Lesson # 9

by Jon Chappell


"There's a special interactive formation that I really love with improvisation . . . it goes back to New Orleans," says John McLaughlin, "and that's what this tune is about." McLaughlin is speaking of "Jazz Jungle," the muscular, virtuosic, 14-minute cut on his album The Promise, which features drummer Dennis Chambers, saxophonist Michael Brecker, and keyboardist James Beard, among others. "And that's why it ended up being so long.... I simply couldn't edit it."

Who could blame him? For although "Jazz Jungle" is the album's longest, most diverse, and freest tune, it showcases some of the band's most golden episodes, their highest musical moments. "There's a spot at the end where you can hear me saying, 'Why did you stop, why did it have to end there?' And I said to the guys, 'I've just got my second breath,' because it was true. That's just the way it was in the studio.

"My nature and predilection has always been linear," continues McLaughlin. I love fingerstyle, and I love the fingerstylists like Laurindo Almeida and of course Paco de Luca, but I don't want to fight my nature. I don't even have fingernails on my right hand," he states unapologetically.

The fingerpicking world's loss is the flatpicker's gain, for McLaughlin can spin the most complex and knotty lines with the utmost ease and fluidity. In our session together, on a borrowed Martin Jumbo, he ripped out a descending line with some hairy intervals at a blinding clip, and then commented, "Now that's a tricky line. I wrote 'Jazz Jungle' with Michael Brecker in mind, so it has that modern feel to it. This particular line that I just played is part of a variation that I'm taking in D minor or G7 [see Ex. 1]. That's the call, and then


I do this as the answer
[he plays Ex. 2], and that sort of balances the first line. There are all sorts of other variations, too, that are harmonically linked together in strange ways, and then finally I use this melody as the bridge" [Ex. 3].

Aside from getting the line to flow in a seamless fashion, the trickiness McLaughlin refers to in Ex. 1 is the interval leaps in bar 1, beats 1 and 2. These occur across the 1st and 2nd strings. The bridge line of Ex. 3 provides relief in the form of a more lyrical, less virtuosic phrase, but the short gestures (16th notes) that precede the longer notes are all alternate-picked. They must be crisp and forceful, but should not sound labored.

"It's just that short passage that I find very tricky," McLaughlin concluded, referring again to Ex. 1. "Would you like to try it?" he asked as he offered me the guitar. I managed to croak out the reply "No, I wouldn't want to embarrass you." I flashed a weak smile, praying he would get the joke and understand my trepidation. He did, realizing he'd put me on the spot. He quickly responded with a warm laugh, "Well, it's not that tricky-it's just something I find a little interesting and a challenge to play."


Throughout his multi-decade career, John McLaughlin has mastered whatever style he touches, be it cool jazz (in his work as a sideman with Miles Davis), fusion (as evidenced by the Mahavishnu recordings), Indian music (the blistering acoustic performances he turned with Shakti), or modern jazz (on his recent work with Michael Brecker, Joey DeFrancesco, Dennis Chambers, Jim Beard, et al. on The Promise, McLaughlin's latest release). We'll continue our study of the King Midas of style in this second lesson studying the greatest velocity picker the planet has known.

Last month we examined a line McLaughlin wrote for "Jazz Jungle," a tune inspired by the playing of jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker. This time we'll look at a classic acoustic lick, typical of McLaughlin's work with Shakti, where his lead lines blazed in alternate-picked ecstasy. When asked for a typical scale passage in the North Indian-classical vein, McLaughlin immediately proffered Example 1.

"Wow, it's been so many years since I've played in that style. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline, but here's a good line to study because it captures very much what I was doing with Shakti, and of that whole school in general. It's a major sound, basically, but it sounds exotic to Western ears. It has the b9 in it."

McLaughlin is describing what is sometimes referred to as the "Phrygian-Dominant" scale (in E: E F G# A B C D), so named because it includes a major 3rd and b7 -- defining notes of the Mixolydian or dominant scale -- and a b2, which is characteristic of the Phrygian mode. It should be noted that this scale is actually the fifth mode of the harmonic minor (in A: A B C D E F G#). This creates an uncharacteristically wide interval between the second and third notes of the scale -- an augmented 2nd or minor 3rd. "It's the shift on the 2nd string that helps you get all the way up to the 13th fret," McLaughlin advises.

A quick glance at the tab shows McLaughlin's approach to be three notes per string, but the jump at the beginning of bar 3 (the position at the string crossing) bears special attention. You must play the G# with your left-hand 1st finger in order to complete the run up to the 13th fret on the 1st string. "Coming down is the same problem," says McLaughlin, "where you must put your little finger on the 3rd string after having played the 2nd string with your 1st finger." If you linger at these "trouble spots," you'll notice that your left-hand index and little fingers are one fret apart, at the 9th and 10th fret, respectively. This can create a "hiccup" in your line if you don't isolate this passage and work out the transition.

No audible hiccup was heard from John McLaughlin as he played Example 1, though. His playing is as smooth and fleet-fingered as ever. "I guess you just don't ever lose it," he says. "I still have to practice like crazy, but I still remember all that Shakti stuff like it's burned into my mind."