T h e   A r t   o f   Improvisation
Mastering the Musical Moment
by James Rotondi
Anyone who plays anything worth hearing
knows what he's going to play no matter
whether he prepares a day ahead or a beat ahead.
-DUKE ELLINGTON-

IMAGINE a conversation among friends.
You start off with the weather, records you
like, opinions you've retold a few times al-
ready. The more you talk, the more your
thoughts and feelings pour out, and the easi-
er it is to be honest-
the more you say what's really on your
mind. You might forget the whole conver-
sation, but you may come to a whole new
understanding of what you, and the sub-
ject, are about. Improvisation has been
that conversation since the beginning of music,
and American jazz-has made it a major art form. 
Improvisational guitar runs through
Eddie Lang and Charlie Christian, to Barney Kessel,
 Kenny Burrell,and Jim Hall, to stunning modern practi-
tioners such as John McLaughlin, JohnScofield,
 and Bill Frisell.
 Each has been
touched by a diversity of influences, and in
his pursuit of honest expression, each has
integrated his experiences into a voice tru-
ly his own, The Art of Improvisation talks
with these innovators, and offers valuable
glimpses into their improvisational magic.
So let's skip the weather.
T h e  A r t  o f  Improvisation
John Mc Laughlin

 

THERE IS RIOTING in the streets of Paris. The stress between
France's emerging political parties has erupted. The city is at a
standstill, and John McLaughlin is stuck in traffic, late for a round
of interviews. Frankly, it's difficult to imagine the 50-year-old gui-
tar virtuoso in this predicament. He's always leading the pack, 
helping other drivers find their direction. And he always seems to 
sail through the green light an instant before it turns red, leaving .
the others in a jam-horns-blaring but engines idling-while he
enjoys the open road. . It can also be difficult to be objective
about John McLaughlin. His overwhelming technique, improvisa-
tional brilliance, and quasi-messianic mystique have made musi-
cians and writers trip over themselves on declamatory banana
peels. His relationship with Indian guru and musician Sri Chin-
moy has certainly added to McLaughlin's bigger-than-life per-
sona. If he hasn't been touched by the hand of God, he's come
close: Miles Davis, Zakir Hussain, L. Shankar, Jimi Hendrix, the
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Paco de Lucia, Al DiMeola, 
Tony Williams-he's played with some
of the greatest musicians of our time. From
dizzying electric frenzies to brilliant acoustic
masterpieces, McLaughlin seems to have
done it all.
So if John's been all over the musical map,
his present group, a trio featuring French
bassist Dominique Di Piazza and Indian per-
cussionist Trilok Gurtu, constitutes his home-
coming-not in the sense of returning to his
roots, but of crystallizing the myriad impulses
and creative turns of his career. In Gurtu,
McLaughlin has found the perfect percussive
foil. His innovative setup incorporates tabla,
exotic percussion, and electronics. With a
crisp snare and thundering floor tom/bass
drum, Trilok follows John from Indian seven-
beat to swing to polyrhythmic ecstasy. And it
sounds like fun.
McLaughlin's newest release, his first on
Verve, is Que Alegria, a studio follow-up to
1990's breathtaking Live At The Royal Festival
Hall (featuring Gurtu and bassist Kai Eckhardt).
 From John's broad smile on the al-
bum's cover to the blues-bop fret-races con-
tained within, Que Alegria punctuates its
meditative soundscapes with humor and
warmth. Using Phi Tech's Photon MIDI inter-
face, John layers shimmering chordal washes
and evokes keyboard sounds with the push of
a pedal-all without sacrificing the tone and
response of the Abraham Wechter nylon-
string guitar he uses for the entire album.
McLaughlin's music continues to reflect
his spirituality, passion for life, and great dis-
cipline. Before his U.S. tour, John spoke to us
about his new album, his unique gear, and his
continuing exploration of new musical
spheres.
On Que Alegria and Live At The Royal Fes-
tival Hall, you've settled into a style that inte-
grates music you've experimented with be-
fore-Indian classical and flamenco, for in-
stance.
Yes, that's true. It's organic-a much-
abused word, but a good word for it. Trilok is
Indian, and with Shakti and the work I've
done with Indian musicians, it's just some-
thing that we can step into like an old shoe.
It's very comfortable. On some of the pieces,
like "Belo Horizonte," a piece I had recorded a
long time ago but completely revamped for
the trio, the character of the solos is very dif-
ferent from the ones I did eight or 10 years
ago. There's definitely a more Hispanic influ-
ence, but this too is something I feel very
comfortable with. Or "Pasha's Love," which
has a very strong flamenco feeling-this is
something that we go into naturally.

