by Paul Mc Arthur
John Mclaughlin finds himself in the midst of his first extended break from touring in more than 30 years. Hopscotching around the globe was becoming progressively more difficult, and with Remember Shakti, his primary band of the late '90s into 2001, being a global act, the 60-year-old guitarist decided it was time for an 18-month break, which began last August.
McLaughlin sounds relaxed. Then again, it's easy to be at ease living in Monaco. The guitarist remarried a few years ago, has a young son and enjoys quality time with his new family. He's even taken a break from talking to the media: This conversation is his first interview since his touring hiatus began.
While recharging his batteries, McLaughlin has devoted time to some new projects. After releasing five live albums in the past four years, he recorded his first studio album since The Heart Of Things (1997) in June. It will be a symphonic album, his first since The Mediterranean Concerto and will mark the third time McLaughlin has recorded with a symphony.
Written for the Ballet of Monte Carlo, the composition features five soloists— McLaughlin, a violinist, cellist, clarinetist and a classical guitarist—and was recorded with Orchestre Pomeriggi Musicali de Milan. Given the complexities of symphonic projects, the touring layoff provided him with the perfect opportunity to record the composition. However, he says this will be the last time he'll take on a symphonic project. "I love symphony orchestras," he says.
"But it's so much work."
The composition is called "Thieves And Poets," and McLaughlin considers it autobiographical. "It's basically what I consider myself," he laughs, "a thief with poetic pretensions. We steal from everybody. Where do we get everything from? We appropriate it.
"It' s a piece that traces my musical evolution. In terms of its development, the first piece is quite European, but with a complex time signature. But the second movement, you see this transatlantic movement taking place from the Old World to the New World; and the third one will be definitely in the New World."
The musical evolution McLaughlin speaks of is one of constant change. From flamenco to classical, straightahead jazz to rock, blues to classical Indian music, he changes surroundings frequently, often creating new vocabularies by combining genres. It's not uncommon for McLaughlin to delve into a project for a few years, move onto something completely different, only to revisit a project down the line. For the past few years, his highest profile work has been with the latest incarnation of his legendary East-meets-West group Remember Shakti. Shakti pioneered"world music" a decade before the hackneyed phrase was coined.
The Remember Shakti project began when McLaughlin, tabla player Zakir Hussain and ghatam player T.H. (Vikku) Vinayakram briefly reunited in 1997 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of India's independence. Violinist L. Shankar, the group's other original member, was unavailable, so bansuri master Hariprasad Chaurasia filled his spot. Remember Shakti was softer and more relaxed than the original Shakti. McLaughlin used a hollow body electric with a non-aggressive tone, and Chaurasia's presence resulted in a different sound. The music had intensity, which can be heard on the double-CD Remember Shakti (Verve), but the frenetic displays that made the original famous were absent.
"When Hariprasad plays, you just want to drop everything and listen," Hussam says. "His energy takes you to a whole different plane, like you are up in the Himalayas. You want to focus on the notes and the fluidity of how he goes from one to another to another. If s a different way of working with the music. That was an incredible aspect of playing with John, because even John played differently when he was playing with Hariprasad."
Remember Shakti appeared to be a momentary diversion for McLaughlin, who was devoting his energies in 1997-98 to his jazz-rock group, The Heart of Things. But the reunion reignited his passion for the group, and in 1999 Remember Shakti was back for a world tour. Percussion wizard V. Selvaganesh replaced his father, Vinayakram. Unable to locate Shankar, who was in Africa at the time, McLaughlin and Hussain brought in U. Shrinivas, an unassuming electric mandolin player with other-worldly chops.
"I wanted to play with Shrinivas for a long time," McLaughlin says. "I saw him when he was 12 years old in 1986. I saw this 12-year-old kid playing electric mandolin—not an Indian classical instrument, and it's plugged into a Fender Twin Reverb. That blew my mind, and then he started to play—there was an amazing sentiment. He's a prodigy and he hasn't stopped developing." Selvaganesh and Shrinivas lit fires under the old masters, who in turn cut loose, pulling out some of their own tricks. With the intensity turned up several notches, Mclaughlin's playing has been his most fierce in years. When he duels with Shrinivas or when the two play complex extended passages in unison with amazing precision, audiences are awed.
"Shrinivas has developed a brand new technique of playing that is phenomenal in terms of fluidity of expression," McLaughlin says. "He is not bending strings. The strings are quite rigid on the instrument He does everything in a vertical manner. He's coming out of the Karnatic classical school, but it's very much his own style because he created the style on electric mandolin. And I have my own way, but the sound of the two instruments, I really love to hear them together."
'To be on that same level, day in and day out, you need to have people who will put a pin where you sit and get you going," Hussain says. "Competitiveness makes the band so beautiful to work with, and it's always special, always a challenge."
Remember Shakti toured from 1999-'01, releasing The Believer and the
guest-filled Saturday Night In Bombay. A limited-edition satin and silk box set with the group's three albums, a new CD featuring a 40-minute song and a DVD from the Bombay concert came out in March. On the DVD, Mclaughlin's love for his fellow musicians is quite obvious.
So is his seemingly natural ability to play Indian music, rooted in a spiritual journey that began during the mid '60s. While studying comparative religion, he was drawn to Indian thought, in particular the writings of Ramano Maharshi. That in turn led to an interest in the many different forms of Indian music, which he studied both at Wesleyan University and with sitar legend Ravi Shankar. He also took up the veena, an ancestor of the sitar. Enamored with the instrument's articulation, he worked with luthier Abe Wechter to develop the famous Shakti guitar.
But McLaughlin's fondness for Indian music goes beyond mere technical challenges. "Indian music is not divided like music in the West," he says. "You have religious sentiments and feelings reserved for sacred music. In the West, in general, there is a great deal of compartmentalization in
music, the human sentiment, and the dimensions of the human psyche, too. Indian music is the most total and comprehensive in terms of the human being and the complexity and the variety of human emotions that it incorporates, from the most erotic to the most sublime."
Still, McLaughlin has other projects on his plate. The 'Thieves And Poets" CD will be filled out by four selections with the Time Remembered guitar quintet. He also wants to make a guitar quartet record with Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell.
Yet Indian music keeps coming back to the forefront. Maybe his true musical roots are in India. Or maybe it's just that jazz and Indian classical music are so closely related.
"The rhythm and the percussionists from both are very close," he says. "The groove in Indian music is absolutely essential. That brings the sensuality into the music, which is what jazz is all about. Jazz without sensuality is not jazz. It's got that thing that makes your body move. In addition to stimulating on different intellectual and spiritual levels, it has to come through your body."