The electric/acoustic tango
would continue, however: Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti, guitar duos and flamenco trios, the
One Truth Band, an updated Mahavishnu Orchestra, and continual sideman dates, including a
role as house guitarist with leading man Dexter Gordon in the '86 film Round Midnight.
But, with two very important
- and diverse - releases in 1990, "Johnny McLaughlin, electric guitarist"
appears to be headed for extinction. We may be talking about the end of an era in guitar
history. One of music's greatest guitarists appears to have arrived at a distillation
You see, the man looks and
sounds extremely satisfied with his new acoustic arsenal. Advances in guitar technology
appear to have given McLaughlin the best of both worlds: centered around MIDI conventers
and synthesizers, the electric guitar's power, dynamic range, and array of options are now
wedded to his acoustic guitar, an instrument loved for its dexterity and feel, tonalities
Given such a wedding, the
solid-body electric takes on the appearance of a former lover, attractive only to a point.
"I haven't played it in five years," McLaughlin explained. "I don't even
know if I'll play it again....But if I get the urge, I'll pick it up and play it."
"The urge." That's
it in a nutshell. "If I had the appetite, I would have played it again." (Note
the past-tense usage.)
The appetite for any kind of
guitar was interrupted last year, thanks to a near-fatal accident. McLaughlin was doing a
bit of furniture rearranging when a TV set fell on one of his hands. Cancellation of a
major 1990 spring tour has been the only apparent fallout. It did, however, take him two
months before he could touch, let alone play, the guitar. How close a call was it?
"Well, I've got a big
bump here," he said, pointing to his left index finger. "I don't think it's ever
going to go away. But," as if it wasn't delightfully obvious from the previous
evening's performance, "I can play. Fortunately, I missed the bone by a sixteenth of
an inch. I was very lucky."
In case anyone's wondering,
the two key 1990 albums referred to earlier are The Mediterranean, with the London
Symphony Orchestra and duets with longtime associate/keyboardist Katia Labeque; and Live
At The Royal Festival Hall, with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu and electric bassist
Kai Eckardt-Karpeh (see "Reviews Aug. '90). Of the two, it's the Festival Hall
recording with the John McLaughlin Trio that begs comparision with Shakti, a stunning,
"world music" band from the mid-'70s that combined John and his acoustic,
13-string guitar with Indian musicians playing tabla, mridangam, ghatam (all percussion
instruments), and violin. Both bands are vivid examples of East-West syntheses, with the
Trio suggesting elements of McLaughlin's electric, and ferocious, Mahavishnu days. Could
there have been a design to the latest group?
"No, I don't think so.
I didn't set out to look for anything in particular. But," McLaughlin grew
reflective, "it reminds me of a song, a very popular song that Trane [John Coltrane]
recorded: 'My Favorite Things'. We all have our favorite things, and sometimes we even
forget what they are, but they nevertheless stay there in the subconscious."
As with Shakti and its
dazzling tablaist Zakir Hussain, the John McLaughlin Trio is surrounded and driven by
rhythms. In this case, the "chair," since 1988, has been held by percussionist
Trilok Gurtu, an all-purpose drummer who's carved out a solo career alongside gigs with
McLaughlin and the pioneering, world-music band Oregon. To see and hear him perform is
like taking in a one-man, world-of-percussion menagerie. Sitting, squatting, kneeling,
standing, using sticks, brushes, bare hands, and "traps" with the fervor of an
Elvin Jones, tablas with the dignity and precision of a sage Indian classical musician,
and assorted percussion instruments not unlike another master of the genre, Airto. All
this without a thing to sit on. The man must be in tremendous physical condition,
considering the fact that he not only uses all four limbs, but is constantly changing
position to better avail himself of all that surrounds him. Only by seeing (and hearing)
can the viewer believe what is happening. Needless to say, Trilok Gurtu adds an incredible
dimension to the virtuosic playing of John McLaughlin.
And yet, the East-West
parallels with Shakti were nonexistent as far as Gurtu was concerned. "When I asked
Trilok to join me in a musical venture, it was without any thought of Shakti. I love the
way he plays. He has a very interesting concept and approach to time. In a way, he's like
a mirror image of myself, coming from the Orient - because, he's a jazz drummer, he's a
classical, tabla-trained, North Indian classical musician. But, he's a jazz musician more
than an Indian musician. I mean," McLaughlin related, "I had classical training,
but I'm not a classical musician. I don't even pretend to be. I don't even want to be a
classical musician. I'm happy to be the kind of musician I am.