That "old shoe" theory seems to hold true
in respect to blues and bop as well.

That's part of me too, and the little R&B
thing. I hope it doesn't come off like a big pot-
pourri. I'm sure it will get accused of that, but
I'm not trying to make any kind of fusion-it
just happens that way
How did your North Indian classical and
flamenco experiences enhance your original
bop approach to improvising?
Just to be able to play with these people,
you have to know the music and the rules
governing the music. You may have suffered
to learn what's going on, and how to deal with
the rules, but when you have the chance to
play with these people, believe me, you're the
one that's enriched.
For me, the joy of playing is really it. When
I played with Paco in 1978, 1 had to learn
things about his music, the same as Shakti in
1973. But I'm the real beneficiary of these ex-
periences. As to what they specifically
changed in me, I don't know. I can't step out of
myself and view my music very objectively,
because it's like part of my breathing. But
even as far as music appreciation is con-
cerned, I can put on a record of Indian or fla-
menco music and understand what's going
on-I'm able to appreciate it. I get a great deal
of satisfaction from that, although the great-
est satisfaction is to be able to make music
with these people. It's an interesting question.
If I have the time to reflect on it, I'll probably
come up with a list of things.
A friend of mine, who studies North Indian
classical music at the Ali Akbar College (in San
Rafael, California), is amazed at your ability
to play the alap (the unmetered expositionlin-
vocation ofIndian ragas).
That's nice, but I don't really think I mas-
tered it, especially when you hear someone
like Hari Prasad Chaurasia [an Indian
bansuri, or bamboo flute, master]. I must
point out, however, that I don't want to be an
Indian classical musician, or a flamenco clas-
sical musician. By discipline I'm a jazz player.
But I derive a tremendous amount of satisfac-
tion from being able to move in different mu-
sical spheres. It's not because I want to create
some kind of fusion. It's basically entirely self-
ish and self-interested [laughsl .
The vicious truth comes out! What is it
about the nylon -string guitar that holds so
much fascination for you?
Its response is very different from the
steel-string. It's been at least 13 years since I
switched. It's not just a tonal thing; the re-
sponse of nylon strings in the upper registers
is much better than steel. In addition, be-
cause the response is so rapid, you've got a
percussive thing that comes off the guitar that
is difficult to get on steel strings. It also goes
back to my childhood. When I first discovered
guitar at age 11, it was a five-dollar acoustic
nylon- string guitar. I didn't know what acous-
tic or electric guitars were. So maybe I'm en-
tering my second childhood [laughs]. I feel
very happy with this guitar, the way the
acoustics sound, and to have the transducer
technology to be able to use MIDI with an
acoustic guitar.
It's all part of my continuing experiments
with MIDI. I'm using Yamaha technology,
which includes FM synthesis and sampling.
It's really amazing, and quite new for me. The
possibilities are staggering. I've a tremendous
amount left to do on it.
There is one particularly voicelike sound at
the introduction to Trilok Gurtu's composition
"Baba."
I mix it with all kinds of stuff, because with
the Yamaha TG77 [sound generator] you can
use four different complex elements and then
program them in such a way that they are all
moving in different directions at the same
time. I'm concerned with making a sound
that evokes something in me, that creates an
atmosphere for the other musicians and for
the listener. But it should bring us into new
territory, and the programming is a lot of
work, apart from the work I do on guitar.
The Photon works with your nylon-string,
so you don't need a special guitar controller
like the Roland.
That's what's so great. Everything's done
live: I just play, bring it in, bring it out. You
have a lot of very interesting functions like the
arpeggiator. I can start to play a phrase and it
keeps going. Or I hit some notes or chords
and hold them while I play You can have lay-
