By Jim Schaffer
(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: June 6,
Mahavishnu John McLaughlin is a unique musician and man. His guitar playing has been
called both conventional and unconventional by critics, but his sound has had a profound
influence on today's musical scene, having been amplified by his associations with Miles
Davis, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Jack Bruce, Brian Auger, Chick Corea and Carlos
Santana. His playing has also brought recognition from our readers, who voted him
Guitarist of the Year in the past two db polls. For the last three years, of course,
McLaughlin was the spiritual and musical leader of the 5-man Mahavishnu Orchestra, which
broke up at the end of 1973. McLaughlin has formed a new Mahavishnu Orchestra of 11
members, including the violinist who has won db's Critics and Readers Polls since 1969,
Jean-Luc Ponty. Also on violins are 18-year old Stephen Kindler and Carol Shive, who has
worked with the Hawaii and New Jersey Symphonies; the string section is rounded out by
Marsha Westbrook on viola and cellist Phil Hirschi. The new band also includes two
trumpeter-fluegel hornists; 19-year old Lionel Hampton sideman Steve Frankovich; and Bob
Knapp, who triples on flute. The new Orchestra's rhythm section shapes up with lead
vocalist and keyboardist Gayle Moran. On fretless electric and upright basses is 17-years
old Ralphe Armstrong, and completing the section is drummer Michael Walden, who McLaughlin
says "is definitely going to be way up there with the top drummers within a year or
two." With a new band and a new album soon to be released, it seemed only fitting to
start the interview at that point. I asked John if the album's personnel is the same as
the new Mahavishnu Orchestra.
McLaughlin: Part of it, yes. There are eight people on the album, and the other three
arrived after we recorded it, and we've been rehearsing ever since with all 11. I hope
people enjoy it as much as I do. I think they will. I think it's really the beginning of a
A few of us have vocals on the new album. I like voices, and I've wanted to use them for a
long time; I wanted to use voices in the old Orchestra. I've been singing spiritual songs
with my wife. Not that I have a good voice, but everyone has a voice; everyone can sing,
really. God's given us all a voice to sing, so we might as well use it. The voice, in
fact, is the first instrument.
Schaffer: Do you think the new
Orchestra will be more classical?
McLaughlin: Well, there's more composition, but for me, it's definitely more balanced.
Schaffer: In the voicing aspect?
McLaughlin: Just between composition and improvisation. Like on the new album, you'll hear
the London Symphony Orchestra with Michael Tilson Thomas, who is an ace conductor. There's
a guy I'm really happy to work with because he's had a total classical background, but he
likes Martha and The Vandellas as much as he likes any of the principal Western composers.
That is to say, he doesn't see any barriers in music, basically, which I don't either. The
barriers in music only exist due to the musicians having the barriers within themselves,
having been dragged into the definition game. But when they feel that this definition
problem isn't really what music is about, then what happens is you get just Music, and
it's all-embracing. And that's what I feel this album will reflect, as well as the group.
It's an expansion. With the old Orchestra, there were set limitations; we could only go so
Schaffer: This was because of the
limitations of the people, or the number of people?
McLaughlin: Well, for example, I wanted to get into symphonic things last year. For some
time, actually; I've thought about this for several years. But to do that, you need
complete cooperation, and it wasn't there. Actually, I myself need to expand and be more
embracing with different people, different musicians. And I'm really happy that now I can
do this. As I said, it's like the birth of a new era. But before a new era can be born,
the old one's got to fall away. Otherwise there's no room for the new to emerge and grow.
I think definitely this form will give way to a better, more perfect form, and more
universal, too, I hope.
Schaffer: It's like expanding the
stretched-out energies of the old Orchestra.
McLaughlin: We're all stretch bands. The flower has to grow; the universe has to expand.
We all obey the same incredible law: either you grow or you die, actually. You cannot be
static. There's nothing static in the universe; it's evolving, so you might as well
harmonize with this process, with this law. And I'm really glad it's like it is, because
it continually opens up greater possibilities and opportunities.