"But here we have
somebody who's grown up in the Far East, in the Orient, who has this remendous love for
jazz music. And the way he plays, too. And of course, since the acoustic guitar is pretty
sensitive to volume, a regular trap kit is really tough, it's really hard to play with
because it's too loud. You start beating on the drums, and my guitar starts shaking like
this [demonstrates with a wave of his hands]."
So, for McLaughlin's
purposes, there is now the virtual meeting of East and West in a percussionist/drummer.
There's also the meeting of the past with the present: Billy Cobham playing "hand in
hand" with Zakir Hussain and a coterie of bangers, tinklers, and special-effects
specialists - so to speak. To the group of casual listeners (to which I inadvertently
assigned myself), therefore, the John McLaughlin Trio appears to revolve around a strong
rhythmic foundation, much like early Shakti. Harmony and melody account for a great deal,
but isn't Gurtu's presence determinative?
"With one extremely
important exception. In fact, I can't agree with you, from my point of view, because the
harmonic movement that goes on in this show is quite complex in some pieces. It may not be
evident because there's no keyboard playing behind me. You don't hear it, but the
construction is there nevertheless; and some of it is quite complex, which never existed
"This became a problem
in Shakti, because I really wanted to contribute more Western music to Shakti. Shakti was
a wonderful group, but as long as I kept going on in the Indian tradition, Northern or
Southern, you revolve around a tonality and you can change a raga or change a scale, but
harmonic movement is definitely a no-no. I would do it, in a kind of spiral movement
around the central tonality, and I would expand on it that way. And I would tell
[violinist L.] Shankar, 'You can put this scale over this, even though it sounds funny.'
Or, I [would try to] put this chord over that tonality, because we have the drone all the
"I wanted to work with
Shankar to develop more incorporation of Western movement, which is really, more or less,
harmonic. Indians know a lot about melody; but harmonically, this is really the Western
contribution to music. But, you know, with people who are already accomplished musicians,
it's really tough to get them to change the way they think.
"The trio is very much
harmonic movement, but you don't hear it, you hear it in a linear way because there's no
And no lush chords. But even
with Shakti, there was... "I had a 13-string guitar for that; but then we had a
violin player, which went great with a guitar. But that's why I like bass guitar even more
than bass, because it's bass guitar. On a bass, you can't play chords; on bass guitar, you
can play chords."
This year marks the 20th
anniversary of the founding of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, with activities of all
kinds taking place. With keyboardist Katia and Marielle Labeque, McLaughlin has produced
(and contributed material to) a new jazz recording, Love Of Colors, due out in July on
Sony Classical. This past February in Paris, McLaughlin performed his second concerto for
guitar and orchestra to standing ocations. Titled Europa, he employed the full-scale,
85-piece Orchestre de Paris. This summer, the John McLaughlin Trio, with new bassist
Dominique Di Piazza, will be on tour throughout North America. Stops will include Seattle,
Vancouver, and JVC/Saratoga.
As with any great musician,
McLaughlin's rich musical past continues to shine through to the present. Recent CD
reissues of classic Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti material include Visions Of The
Emerald Beyond, and Shakti, With John McLaughlin. Other CD reissues will include spring
releases of the "complete" Tony Williams Lifetime, with organist Larry Young and
McLaughlin on Emergency! (the Lifetime material with bassist Jack Bruce awaits CD reissue)
and McLaughlin's leader-date premier, Extrapolation.
From that fertile late '60s,
early '70s period of jazz meets rock, perhaps McLaughlin's most stirring work was with
Tony Williams, and Miles, particularly on Bitches Brew and A Tribute To Jack Johnson. The
music that came from these collaborations gets back to that Hendrixian maxim about music
"moving all the time." "It's true I recorded some records with Miles during
this period. The work I did with Tony Williams and Larry Young, those two years we spent
together ['69-'70] were very important. Tony is a kind of drummer, a kind of musician that
forces you to adopt a different approach, which is necessarily good. I'm a great believer
in that, and I even do that to my musicians.
"We are all creatures
of habit, in a way; some habits are good and some not so good. So, we replace the
not-so-good with the good. But then the good habits, they don't stay good; unless you
rework them, they'll fail you. You have to constantly rework habits, ways of thinking, in
approaches to music, in approaches to playing. And so, I'm a great believer in smashing
those things and being obliged to look for new ways."
