made an immeasurable impact on the history of jazz, both as a sideman on a string of seminal Miles Davis LPs and as a leader of his own trailblazing groups. ROB GARRATT chats to a man often called the greatest guitarist in the world.
To John McLaughlin music is far more than the notes on a page, the inspiration firing the brain’s synapses, or even the vibrations that reach the ear.
Music is a unique expression of everything the player is feeling at that moment; an unreplicable encapsulation of one’s unconscious state of mind.
For a man known both for his harmonic invention and breathtakingly fast finger-work, it’s hard to imagine he has anything but scales on his mind.
But to the guitarist, his playing and emotions are intrinsically intertwined. McLaughlin’s new album, To the One, he tells me takes in the entire “journey” of his “musical and spiritual development” to date.
Which makes it quite a trip; having made an unmistakable mark on the course of jazz, both on his 40-plus LPs as leader, and the crucial half-dozen albums recorded with jazz’s greatest innovator, Miles Davis.
His latest LP, released April 26, came out of a sudden flash of spiritual inspiration.
“I had no intention of recording,” explains McLaughlin or a crisp line from his home of 28 years, Monte Carlo.
“I’d just finished a year on the road with Chick Corea and I was happy to do nothing – but the music had other ideas.
“I was in a restaurant with my family and music started coming in my head, I said ‘someone get me a Kleenex!’ Someone had a cardboard box and I was ripping it apart, the ideas were coming and if I don’t write them down, I forget.
“Basically I’m under orders – ‘write this down, now’.”
The result is a record which, McLaughlin explains, expresses his feelings about the discovery of his “interior” world, about spiritually “walking the line”, and about his conviction which every act we perform is connected to a metaphysical entity, “The One”.
And if that wasn’t ambitious enough, the record is also a response to John Coltrane’s own glittering expression of Christian faith, A Love Supreme – tracing McLaughlin’s musical development since hearing the monumental album, as a young British session whizz, upon its 1965 release.
It was a few years later that McLaughlin’s own incendiary playing was thrown into the public limelight, after moving to New York and joining Tony Williams’ pioneering fusion project, Lifetime, and soon after catching the attention of Williams’ old boss: Miles Davis.
Far from being just another sideman, McLaughlin’s electric style dictated and drove the trailblazing fusion collages Davis’ was experimenting with at the cusp of a new decade.
His first recorded work with Davis, In A Silent Way (1969), was a haunting pre-ambient collage, constructed with pioneering tape loops, which placed McLaughlin alongside luminaries like Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul.
Next came 1970’s Bitches Brew, a dark uncompromising, 2LP set of electric jams which became one of the best-selling jazz albums ever.
McLaughlin was established as Miles’ guitarist of choice, his edgy stringwork defining the string of genre-bending LPs to follow, including A Tribute To Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, On The Corner and Big Fun. The guitarist’s contribution was acknowledged with two pieces named in his honour, “Go Ahead John” and, simply, “John McLaughlin”.
“[Miles] was more like my good friend,” remembered McLaughlin. “He made sure I ate, took care of me, gave me money without asking.
“He would ask me: ‘Are you reading?’ He was really special, in addition to colossal debt I have musically; I wouldn’t be where I am today, not at all.
“To have the opportunity to work with him and know him and hang out, what a marvellous gift.”
McLaughlin only left Davis after strict instructions (“Miles told me it was time I formed my own group, and since he was the most honest man I ever met, I took him at his word,”) and went on to form genre-defining fusion quintet the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Combining heavy, frantic riffing with jazz virtuosity, the instrumental, improvisational outfit was an unlikely hit with the rock audience – supporting Aerosmith on an early tour – and sold more than any jazz artist could hope for, establishing McLaughlin as the 1970s post-Hendrix guitar hero.
“Mahavishnu was pretty intense and pretty loud, I am not so heavy anymore,” says McLaughlin. “The music was very powerful – that’s the way I feel it.”
After five years and six albums, across two distinct line-ups, McLaughlin ditched his electric guitar and rack of Marshall amps and recruited a group of Indian luminaries for acoustic project Shakti, an influential precursor to the world-fusion trends to come.
“I got flack from the record company, my agent; they said ‘what are you doing sitting on a carpet with an acoustic guitar and a bunch of India musicians?’,” McLaughlin remembers with an English chuckle.
Since then McLaughlin has flitted habitually between electric fusion works and acoustic albums, as well as forming a group with two of the world’s best guitarists, Al Di Meola and flamenco legend Paco de Lucia ( “What a phenomenal player.”)
His recent work has mounted to a late-career crescendo, the dense jazz fusion on 2006’s Industrial Zen bettered by 2008’s Floating Point, recorded in India with a troupe of native musicians.
McLaughlin’s first album recorded with his stable live band of four years, the 4th Dimension – featuring fusion keys veteran Gary Husband, bassist Etienne Mbappé and drummer Mark Mondesir – To the One is sparser than both its predecessors; a shorter, sharper, more soulfully contemplative offering.
The record’s coming promotional tour will undoubtedly be a rich experience, a rare chance to see one of the few remaining players from the golden era of jazz, scaling stratospheric heights of artistic and spiritual enlightenment.
“I have been very fortunate throughout my life,” sums up McLaughlin. “I just do what comes in my head.
“I work like a painter, some of my friends are painters, and they don’t know what they’re going to paint next… neither do. I just wait for the inspiration.”
A lesson in improvisation from John McLaughlin
“There are different senses of playing. One of the crucial points is that you know by heart the harmonic structure. If you don’t, you have to think. If you’re thinking you’re not playing. You might be playing the notes, but you’re not playing your music.
“Whether you’re playing jazz or Indian music, it’s a question of spontaneity. This is the marvellous thing of Indian and jazz music – it’s how you’re feeling, now. Not what you did yesterday, all of that disappears. What you are feeling right now. What you are feeling about where you are in your relationship with everything.
“The goal is of course to be inspired. But inspiration is not on order. You can’t write inspiration, it comes. You have to be ready when it does come. It’s honest, music is honesty. The music you’re going to play has to be as honest as possible. You’re not thinking about this piece, this chord – you’re going to the stage and playing with the people there. You’re playing with each other, and as soon as inspiration comes, everyone in the room gets it, and it’s infectious. But it’s a real bugger to get there.”
Listening guide: Key releases
Extrapolation (1969) – McLaughlin’s solo debut served as a CV for his jaw-dropping technical prowess
In a Silent Way; Miles Davis (1969) – McLaughlin’s first recorded work with the master saw some of his most restrained, effervescent playing
The Inner Mounting Flame; Mahavishnu Orchestra (1971) – McLaughlin’s fretwork has never sounded rawer than the first LP from his fiery fusion quintet
Natural Elements; Shakti (1977) – The last, and most fully-realised, LP with trailblazing Indo-fusion group Shakti
Que Alegria (1992) – A mid-career gem; leading an acoustic trio mixing jazz, Indian percussion and flamenco, a more restrained McLaughlin shines
The Guitar Trio; w/ Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola (1996) – A beautiful six-string flamenco-inspired fest with three of the world’s best players
Floating Point (2008) – World-jazz of the highest order recorded with some of India’s finest musicians