"John Mc Laughlin reaffirms his faith in Improvisation"
by Adam Levy
Known for his earnest dedication to jazz ideals,
his fascination with rock-inspired tones and intensity,
and his long courtship with South Indian (or Carnatic)
music, John Mc Laughlin occupies a unique niche in the
jazz guitar continuum. He scored his first major-
league recording credit in 1969, playing on Miles Davis'
seminal 'In A Silent Way'.
Since then, Mc Laughlin has released many groundbreaking
discs: the Mahavishnu Orchestra albums 'The Inner Mounting
Flame' and 'Birds of Fire', the South Indian inspired
'Shakti', his acoustic 'Friday Night in San Francisco'
venture with Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meola, and 'Love,
Devotion and Surrender (a rare pairing with Carlos Santana).
Each disc documents Mc Laughlin's continuing growth as a
composer and improviser.
While Mc Laughlin continues to move forward with his music,
he occasionally retraces his earlier footsteps.
(As he said in the April '96 GP, "Sometimes it's necessary
to bring your past up to date.")
Such is the case with his two latest releases,
The Heart of Things-Live in Paris and The Believer.
Live in Paris features Mc Laughlin's jazz sextet
a slighty more refined edition of his early-'70s
Mahavishnu Orchestra (minus the rock grooves, but
with equally ferocious improvisations). The Be-
liever features his Remember Shakti quartet. Like
McLaughlm's original Shakti ensemble, the new
group is composed of South Indian master mu-
sicians including the brilliant, electric 5-string
mandolinist U. Shrinivas and uses traditional
South Indian ragas and rhythms to fuel jazzy im-
provisations. In the band's modern-day incar-
nation, however, McLaughlin gives his jazz per-
sona more sway, and is less concerned with fol-
lowing traditional Indian forms than with ex-
ploring the joy of improvisation.
Your recent releases Remember Shakti, The
Heart of Things-Live in Paris, and The Believer
have all been live recordings. Why?
It's not that I don't like the studio, but the
benefits of performing for an audience the at-
mosphere and presence they give are very pal-
pable. For improvising groups, the audience is
a participant. And with today's technology, it's
possible to get excellent sound quality and the
added spirit of an audience.
Were The Believer and The Heart of Things
each assembled from several concerts or were they
We recorded two nights for The Heart of
Things and two or three nights for The Believer.
You usually can't make a live record from a sin-
gle night's performance unless you're Miles
Davis. We mortals record multiple nights, pick
the exceptional performances from each, and
assemble them to make a record. That was our
plan, but, as it turned out, we did use single con-
certs for each record. They were just really spe-
Can you tell during a performance that this
show is the one you'll want to release?
Usually, my instincts are pretty reliable. But
the criteria of what's "good" or "bad" is so ar-
bitrary, so personal. Some nights, you may think
you've played like a dog, and then someone
comes backstage and tells you how wonderful
you sounded. That's when you learn the mean-
ing of humility, because you can't call that person
an idiot. You take a deep swallow, say "thanks,"
and move on and wait for your chance to play
again tomorrow night.
Your tones on The Believer are golden. What
guitar did you use?
A Gibson ES-345 with a Johnny Smith pickup
that I installed in place of the neck pickup.
Why the non-standard pickup?
For my taste, the 345's humbucker is good,
but it's too thin in the upper midrange. The
Johnny Smith pickup is richer, with more har-
Other than the pickup, is the ES-345 stock?
It has a scalloped fretboard, which I like for
the South Indian-style music. You have more
touch sensitivity with a scalloped board. I had
this guitar scalloped in 1977, and the idea was
to make the guitar a little bit more like a veena
a South Indian stringed instrument with big
brass frets embedded in beeswax. I wanted to
be able to play veena-like melodic inflections
on the guitar.
Do you play veena?
I took classes from a South Indian veena
master at Wesleyan University in '71. I wasn't
a full-time student I just went there a couple
of times a week, when I wasn't busy touring. I
studied veena for about nine months, but I had
to be honest with myself. I'm not the kind of guy
who has enough talent to master two instru-
ments in this lifetime. A lot of the South Indian-
style string bending and articulation techniques
I use on guitar came from my veena studies. If
you want to hear some amazing veena playing,
check out [Dr. S.] Balachander. Oh, my-he was
too much, in terms of phrasing and articulation.
In Shakti's first incarnation, you played steel-
string acoustic guitar. Why did you choose to play
electric in Remembering Shakti?