Schaffer: Did you approach Michael
Tilson Thomas about conducting the symphony?
McLaughlin: The idea was thrown around quite a few months ago, and I liked the idea very
much. In fact, it was at the Masterworks department of Columbia Records that we spoke and
then I went to Boston, where he is the secondary conductor. (He's the principal conductor
in Buffalo.) We had a nice talk, and it was set from there.
What happened was that a few months later he had a benefit concert with the Buffalo
Symphony planned. The guest artist was Isaac Stern. A few days before, Isaac pulled out
for one reason or another, so Michael said, "Why don't we play one selection with the
group and the Buffalo Symphony?" Of course this really appealed to me. It was amazing
how we just got this piece together; it was quite a long piece. It's on the the album and
it's called "Hymn To Him."
Anyway, the whole thing was a great experience. We learned a great deal, and then we went
over to London in the first week of March and I had George Martin produce the album; we
had the same engineer who did Sergeant Pepper for the Beatles and stuff like that. So we
have a beautiful sound on the album, and finally got this thing done with the London
Synphony, and altogether it was an amazing experience: very enlightening, invaluable in
many ways. Michael and I plan to do some more work together, possibly with other
orchestras throughout the world, because we have the scores now for the group and for the
symphony. And I'll be starting work on some new pieces. I want to do a live concert at the
end of this year with Michael and, hopefully, the New York Philharmonic. There's an
enormous amount of possibilities opening up.
Schaffer: Do you think the audiences
are becoming more aware?
McLaughlin: I think that's inevitable.
Schaffer: You mean, bringing the
audiences along with you.
McLaughlin: I never underestimate audiences. I actually feel the audiences have got the
capacity to appeciate anything that's good, whatever the promo men say. It's my sole
conviction that the listening audience is totally underrated and patronized by music
business people who project their own limitations on the general listening public. Let's
just say the music business could be more adventurous with young musicians who have got
something to offer in a new way; let's notice that.
And I think it's changing because ultimately, talent will win out, and if you have
something to say, sooner or later you are going to get the opportunity. Only it's still
tough. It's like the old band, when people said, "You'll never make it. No
vocals," and all this nonsense. But people are ready for anything that's real. If the
musician feels and believes in what he's doing, then the audience is going to respond.
This is an unshakable faith that I have. And I feel that it's my duty to the listeners to
perfect myself and expand and grow as much as possible so they can have a better
experience when they listen.
Schaffer: That sounds like the only
way to go.
McLaughlin: For me it is, Jim. I cannot see any other way. It's either regression or
progression. You can't stay in the middle.
Schaffer: Have you related your new
sound to what the Orchestra was doing before? With Jan (Hammer), Billy (Cobham), Rick
(Laird) and Jerry (Goodman)? Is the sound similar?
McLaughlin: No, I wouldn't say it is. It's different because even if we had the same
lineup with different people, we'd be bound to have a different sound, different concept.
It comes from people, really. We had a concept, and it was developed almost to the
ultimate point, a point from where it couldn't go any further.
But besides that, we have different instrumentation, too. It's different, but because it's
so personal to me, it's hard to make comparisons. You'd be able to make a much more
objective comparison, really.
Schaffer: Are you doing all of the
writing for the new band?
McLaughlin: I have done it all for the first album, but I expect there will be writing
coming from our drummer, Michael Walden, who is a very talented writer.
Schaffer: How about Jean-Luc?
McLaughlin: Possibly. Jean-Luc is currently involved in his own thing at the same time as
he is in my band, but I have invited him to author any piece that he wants to for
consideration. He's making his own album, so it's quite possible that he himself is using
the material he's written for me.
You see, this new band is actually more flexible; the old band was too rigid, in a way, in
that it was a static group. For example, let's take the Beatles. They were a group, but
they recorded with other musicians, all kinds of musicians. Now, last year I wanted to
record a symphonic album, but it was completely denied me by the group. I thought this was
a pity because we could have done something really significant. Now the situation is much
looser. For me, it's necessary to be loose, to allow different influences to come in
because we can all benefit from them. And this is exactly what's happening now. I'm really
happy about the way it's progressing.
