"I'm a little bit mad,"
guitarist John McLaughlin
confides with a gleam in
his eyes. It's his first interview of a
press day planned to promote his latest
release, The Promise, an album that
reconvenes an historic array of people
Mc Laughlin's met, reconstruing the
worlds they've created.
"I've always been fascinated by different
forms and have liked to experiment using
music from different cultures," he says.
"From time to time it's a pleasure to go
back, bring relationships up to date, get
friends together, play with our minds of
today, so different from our perceptions of
five, 10, 15, or-as with Jeff Beck-20
Jeff Beck!?! Ain't it mad to ask the Bad
Brit of Hot Licks, the rudest guitar player
the Yardbirds ever had, to wax and twine
sympatico with electric McLaughlin on
the ballad "Django"?
'Well, we toured together in the '70s
when he had his Blow By Blow group
Pretty Purdie, Wilbur Bascomb, Max
Middleton-and I had Narada Michael
Walden, Ralphe Armstrong and Stu
Goldberg," Mc Laughlin explains. "Every
night both bands massed onstage to jam.
And I knew this tune was right for him.
When Jeff heard the tape I prepared for
him, he called-'It's so beautiful.'
"It is a beautiful song, and I arranged it
to keep its integrity. We get down a little
more, perhaps, than the MJQ, but
structurally, harmonically and
rhythmically, 'Django' is exactly as
So the guitarists shift between yearning
swing and a hard-rock groove, evidently
having great fun. Are they mad? "Look,"
McLaughlin says, setting things straight,
"musicians please themselves. That's all
we're interested in. Still, there's a very
interesting process-recapitulation if you
like-that's beyond getting together with
friends such as Paco [de Lucia] and Al
[Di Meola], Nishat Khan, Zakir Hussain,
Trilok [Gurtu]." Also featured on The
Promise: David Sanborn, Sting, Vinnie
Colaiuta, Jim Beard, Don Alias, James
Genus, Free Spirits Joey Defrancesco and
"to make one step forward, I
sometimes feel I have to make two steps
back," he concedes in acknowledgment of
his earliest Extrapolation through late-'60s
out-classics, including some big fun with
Miles; from his soaring Mahavishnu
Orchestra and sublime Shakti through a
slew of sophisticated electric and acoustic
combos to symphonic works prepared by
such conductor pals as Michael Tilson
Thomas and Dennis Russell Davies, and
most recently on to reconfigurations for
guitars of pianist Bill Evans' music and
interpretations with Elvin Jones and
organist Defrancesco playing the works
of John Coltrane.
But again McLaughlin asserts: "I'm
involved in today as the only day I have-
yesterday is gone, the future is completely
neutral. I forget what I've done. If from
time to time I have to remember, I listen
to old records, which is great, and even go
back to when I was a kid to recall musical
experiences that are relevant to me today.
But basically, The Promise just grew out of
a desire to play with some people.
"Michael Brecker and I played together
but had not recorded. It's been 14 years
since I played with Paco and Al. I haven't
played with my Indian colleagues for a
while, and I never recorded before with
[sitarist] Nishat Khan. To get him with
Trilok and Zakir in a 75percent Indian
East-West formation, that's perhaps better
balanced than Shakti!" Clearly, it was a
consummation devoutly sought.
"I had a piece I'd written or arranged to
accommodate the musicians' comforts
and be provocative at the same time. From
the start, I intended to string these pieces
together with certain transitions, specific
verses of poetry"-a whisper of Dante, a
burst of rain, a haiku, chirping cicadas, a
Lorca couplet, temple bells, a 72-second
"It all fell into shape in the mix, done by
Max Costa, with whom I always work.
Recording is easy," McLaughlin laughs,
"if you prepare well. Logistically, this
album was tricky-going here, recording
there, in the middle of tours, everyone
else on tour, too. For the dates with
Brecker and Sanborn, I flew from Japan to
New York for three days, had sessions on
two afternoons, the third day flew back to
South Korea. Nutty, but it was that or not
Which was not an option. The rough
and open "Jazz Jungle" with Brecker is 15
minutes, the more laid-back "Shin Jin Ri"
with Sanborn (both boast the rhythm
squad of Beard, Genus, Chambers and
Alias) slightly longer than 10; so they
might serve as centerpieces, if The
Promise weren't so exceptionally rangy
and more than 73 minutes in duration. Not
that McLaughlin claims length or variety
as an accomplishment.
"Don't forget, I got into jazz in the late
'50s, early'60s. Miles and Trane, Bill
Evans, Cannonball were amazing.
Ornette, Mingus and Monk-what a
phenomenal period. Compared to what
they were doing then, we're not doing
much new today. The only thing we can
really say is, 'Nobody can ever do it like I
do it'-because we're each of us unique.
'The standards of what's been done are
incredible, but to be stopped by that is the
wrong kind of vanity," he considers.
"Vanity is not necessarily bad-we can
hope to transform it into pride. Anyway,
you have to be vain to get up and
pretend," he laughs, "that you can play.
You end up going on faith, which is,
sometimes, blind. But you have to go for
it, trust in it.
"Yuu may not get what you're going
for-you never know if you're going to get
that thing, spirit or whatever you call it,
where you're liberated and it's wonderful.
It doesn't happen so often. You go out with
the hope, you work to be ready when it
happens. We're all waiting for the same
thing, everybody knows when somebody
gets it, and it's very infectious.
"But sometimes it's a battle royale. You
see a concert and the guy is fighting his
instrument. This can be very beautiful: a
person struggling to get through his own
conscious or unconscious barriers, to free
himself-because we are free, we were
born free, we always will be free and we'll
"To articulate that is what music is
about-music is one of its greatest, most
elegant ways of expressing that, when it
happens. When it doesn't, that's
something I don't have any control over. I
don't know who does."
What of the spirits he says he's most
indebted to? Did Miles and Trane have
the personal freedom and musical
discipline to consistently summon music,
to turn it on? "Two giants of disparate
natures," McLaughlin muses. "I've been
paying homage to them all my life. I don't
stop paying homage to them." But the
answer is: them neither. Are you mad?
No, though McLaughlin can be irked by
the notion that his main men-besides
Miles, Trane and Bill Evans, Delta blues
guitarists Rubert Johnson, Big Bill
Broonzy, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters and
Fred McDowell-seem to have fallen out
of fashion. Surely they'll return.
"And maybe in three generations we'll
get back into fusion," he joshes. "In fact, I
wanted to get that fusion feel back on The
Promise. I love fusion; it's part of me. It's
degenerated, but I don't care. Whatever
anyone says, I'm happy with how those
pieces with Michael and Dave turned out,
full of very live playing and collective
"I don't know if you remember, but the
Mahavishnu Orchestra used to get into
collective improvisation," he becomes
earnest. "Not that I invented it-it's New
Orleans. Nor am I trying to play
traditional New Orleans jazz. But
collective improvisation lends itself to the
vocabulary, volume, particular techniques,
even arena size-doesn't affect the
music's content," McLaughlin
emphasizes. "But it affects the vibe in the
band. On 'Jazz Jungle' I'm a little crazy, but
not in a wrong way. I believe we're all a
little crazy. And if I can bring some of this