As Shakti had been inactive for a while, I
loaned my two Shakti guitars to a friend just so
they would get played. I don't like to see a guitar
go unused. When we started planning the first
Remember Shakti tour in '97, I called him to get
my guitars, but he hadn't taken care of them,
and they were totally destroyed. I was so dis-
heartened. One of them could have been sal-
vaged, but that would have meant totally
rebuilding it, and there wasn't enough time be-
fore our tour.
My 345 was also on loan at the time, so I had
to decide between my two remaining guitars
an Abe Wechter nylon-string acoustic or my
Gibson Johnny Smith archtop. I opted for the
electric over the nylon, because I feel the jazz
spirit is closer to the Carnatic spirit. The Johnny
Smith's tone and vibe made more sense. Later,
I got my 345 back in fine condition and I've
been using it with the group ever since.
Another reason I'm playing electric now is
that I simply don't have the technique to do all
that bending on an acoustic steel-string. I've
been away from that instrument for too many
years. But that's fine with me I like using the
345. It's the perfect counterpart to the electric
mandolin that Shrinivas plays in the group.
As the leader of Remember Shakti and Heart
of Things, is it your job to direct the music?
As a leader in any improvising group, you
can never really control the music. You can
nudge things around. For example, I'll play
something that musically suggests a direction.
But the music may not go where I want it to, or
it may go there three minutes later.
Can you describe your writing process?
In composing, I'm looking for a lost melody
or a lost chord. I look for something that re-
minds me of something I knew before. Even-
tually, I'll play something and think, "That's
what I wanted to hear."
I must go to a special place in my head to
write. It's like a realm analogous to where
philosophers or scientists might go to pick up
ideas that are drifting around. Do you know what
I mean? I don't think anybody really invents any-
thing. Everything has already been created you
just have to go get it. And to get it, you have to
go to the right place. You get there, you hook in,
and bingo. The trick is getting there without bring-
ing too much excess baggage. I try to go there fre-
quently, but I often leave empty handed. [Laughs.]
Then it's, "Okay, I'll try again tomorrow."
Is improvising a similar process for you?
Not really. Improvising is so spontaneous,
so much about the now. It's about the joy of be-
ing with people you love and admire, and com-
municating with them musically. It involves a
totally different dimension of human awareness.
Improvisation can be so many things sad, hu-
morous, even mean.
Well, maybe not exactly, but you can mess
with someone's head, or they can mess with
yours. You might try to lose each other by play-
ing really complicated rhythmic games. One
minute you're skipping hand-in-hand down the
Yellow Brick Road, and then all of a sudden,
something really weird will happen. It's great.
We've all got this mischievous nature. That's
what makes the game really rich.
The other members of Remember Shakti are
classically trained musicians. Do you have to be
faithful to Indian traditions when you're playing
When Shakti first started, I would be very
faithful to the ragas the scales used in Carnatic
music. Now I take more liberties. I find ways to
incorporate blues sounds, and they work very
well in this music. I'll stretch the raga a little bit,
or use a different raga from the one the song's
written in with taste, hopefully. I like to play
something that will provoke the guys in some
way, because they need to be provoked by me,
just as I need to be provoked by them pro-
voked, inspired, and surprised.
One thing I can tell you they don't want
me to play South Indian classical music. What
interests them is that I am a jazzman. They're
looking to build bridges as I am and they're
looking for new influences and new stimuli.
They all play with other Western musicians be-
Is there a quality that follows you when you
shift between your different musical projects?
The only qualities you bring with you are
the love and affection you have for whatever
you do and a respect for the musicians. That's
what puts your feet firmly on the ground and
your mind in the right direction. If you don't
have this, you may as well stay home and forget
MC LAUGHLIN's GEAR
For his two main musical projects, McLaughlin uses Gibson electrics a
Johnny Smith in the Heart of Things, and an ES-345 for Remember Shakti.
Both Gibsons are outfitted with Bigsby vibratos, which McLaughlin uses
discreetly for his signature, phrase-ending sighs. He feeds his guitar
into one of two Sony signal processors: a DPS-V77 or a DPS-M7.
'The Sony boxes have about five million parameters," McLaughlin details,
"so you can tweak things just about any way you like. You can split your
signal to stereo and control each channel separately. You can choose
what kind of chorus you want, and use multiple choruses simultaneously.
I often use three or four at a time. I also use the processors for
autopanning, which I set to a very slow rate between 10 and 20 pans per
minute. The sound moves around the stereo field, so you're never really
sure where the
guitar is coming from. I like that, as opposed to the guitar coming
right up my nose."
For live performances, McLaughlin sends the Sony's stereo outs directly
to the house sound system. There's no guitar amp in his signal chain.