As for Miles, "If I had
a hat, if I had a wig, I'd take it off [to Miles], because Miles has played more than a
small part in my musical education, and in a lot of people's musical education. He's a
real master in that sense of working with musicians. You just have to see Miles, and see
how he works. I think it's obvious that my views are really just a reflection on his
constant research. He's never betrayed himself, and, by doing that, never betrayed me as
one of his greatest admirers and listeners.
"And, in spite of the
fact that people might be extremely attached to a certain form, especially the middle and
late '60s form with Wayne [Shorter] and Tony and Herbie [Hancock], he would just break you
apart. I mean, he'll create something extraordinary. But the minute he fears it's not
going the right way - and he doesn't necessarily know where he has to go, he just knows
he's got to go somewhere, because life is like that.
"I don't know what the
next development will be; I have no idea. I don't think Miles does. But he knows what he
likes, and his intuition is impeccable. In fact," McLaughlin stated with utmost
sincerity, "we all have impeccable intuition, if we just listen to it...Miles is
continuing the same tradition he began so many years ago."
What about the current wave
of young neoboppers, for the most part led by brothers Marsalis? Certainly, McLaughlin
said, the original Branford/Wynton band was derivative of mid-'60s Miles. Things have
changed since those relative halcyon days of the early '80s. Maybe for appearance's sake
only. "In spite of all his words, Wynton loves Miles more than anybody in the
world," he declared with complete certainty. "Every time he plays his trumpet. I
mean, I know he's doing more dixieland now. It was always a surprise to me how the music
of Miles - particularly prior to the period when I began with him - was much neglected in
the United States. And so, we have to thank people like Wynton and Branford Marsalis for
bringing that up to a greater level of public awareness....
"You cannot belittle
what Branford's doing, or people like that. Branford's quartet is like the classic
Coltrane quartet, of which there exist very few examples; his is one of the only ones. For
me, it's important, first of all, because he's a wonderful man, a wonderful player; and he
can give great inspiration in that way. And so, it's difficult to just reduce [what they
do] to a carbon copy. We can't really belittle the importance of the classical expression
- It all sounds wonderful, but aren't we talking
about two kinds of musicians here? "Yeah, it's a double-bladed sword. If you think
about it, if you just remove yourself from the situation, you'd be happy not to be bogged
by this - it's like a bog. Bit it's bigger than me ... I don't have a choice, I have to go
with it, that's all. And music is incapable of lying to anybody, especially to musicians.
Only we can lie to ourselves; the music cannot lie.
"So, I trust it
implicitly, and I have faith that I will be going in the right direction, whatever it is.
But," McLaughlin grinned, as if recalling Hendrix, "you know, sometimes I envy
these people who have found this little niche."
John McLaughlin Armoury
John McLaughlin's bridging of
musical worlds can be seen in his ongoing quest for the perfect guitar make-up. His
Abraham Wechter acoustic guitar is equipped with a Fishman hexaphonic transducer capable
of providing a separate output signal for each of the guitar's six strings. Those signals
are sent to his Photon guitar synthesizer (made by PhiTech) via a built-in PhiTech MIDI
connection and forwarded to two book-sized Yamaha TX-7 synthesizers. The signal from a
Fishman Piezo transducer, used to pick up the guitar's acoustic sound, is sent through a
TC digital 31-band equalizer and BSS DPR 901 dynamic equalizer. In addition, McLaughlin
uses two Lexicon reverbs (PCM70 and LXP 1) and a Neumann KM 85 microphone with a Klark
Teknik DN 360, 31-band equalizer. From that length list, McLaughlin is particularly fond
of his TX-7s. "It's a very, very intelligent unit. For example, you can program it so
it responds to notes on the guitar, which means you can call up patches and you can
program different sounds, whatever you want, up to 16 synthesizers. On a given note, on
the fretboard, it will call up a configuration, or a new MIDI cofiguration. Everything's
done from the fingerboard, you don't have to touch the machine. It's very smart.
"Plus, I get to play in unison. I can play with the guitar, one TX7 or two. So, the
melody definitely can carry more weight. From the guitar, I can build up polychords in a
way that's normally only possible on a keyboard. This is very interesting, because the
guitar is there all the time, which is the sound that I love. I can bring an element in at
a moment's notice, and this is very interesting for the trio." He continues to use
the scalloped, scooped-fret guitar fingerboard he made famous while playing Wechters's
drone-stringed acoustic (seven drone strings and six regular strings) with Shakti.
McLaughlin plays D'Addario strings.