JOHN McLAUGHLIN'S CLASSICAL SPLASH By Chris J. Walker The brilliant and innovative guitarist John McLaughlin has always followed his heart. Beginning in England during the late '60s, he was experimenting with blues and avant-garde jazz/rock with Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, Ginger Baker, John Surman and others. Not long after that, he ventured to the U.S. and joined wunderkind drummer Tony Williams' groundbreaking fusion band, Lifetime. From there, he was recruited by the great Miles Davis to be part of his stellar experimental session bands for the landmark albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. McLaughlin made some serious waves of his own in 1971, when he formed the revolutionary and highly influential fusion unit, Mahavishnu Orchestra. Within a few years, however, this restless musical spirit had moved onto other horizons, forming the Indian-flavored acoustic jazz outfit Shakti, a group he has returned to a number of times through the years, even as he has gone on to other exciting musical explorations with many inspiring musicians from the jazz and rock worlds. Differing greatly from most of the discs in his illustrious catalog are two recordings that are based around classical music: Apocalypse 1974 was his most adventurous album during the second edition of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Its orchestral work was conducted by Michael Tilson-Thomas and grounded by the driving fusion of his new band, which featured violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and drummer Narada Michael Walden, among others. His second symphonic album, Mediterranean, recorded in 1988, also featured Tilson-Thomas conducting the London Symphony, but it was texturally much lighter than Apocalypse, based around an appealing neo-romantic guitar concerto. Fifteen years later and for the third time, McLaughlin has returned to the orchestral format with Thieves and Poets. The guitarist's first new studio project in almost six years features an orchestra known as I Pommeriggi Musicali di Milano Musical Afternoons in Milan , conducted by Renalto Rivolta. However, this CD differs from his previous classical works for its inclusion of four standards dedicated to four legendary jazz pianists: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Bill Evans and current Cuban sensation, Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Accompanying the master guitarist for that portion of the CD are old cohorts the Aighetta Quartet with Helmut Schartlmueller on acoustic bass. When I caught up with McLaughlin in Boulder, Colo., where he was preparing for a tour with the latest incarnation of Shakti, he related his surprise that it's been a decade-and-a-half between his orchestral forays, noting, "They're all so very different. The first was a big electric band with orchestra. The second one was disappointing: I liked the piece, but I had no hand in the mixing and would have preferred another result. Maybe that's one of the things that made me produce this one in the manner I did - using orchestra in one way and sound design in another. Despite the density and dynamics of the orchestra, I'm able to get a coherent balance between the instruments, soloists and the mass that the symphony can come up with. You have this tremendous feeling of tension between them and the solo voice, but I like that." Thieves and Poets is, in essence, a three-part suite chronicling the guitarist's musical journey during his lifetime. The first movement represents Europe, the "Old World"; the second is the transition to America, the "New World"; and the third is firmly set in the "New World." The finale is a joyful unification of both worlds. Creatively and technically, it's derived and modified from a work originally commissioned by Jurgen Nimbler and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. Once completed, with the help of Yann Maresz, his former student, McLaughlin toured with the symphony for performances throughout Europe. He called it "one of the greatest musical experiences of my life." However, once the concerts concluded, he shelved the composition and moved on to other pursuits. Several years later, he dusted off the work, and again, with Maresz's aid, re-orchestrated it for a large symphony concert in Paris with his old friend, guitarist Paco de Lucia. After that incredible performance, McLaughlin shifted his attention to other creative directions. Then, Jean-Christophe Maillot, choreographer of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, the city that the guitarist also calls home, asked if McLaughlin had a piece for orchestra that he could choreograph. By this time, the composition was dramatically different from the initial conception - it needed revamping - and McLaughlin hadn't been able to set aside time to solely focus on it. By the time he finally completed the work, it had been three years since its inital conception. In the beginning stages, McLaughlin worked off of a demo using synthesizers and samples, detailing the parts through MIDI for Renato Rivolta, who's also a jazz musician. Under