JOHN McLAUGHLIN'S DISCIPLINE:
ULTIMATE DEVOTION TO THE INSTRUMENT

By Peter Keepnews

(Reprinted from Guitar World magazine: July 1981)


Once a high-voltage virtuoso, the ever-questing guitar disciple holds no greater sacrament than the playing of the instrument. His fervor about playing is invested in exploring the many possibilites of nylon or steel strings on fretboard. His goal is still beyond.

John McLaughlin is playing nothing but acoustic guitar these days. The man who brought a new dimension to electric music and a new level of electricity of the jazz scene-while giving electric guitarists all over the world a new set of standards to shoot for-has plugged in only once in the past year and a half, for an ill-fated all-star recording session of which he was not the leader. In all his concert appearances (which have included only a handful in the U.S.), he's restricted himself to a nylon-string Ovation. Has the onetime high-voltage wunderkind pulled the plug on himself for good? Absolutely not, McLaughlin insisted in a rare recent interview. It's just that acoustic is the way he's been hearing it lately. But he is sure-just as he was sure the last time he turned off the amplifiers, when he disbanded the ground-breaking Mahavishnu Orchestra and formed the Indian-inflected acoustic unit Shakti-that he'll get back to electric music before long. "There's still so many different things that I want to do, even in electric music," said McLaughlin, who was in New York to join his fellow guitarists Al Di Meola and Paco DeLucia in mixing a live album the three had recorded during their all-acoustic tour a few months earlier. "But the acoustic guitar has an inherent attractiveness that is warm and can be very powerful. Powerful in a different sense. Probably because it's more pure. I think acoustic guitar is more difficult to play. Consequently, it's more of a challenge to be able to articulate with eloquence and elegance, excellence and accuracy, what you really feel. Well, it's difficult on all instruments. But somehow the acoustic guitar places more of a demand." McLaughlin has never been, it hardly needs to be pointed out, just an electric guitarist. But his return to acoustic music has been undertaken with an almost evangelical fervor, after one album and considerable touring at the helm of the One Truth Band, a high-volume quintet that was a somewhat wilder and less dramatic version of the dynamic and original Mahavishnu Orchestra. And it represents a kind of cheerful defiance of the music business tastemakers, especially in the U.S., who "think acoustic guitar automatically means something a little esoteric and non-commercial." "I'm not interested in pleasing everybody. I have to please myself," McLaughlin explained succinctly. "I have to do something I am totally proud of and can live with for the rest of my life." It's not, he was quick to add, that he was ever not proud of his electric music; it's just that he feeis impelled to play acoustic at this point in his life, even if the "stupid hamburger philosophy" of the music business says that's not the best way to make money: "If I can make a record that can make money for the company, then I'm very happy. But I want to give something to people, and unless it's accepted for what it is, the gift is not completed." McLaughlin's distinctive Northern english accent [he was born in Yorkshire in 1942 and lived in New York for many years] is beginning to acquire a soupcon of Gallic lilt, since the guitarist relocated to Paris not long ago. One of the reasons he settled in Europe, he says, is that there is more work for him there, and one of the reasons there is more work for him there is that the acoustic guitar is not "misunderstood" the way it is in America. "In Europe there is not this attitude of 'Will you play electric or will you play acoustic?' They don't care. They're not interested. You just play, that's all. Play whatever you want to play. It's a similar situation in South America, and I think in Japan." "I've worked a lot. I've done a lot of performing in the last year, all on acoustic guitar. I played a lot of festivals. I did a tour of Japan with Paco and Larry Coryell. Paco and Al and I did five concerts in the United States (in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles), and after that I went to Martinique for what was called, translated into English, 'The Crossroads of the Guitars of the World.' I was, shall we say, the jazz representative. The rest of the music was from classical guitarists from South America, from Cuba, from Europe, from America. What's interesting is that the kind of music I'm playing, they were able to accept it immediately into their concept of 'festival'." "But because of what I'm speaking about in America, that is to say the preconceived notion about what is or is not commercially viable, we only did five concerts here. However, we will be coming back to do about thirty concerts, because it was-just as I thought it would be-very commercial." "Last summer I played the Berkeley Festival in California, which I did as a duo with a French guitarist, Christian Escoudé. Herbie [Hancock] was there with Stanley [Clarke] and [Carlosl Santana and everybody. It was the Greek Theater, a very, very big place. We came on with two acoustic guitars and the audience were beautiful. They were wonderful." "And I said then, it's all bullshit. It's a media concept about what people like and don't like: 'They won't like that. This works. Let's give them this.' Because people, when confronted with music, don't care. If the music's happening, that's all there is. If the music's not happening, then it doesn't matter whether it's acoustic or electric or pie in the sky-it's not happening. I was very happy to have that experience, because it justified my faith in the American people." That belief had been tested by what McLaughlin sees as intransigence and small-mindedness on the part of Columbia Records, his label for close to a decade, from which he recently parted to sign with Warner Brothers. "When I re-signed with Columbia in 1978, I made two electric albums [the