Schaffer: Some of my guitar-playing
friends have seen you live and heard your albums and are wondering how you got that fast.
McLaughlin: If you hear it clearly, then surely it's going to come out. In fact, that's
really what it is necessary for musicians to do. Music is born out of the inner sounds
within a soul; all the music that was ever heard came from the inner silence in every
musician. The musician has to hear it first, and if you cultivate the art of listening,
then sooner or later you're bound to be able to execute it. Playing fast is just relative.
There are feelings that I need to articulate accurately. There are all kinds of
techniques. But the technical competence is only to accurately express these things that
you have inside.
Schaffer: What type of technical
things have you practiced?
McLaughlin: For any instrument, scales are the key to unlocking the instrument- modes,
ragas, whatever-your knowledge and execution of them. That is the key. From there on, it's
up to your imagination, your feeling, your concepts, your taste. We're painters of sound
in the fourth dimension, which is time also. In music, you have all these colors. You have
dissonance, consonance, soft dissonance, hard dissonance, soft consonance, hard
consonance. You've got different tempos. You've got intervallic tension. You've got so
many things, and these are, in a way, colors. It's like a painter's palette that every
musician uses according to the way he feels at that moment, according to his taste and
discretion, in the sense of aesthetics, beauty and harmony, and all the rest of it.
The difference between a painter and a musician is that the musician has to learn to
translate the feelings into sound colors. The musician has an arsenal of colors. The
musician has his aspiration, which will take him beyond colors to the realm of the pure
spirit. That's what's really wonderful about music, which is like a synthesis of all the
colors. It's just like the pure spirit, and obviously my ideal in music is to reach that.
But to do that, you need to understand music in relation to feelings, art and aesthetics
and stuff like that.
Schaffer: How does a young musician
McLaughlin: Work-with a capital "W."
Schaffer: Going to school?
McLaughlin: Sure, that's part of it. It's learning from teachers, from different cultures.
There's so much music on earth, and yet there's so much music that people aren't aware of.
And that's something that I hope to be actively involved with in the near future. Bringing
some of this music that people aren't aware of to their notice, music which is really, in
my opinion, some of the most sublime, supreme music. But they should be aware of the music
of different cultures and aware of great artists in their own country, great classical
musicians, be aware of the folk musician in Bulgaria as much as they are aware of the rock
musician in Chicago. It's all equally valid. A young musician has to be completely open to
the high impulses of the greater musicians. It's just through aspiring and desire.
Schaffer: That would stop the
McLaughlin: That's when you start regressing, I think.
Schaffer: That's when you put down
McLaughlin: If you don't, then your music starts going downhill fast. The thing to realize
is that it's actually only the beginning. There is always so much to learn. For me, this
is daily truth. I've always so far to go, but I'm delighted that it's like that, because
it's by living truth that life constantly expands and grows as the music does and as the
spirit does. We've always got an opportunity to grow and become better, and I think this
is incredibly beautiful. But to the young musician: Work and Practice.
Schaffer: Do you think certain types
of breathing help your playing?
McLaughlin: Yes, if you're talking about Talli Yama, Hatha Yoga. If musicians care to
start developing themselves as well as their musical faculty, bringing their body in tune,
then that can do nothing but good, nothing but bring more harmony into their music. This
is because when you start bringing harmony into your life-Talli Yama is a form of
order-just doing this will automatically, whether you notice it or not, start imposing
more and more order in your outer life and consequently the inner life, the deeper life,
which is total harmony. The two will start growing closer together. It is a long process
but if you start talking about the goal of Hatha Yoga, that's spiritual perfection.
Hatha Yoga is only a goal insofar as it perfects the body to the extent where one can
meditate, or sit in one position, or be in a particular pose and transcend the human
consciousness. This is the ideal of Hatha Yoga. And the spiritual ideal, for me, is to
transcend the human consciousness and become aware of the divine consciousness. That's my
goal: to become aware of what I am and who I am and then ultimately to reveal this in
music. When this happens, the musicians who do this will give the listener a better
experience because it will be deeper. You get to the point where, at its deepest, the
listener will experience his own divinity.
