A LIFETIME OF DEVOTION

BY JOHN EPHLAND
down beat, May 1991


Jimi Hendrix once said, "Music is like the waves of the ocean. You can't just cut out the perfect wave and take it home with you. It's constantly moving all the time." Jimi serves as a source of iron for many, including British guitarist/composer/bandleader John McLaughlin. Perhaps, it has something to do with Hendrix's approach to music.

 

For the 49-year-old McLaughlin, that's exactly how he's approached his professional career. McLaughlin began in earnest in the late '50s with Big Pete Deuchar and his Professors of Ragtime. Transforming the styles of inspirations Tal Farlow, Django Reinhardt, Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, McLaughlin continued his '60s incubatory experiments with Georgie Fame's Blue Flames, the Graham Bond Organization, and Brian Auger's Trinity. And then there were gigs with, among many others, rockers Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Mick Jagger, and (later) Hendrix, as well as jazzers Tony Oxley, Dave Holland, John Surman, and Karl Berger. Oh yeah, add guitar teacher to his resume with such promising talent as student/future-Led Zeppeliner Jimmy Page. In '68, McLaughlin's first band cut a record, the loose-limbed Extrapolation. Moving to the U.S. in '69, he turned sideman again in Tony Williams' seminal Lifetime band. And, with all due respect to guitar greats John Scofield and Pete Cosey, McLaughlin's stint with Miles ('69-'70) has yet to be equalled in terms of impact, style, and heat. His 1970 sojourn, My Goal's Beyond, set the stage for what has now become primarily an acoustic, "world music" approach.

 

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 point.

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 and warmth.

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 in Shakti.

"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 time.

"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 keyboard pad."

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 of jazz."

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."

The 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.