JOHN 
MC LAUGHLIN's
DEVOUT MADNESS

By Howard Mandel


"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
years ago."
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
written."
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
Dennis Chambers.
"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
"English Jam."
"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
have them."
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
die free.
"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
improvisation.
"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
fusion environment.
'That environment-fusion's
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
madness into the music, why not?
"To do so, one needs an encouraging
environment. 'Jazz Jungle' was set up so
we could go out and let it be as crazy as
we wanted-which I suppose could be
termed indulgent. ...
'The thing is, it's musical. When you
play spontaneously in this way, it's good,
not indulgent in the ordinary sense of that
term. Maybe you allow some
subconscious things to come out-there's
some screaming on that cut, but it's
beautiful, like what Trane was doing-a
soul, crying. Not to put myself up with
'I'rane, but his influence was so powerful
that it's still with me. Anyway, I don't mean
to wave the fusion flag, but I don't think
it's as somebody called it, 'a pestilence in
the land of jazz.' "
If McLaughlin can't wave the fusion flag,
who can?
'This is the nature of life," he waxes yet
more reflective, "there's the personal,
subjective life we live, full of madness and
fantasy, and thank God for it. Would I be a
musician without fantasy? Probably not.
Contrast that with life's necessary
constraints: One has to be rational,
logical, the opposite of what we really
are. Without some kind of madness ..."
he sighs, helpless to even conceive that.
" Just my existence and the existence of
the whole world and the fact that I'm
witness to it-that's pretty amazing, and
not rational or logical at all, not at all."
He grows quiet at the idea of such
cosmic enormity.
Yet that's the true hallmark of the
fervent, out-bound "fusion" McLaughlin
has championed: that fantasy can exist,
writ large. Fusion's purveyors take
fantasy seriously, not to escape but to
address big questions-how to reach
huge audiences, how to weave far-distant
threads of tradition and innovation, how
to admit, nay, celebrate the world's
hilarious, mysterious, enormous
contradictions, which are, after all,
indicative of many societal strains in our
day. More rigidly controlled, orthodox
musics work to contain fantasies and
contradictions within comfortably familiar
structures-delaying rather than excising
or confronting the conflicts. Fusion, as
purveyed by musicians of McLaughlin's
maturity and experience, looks the world
that encompasses high-tech and
underdevelopment square in the face.
'When Coltrane abandoned
conventional structures, blew'em up, he
left most of us behind," McLaughlin says.
"Hear Trane today, and your hair stands
on end! What can you say to that? He's so
powerful it makes you weep but it's not
conventional. So what? So what!?
'We need the restraints of convention
and structure to help us avoid self-
indulgence, since we are all self-indulgent
to some extent. How do you know you're
being self-indulgent? I don't know. In the
end, everything's a question of taste, I
suppose-up to the point when taste
disappears, and you're in a state of grace
where taste doesn't matter." Now he's
thinking and speaking of himself, playing
on some present-day stage. 'You're in
another reality, an altered reality, an
altered state of consciousness. Well, who
wants to be in the usual state of
consciousness, as it's been fabricated by
society? The intellectualization of
everything, the discrimination of
everything-and we take that as being
the most real!
"I don't buy that," says John
McLaughlin, emphatically. "I think the
world is music and the world is madness.
I do, I really do. I thank God every day
that I have another day, because it may
sound trite, but it's a miracle to be alive.
And so here I am, and I'm going to do
whatever I can, and that's it! It's as simple
as that!"
He laughs, and the interview's over.
____
Equipment


"I'm using a Johnny Smith Gibson electric guitar. I've got a couple of models-a
'68 and a '77-those are the years they were made. I carry one at a time. I'm
playing the red one right now, which I like just because it's red, and so beautiful.
But fortunately, it has a great sound, too.
"I use a Sony M7, which means I don't have to schlepp an amp around. As
opposed to just having bass and treble on your amp, it's got some very nice
equalization on the inside, and from that I can go directly out to the board or to a
tape console Though in the studio, I use monitors-playback from the board, or l'll
plug into an amp just to have the physical sound. Like when you hear the drums,
you want to hear them in your body, not just in your headphones. And that's it.

"I use a little guitar synthesizer on the new album, in a very discrete way: little
bits on 'Tokyo Decadence,'and also on 'Shin Jin Rui,'the piece with David
Sanborn. Actually, I'm just doubling James Genus'bass." His guitar synthesizer is
a Roland, with electronics modified by New England Digital, makers of the
Synclavier.
"My acoustic guitar is made by the great Abraham Wechter, a luthier from
Michigan, and the microtechnology is by Larry Fishman, a Massachusetts
transducer maker: It's a little preamp, with a cardoid mic for the purest sound
possible. Microchips allow me to take a signal from the bridge and send it to the
MIDI interface."