This is my ideal. As a matter of fact, it's my duty. What am I a musician for? I am not a
musician for musicians. I am a musician for people who are not musicians, just as painters
allow people to see through different eyes, their eyes. Likewise, musicians allow others
to experience what the musician experiences, and consequently, we both grow. After all,
what is my music worth with no one to listen to it? It's worthless. It's essential that
people listen. Hopefully, their experience can be improved by listening to it.
Schaffer: That's definitely what I've
picked up from audiences getting into the Orchestra, and also the couple of concerts you
did with Santana, using acoustic instruments. You've worked up a very genuine approach to
McLaughlin: This has made me very happy because people have responded to it. One never
knows. You go on faith; that's all there is, just faith. We go out there and we start
playing acoustic guitars, and the audience is used to big amps, electric guitars, drums.
But it's beautiful. That's why I've got so much faith in people. They are ready for
anything that is real. Whether you're expressing joy and delight on acoustic or electric
guitar doesn't matter to them.
I'm really convinced that all music is magnetic, but what people need to feel is what's
inside the music, what the music embodies. And people responded in Chicago, in San
Francisco, in New York; there was just a phenomenal response. This consolidates my faith,
my feeling that it's the music, but it's also the content, that people actually come to
the concerts to feel.
Schaffer: Does that mean that hearing
is only part of it?
McLaughlin: Right! Whatever is going on on-stage, they feel that, and they'll be more or
less fulfilled by it.
Schaffer: A lot of your image is the
calm that you project, and I think that even with the high energy of the old Mahavishnu
Orchestra, that calm was always there, and it was really a nice thing to pick up on.
McLaughlin: I hope so. Hopefully, in the translation of experiences, there is this
overriding calm and peace, and love, too. I hope we can see through it and beyond it. It's
just an incredible, fantastic play, this whole world, and we're all playing in it. Every
one of us is acting. We have to act because we're in the body and we've got to function in
the world. There's no avoiding it; it's just an incredible play, and music can reflect
this play, and beyond the play itself.
And that's really good, because then you feel the unity behind everything. Life is one
harmony; there is one harmony behind all of this incredible world, the millions of people
in cities, cars, the whole mish-mash. Behind it all there's one incredible, divine, loving
Will. That's what I aspire to realize and reveal and manifest.
Music is spiritual language, so if musicians start cultivating the spirit, they can do
nothing but enhance and develop and understand the mystery of music and be able to express
themselves in it more accurately. And if they start meditating, they can do nothing but
good. How many politicians meditate? Do you think they'd be like they are? Meditation's
the most beautiful, most natural thing.
Schaffer: It's like you're not
looking at things; you're seeing things.
McLaughlin: Right, exactly. Right on the nail, Jim. It's not just musicians. You have to
harmonize with other people. We're all playing, and if we can play more beautifully, more
harmonically, it makes life so much easier.
Schaffer: Is there anything else
you'd like to rap about?
McLaughlin: I think we've just about covered it really. I'd like to talk to you in maybe a
few months about some other aspects I'm involved in that are still in the nebulous stage,
so I can't really say anything at this moment.
Schaffer: That's what it's all
about-communication and making sure that it gets out to the people. The magazine's role is
to allow people to see you in print, outside of what they see in a concert atmosphere.
McLaughlin: Right. For me, the playing doesn't stop just because I put my guitar down. And
if we sang this interview to each other, or started doing it in poetry, that's where it's
really at. When we talk to each other, we talk from the heart or from the soul, from that
beauty. I like to do it in words, too. It's all music. I'm talking to you. It's all sound.
But what drives the sound? What forms the sound in the first place? What transforms these
sounds into something coherent, cogent and intelligent? It's the spirit itself; it's your
spirit, whether it's sound, or whether you're walking across the room, which is dancing.
It just depends on whether you're conscious of the beauty. It's the art of being, the art
of playing, the art of reciting; that's basically what it comes down to.