Thanks to One Word members

Klaus Gasteiger and Nick Naffin


Remember Shakti – The Chance To Play With The Greatest Musicians

John McLaughlin

by Alexander Schmitz
Jazz Podium, Germany, November 2000



John McLaughlin's second, just released album with 'Remember Shakti', "The
Believer", was the occasion for the guitarist's quick visit to Hamburg. As
always, the man from Yorkshire proved an easy partner in conversation – a
good, eloquent acquaintance who mentions with pride that he is now married
to a German woman from Pforzheim, is the father of a three-year old boy
enrolled in an international pre-school program in Monaco, and has quit
smoking to boot.
We don't have to fear any whiffs of anti-artistic 'bourgoisie' anytime soon,
though. John McLaughlin, 58, remains what he is: a navigator between the
roots of jazz and the impossible, driven by curiosity and a sense of
surprise.

First we chat a bit, rather 'off the record,' about an unauthorized book
about McLaughlin; his parents, long dead ("I was the fifth child...") . But
then, quickly, to the heart of things – the plane to Nice won't wait, not
even for a musical citizen of the world.

Our intro for the interview: Two new musicians play on the new "Shakti" CD,
U.Shrinivas on mandolin and V.Selvaganesh on kanjira and ghatam. "Maya", the
fourth track, has John playing guitar as if it were an Indian instrument
capable of quartertones – in reality his trusty old Gibson 345, frets
concavely scalloped in the manner of Baroque parlour guitars, allowing
vertical bendings of the special kind. And Shrinivas performs the intro to
"Maya" on an electric solid body mandolin, not made in U.S.A, but in Madras.
"Last year, though, I had to take Shrinivas to a very good pickup
manufacturer in New York." Apparently the Indian had "no idea" why his
instrument made some strange buzzing noises.

Aren't these really two completely different worlds, that of Indian music,
and the music of the hi-tech Western world? No, Shrinivas is rather an
exception, he says, since he plays Indian music on an "absolutely Western"
instrument. "That's what it is about here: that electric mandolin and
electric guitar can communicate so wonderfully... a bit of little brother,
and big brother."

"Lotus Feet", track #3, could be heard first on the first 'Remember Shakti'
with flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, "a phenomenal player with a phenomenal
career. He's over sixty."

After the successful tour around the first 'Remember Shakti' album Zakir
Hussain (tabla) and John wanted to play together again – a song of praise to
the East-West chemistry between the musicians, but "when we couldn't find
out where Shankar was, Zakir suggested Shrinivas, and we instantly knew this
would be a *great* story. And Vikku is on the first, and Selva on the second
album... with the new outfit we had 25 concerts in 1999."

In October 2000 alone there were 19 concerts in France (including two
nights at "La Cigal" in Paris, where the music for the new album was
recorded during two evenings last summer, but only one night's material
ended up being used for the album).
The "Cigal" is a cross of club and concert hall, and the guitarist
appreciates it mostly for its relaxed fashion. "The atmosphere here is a bit
more underground" than those in Germany, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, and
Great Britain.

I want to know how he composes for this kind of formation; are there
notated or otherwise predetermined parts, and are those parts then developed
within the group?


"There are two prior decisions you can't avoid – to decide which rhythmic
circle you want to use; and then, which raga, and finally, which tonality,
because it can be in E or C.
"Then you still need an idea as to how you want to put it all together. You
see what it does for you, take everything apart, look inside, and put it all
back together. Or you simply have an idea for a rhythmic cycle, and starting
from that, you pretty much instantly have a theme as well. It's about what
is it about the music that moves you, or drives you, so: what kind of mood,
which emotions you wish to express."

So there are constants, elements which won't change or can't be changed
while practicing or during recording in the studio?


"Yes, you need ideas for the melody. And once you've got the rhythm cycle
down, you put the melody into that cycle.
"But there's something else, in that I like to create a situation which
accommodates the other musicians, particularly the percussionists; because
in principle this whole thing is a rather jazzy endeavour. Shrinivas and I
play unison most of the time – that's real jazz, even in the traditional
sense. But it can happen that the end of a particular melody or phrase is
followed by a small number of beats, whose tonality is determined by the
last notes of said phrase. And the percussion players know exactly, and
mathematically, the point where they have to pull something out of the hat
that fits into the whole piece. That means, they are intimately involved in
the process of composition. For instance, Zakir, whose tune ("Ma No Pa") on
the new CD, by the way, is a rhythmically unbelievably difficult, might say:
"You play this theme in unison with Shrinivas, then he plays two short
cycles, then there's this short theme again, after which you play two
cycles; and you know, you have to do something of your own, but then repeat
one of the themes to come back into the whole. But I have original pieces on
the CD, on which I don't play on a raga foundation in a strict sense. Two
tunes mix scales, to consciously transcend the boundaries of a piece
oriented on one raga only; and secondly, to give Shrinivas and myself the
opportunity to freely move between those two or three scales within the
melody."

They began rehearsing again in October, "and I have a new piece which
challenges the others quite a bit. The tune gets more and more chromatic,
and moves closer to the jazz world. They'll curse me; I know it. Shrinivas
first of all. I don't know... I feel like, entirely unconsciously, more and
more blues flows from me into the Shakti outfit."

We talk about the CD's title, 'The Believer"' and my impressions on the
last tune, "Finding The Way", in which it seems to me John leads the
cultural approximation more expressive than ever to an accomplished
symbiosis.
No, he says, within the group they don't talk about philosophy or religion,
for "I'm quite familiar with Indian thinking."

"Fusion happens within ourselves." I remind him of his own quote; yes,
that's how it is, and 'world music', this tortured term, for him is "just
marketing" – or is it?


Be that as it may – but him being very personally tied to the Shakti project
is a correct impression, yes?


He says he doesn't really know. "No – I just get the opportunity to play
with the greatest musicians from different cultures. And in India those guys
really are the greatest musicians. I'm just incredibly lucky."

Well, 'on the side' he wrote, one can't help but wonder, a ballet score for
two guitars; he had a tune for solo guitar in the can when the Monte Carlo
Ballet asked him (to do something for them), and he arranged the piece for
two guitars. Then he arranged a few of his "all-time standards" for the
wonderful 'Time Remembered' outfit (with himself, acoustic bass plus a
classical guitar quartet with rather demanding arrangements of admired
pianist, Bill Evans), "My Funny Valentine". The Dolphin", "Stella By
Starlight", and a whole slew of others.
And then he has what he smilingly calls "a bug in his brain", that "weird
idea" of a rather far-out and highly electric album, which shouldn't be as
far out as Pat Metheny's 'Zero Tolerance', but pretty crazy nonetheless.

Is this (Janus-headedness) indecisiveness not very typical of himself –
here, closer than ever, the 'back to the roots," there his "bug in the
brain"?


"No, no, on the 'bug' album I'll just smash everything'; it'll be neither
jazz nor rock, but just something very strange, something I've never done
before. I'll just have to be careful because of my legal obligations,"
McLaughlin says with a smirk, "so I guess I'll have to do it on some pirate
label, I guess my own! But first, in December we'll have this live recording
in Bombay with all the guest musicians Zakir and I will be inviting..."