ers going. You can hear this in something like
"Hijacked," where it sounds like I overdubbed.
In fact, the whole thing is played live. There
are many possibilities, and this can provoke
Trilok and Dominique into different direc-
tions.
As well as giving you the ability to create
tonal centers to improvise over.
Oh, yeah. Even with what I have, I've got a
lot of work left to do. There's a tremendous po-
tential. I really like the sound, too. I can get
three different sounds including the guitar, all
in unison together. That goes back to be-
bop-the old unison playing. It provokes
something in me that makes me want to keep
going. It also demands that I look at my phras-
ing in a completely different way, and this is
good. You get on your own case.
Does it change your chordal or linear style
as much as the synclavier did when you used
that?
Even more, because the Synclavier worked
with the electric guitar, and sometimes the
electric guitar and the synthesizer are too
close. What's great about the acoustic guitar is
that it is so different from the synthesizers.
The contrast is what really pleases me. Like in
the introduction to "Que Alegria," where I hit a
chord and hold it, but as I hold it, I cut it off.
The synthesized chord still holds, but when I
play over it, it's just pure guitar. Then when I
take off the held chord, the synth comes back
on immediately. To be able to move and ac-
company yourself in this way and have this
contrast between synthesizer and pure acous-
tic guitar is really great.
Do you use foot pedals for this?
Yeah, you just kick in, kick it out. You can
bring it in when you want.
Can you also program it to harmonize with
your lines?
Sure. I haven't gone into that yet, but that's
something I want to look at when I get home
this weekend and start preparing for the U.S.
tour.
Are you still playing an Abraham Wechter
guitar?
Absolutely, with two Fishman transducers.
I've got a classical guitar transducer that goes
through a mini preamp in the base of the gui-
tar. And Larry built me a bridge transducer
that goes down through these tiny micropro-
cessers by the preamp. He's done such a great
job. I've got the same acoustic-quality sound
as with a natural bone saddle.
Do you use any of the new acoustic amps?
No. Since the beginning, I've gone into DI
boxes and then the console. Boom, you're off. I
like the idea of not schlepping amplifiers
around, too [laughs]. You know what I mean?
And you never shred those nylon strings
with the pick?
Never. The top three strings are good for a
year. It's amazing. I really destroy the bass
strings, though. I get about two, three concerts
out of them, maximum. You can wash those
nylon bass strings in warm, soapy water. Then
you rinse them thoroughly, swing them
around your head, hang them out to dry put
them on, and they're as good as new: I've been
using D'Addario classical strings for 20 years
now.
Do you ever miss having scalloped fret-
boards like you used to?
I do, but it doesn't really work with nylon
strings. This is the one thing about nylon
which is a shame. The trade-off is okay,
though, because the Photon would freak out
with a scalloped fingerboard and a lot of big
bends.
Que Alegria has a very relaxed vibe, like
you were really having fun.
Absolutely because there are no overdubs,
no solos done later. We set up in the studio
and just played a concert. What you hear is
what you get. In the trio, the playing together
is so important, we have to get that on record,
and not just put a rhythm track down and put
a solo on top. We could have done it in the
concert hall. The difference is basically psy-
chological and physical, in the sense that in
the studio you don't start indulging in things
and letting pieces go long. You have to be
more restrained and economical, which is not
so bad. It obliges you to be more essential, and
I'm able to put more pieces on the record.
In your present approach to improvisation,
are you running changes in the bop sense, or
playing around a loose tonal center?
I want to work more towards the linear
movement that suggests verticality; to be able
to incorporate the chord changes and the har-
monic movement into a lyrical line. That's a
tall order, but this is the essential for me. This
is what I would like to master.