the conductor's leadership, the orchestra recorded to Pro Tools in Officine Meccaniche Studio's huge wood-lined room in Milan where McLaughlin had previously cut his CDs Time Remembered and The Heart of Things. "Having a jazz player conducting the orchestra was great for me," McLaughlin comments, "because rhythm is very important. Not that I wanted them to sound like a jazz band, but I wanted them to keep pretty good tempo. They did a great job and had a lot of enthusiasm. And the soloists were outstanding and contributed wonderful playing." Due to scheduling conflicts, some of the soloists' parts were recorded later by McLaughlin separately at his home studio. Additional orchestral elements were created in the studio, with Marersz playing a major role. "Strings and timpani can't be reproduced," McLaughlin explains, "but there still are a lot of things that you can do, and we, in fact, created our own instruments. We were using Pro Tools, and Yann is an expert with this Mac program that applies MIDI and its controls but in an acoustic environment. Still, it's major work and you must have a tremendous number of samples to get the right dynamics and timbre. Truthfully, it's more work than recording a symphony and I thought about flying in a big band to overdub on top of the orchestra, but I was already way over budget." Not to be overlooked is the standards segment of the CD, which pays tribute to four keyboardists whom the guitarist greatly admires. McLaughlin says that he can't explain why, but he often feels a need to revisit his past, and classic American songbook material was what he was weaned on as a young jazz player in the '60s. In a way, these simpler, more modest tunes pick up where 10 years after his acclaimed Time Remembered left off. But they, too, proved taxing for McLaughlin, both in terms of composition and time. Each selection took roughly a month to compose and then condense through a lot of trial and error and rewriting. Mixing was done in Pro Tools, mostly during September and October of 2002. Though McLaughlin is actually quite adept on the hard disk system, with more than 10 years of experience, he relied on Austrian engineer Marcus Wippersberg's talents for mixing, editing and some overdubs. Wippersberg, who's a rock drummer by trade, had never met McLaughlin or worked on a classical-based project before. From his home studio in Linz, Austria, situated between Vienna and Salzburg, he recalls how he ended up working with the renowned guitarist: "I met John during the middle of the work on the CD. He had already recorded the string orchestra and his guitar on his own. I was working in Monaco with another guy in a studio for a Narada Michael Walden project. They came into contact with John, and he was looking for an engineer to work with." As a result of that meeting, Wippersberg soon found himself deeply immersed in McLaughlin's vision. He worked 12-hour days at the guitarist's side in Monaco and at his own similarly equipped studio in Austria, conferring long distance with the guitarist about both technical issues and creative matters. "John really knows what he wants and he also knows a lot about the Macintosh operating system and other things," Wippersberg says. "It wasn't, 'Do what you like and I'll tell you if I like it.' He's mixing with you all the time." Wippersberg felt the four standards were fairly easy to put together, but the three-part suite and finale, with orchestra, soloist and extensive sound-designed portions programmed by Maresz, were extremely challenging to mix. "Getting those three components to sound like one orchestra playing was difficult," the engineer comments. "Basically, I couldn't have done it without the Altiverb plug-in. It made everything sound like it all happened in the same room, and I've used it on every record I've mixed." Wippersberg is the first to acknowledge that working on Thieves and Poets was a far cry from the rock and soundtrack sessions he normally does. It was a tremendous learning experience for him and quite inspirational: "It was really beyond belief! I would be sitting in the library of his house in Monaco where he has his Pro Tools setup and he's behind me playing his acoustic guitar! The best part was recording his solos and getting to decide which one would be on the record. I'd definitely like to do more work with him." When we spoke, McLaughlin was already focused on his next project, which he hinted would be a drastic mixture of styles sure to inflame critics. Summing up Thieves and Poets, he states, "I would safely say that this is my last swim in the classical swimming pool. I'm 62 and I can't see myself doing another one 14 years from now. But through classical is how I first fell in love with music. It was only later that blues, jazz, flamenco and Indian came in. But out of them all [his classical albums], I'm the happiest with this recording. And in the end, that's the only thing I can really hang on to. I've had my share of flack thrown at me by record companies. But in the general sense, I have to make myself happy; otherwise, I wouldn't want to release it."