all-star Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist and the One Truth Band's only album, Electric Dreams]. They knew what I feel about acoustic music, about what a necessity it is for me as a musician to have the liberty to be able to move between the two different forms of music." "Then, two years ago, I did a tour, this was the first time the trio got together, when I first met Paco. When I heard him play, I really wanted to play with him. Then Larry came in and we made the tour as a trio. We were so successful in Europe that we did a second tour right after the first, just in Europe. And on the second tour we recorded a number of concerts, out of which we made a live album. I think it was very beautiful, but we couldn't get anything out of them. I couldn't get them to release it." "Then, more than a year ago, I called CBS. I said, 'I am going into the studio. I am going to make an acoustic album. I will do it in Paris. Be prepared to accept studio bills.' And they then turned around and said, 'No, we are not going to pay for an acoustic album.' So l said, 'Okay,then, it's a breach of contract, an intolerable situation for me.' It took until last December to resolve the situation. Now, happily, I'm out." A spokesman for CBS Records declined to comment on McLaughlin's remarks. McLaughlin's contract with Warner Brothers, he points out with pleasure, "doesn't specify either electric or acoustic music, and that in itself is indicative of the kind of attitude which prevails over there." At the time of this interview, he was preparing to start work on his first album for the label. "I'm very excited," he smiled. "I haven't recorded an album for more than two years, which is nice in a way because it's given me two years of thought." Although most of the details of the album, including the accompanying musicians, had not yet been worked out, McLaughlin was sure of two things: "I will play acoustic guitar, and the fundamental concept of the album is in a sense similar to My Goal's Beyond," the all-acoustic 1968 album that was McLaughlin's U.S. debut on wax as a leader. "There will be a great deal of guitar work-solo, duo, trio-which I will do, with the help of overdubs. For example, there is a piece which is an homage to Bill Evans which I'll do with four guitars. I will also do one duo with Paco DeLucia that I've written for him especially." "There's a piece by Atahualpa Jupanki, an Argentine Indian guitarist, which I'll probably record. I may do a tune by Hermeto Pascoal, the Brazilian composer, called 'Nem Um Talvez' (which Miles Davis recorded on the album Live-Evil, where it was mistakenly credited to Davis). I may do a tune called 'Dolphin' by Luis Eca, who is also from Brazil." "I imagine there'll be between five and seven pieces on side one. Side two will be again with acoustic guitar, but with an ensemble-drums, percussion, bass, keyboards and some horns. I don't know who is going to be on it. I'm not putting a group together. I'm not sure yet whether I'm going to do it in Europe or in America. If I do it in New York, I imagine it will be with New York musicians, which is logical enough. I think I'd like Steve Gadd to play drums-if he's free. I haven't worked with Steve ever. If I do it in Paris, I may use John Surman, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, since we'll be playing for five days in May at a theater there." "I had a meeting with Arif Mardin about the possibility of him doing the arrangements for the ensemble work. Rather than do the arrangements myself, lwould like somebody else's sound. On this album I just want to concentrate purely on the guitar, on the beauty of the guitar in a number of different musical environments." That concert with saxophonist Surman, bassist Holland and drummer DeJohnette is, in McLaughlin's words, "kind of a reunion." It's also a striking reminder of what a vital and eventful period the late sixties and early seventies were for music in general, and for McLaughlin in particular. Holland, Surman and drummer Tony Oxley had all been in a band that McLaughlin briefly led in England, after stints with various rock and r&b bands. Holland left the band in 1968 to join Miles Davis whose highly personal mixture of jazz and rock was just beginning to take shape. When DeJohnette, who was about to replace Tony Williams as Davis' drummer, played Williams a tape of McLaughlin, Holland and him jamming, Williams was impressed. He sent for McLaughlin in 1969 to join the band he was forming, the Tony Williams Lifetime, which took the jazz-rock marriage a step beyond what Davis was doing, and soon the guitarist was in America playing with Williams and recording with Davis, one of his longtime idols. His impact was immediate. Although he sounds somewhat tentative on In A Silent Way, the first Davis album he played on, it's clear he could hold his own with Davis, Wayne Shorter and the other heavyweights on the session. On the next Davis album, Bitches Brew, which might be called the record that put the word "fusion" in the musical dictionary, he plays with far more bite and boldness, although he seems at times to be fighting to be heard above the exotic melange of instrumental textures. It was on Emergency!, the Tony Williams Lifetime's first album, that McLaughlin really showed what he was capable of, as he, Williams and organist Larry Young cooked up a simmering blend of musical ingredients that defied listeners not to reconsider their ideas of what was "jazz" and what was "rock." Eleven years after it was recorded, it still sounds bracingly fresh. So committed was McLaughlin to what Lifetime was doing that, to his own surprise, he turned down an offer to join Davis' band, although he continued to record with him (on Live-Evil, he sounds like a totally integrated member of the Davis ensemble). But he was getting so good that it was obviously just a matter of time before he formed his own band, and nobody was surprised when he did in 1972. But the sound he and the other members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra came up with-marked by a level of volume never before heard in jazz and a level of intensity seldom heard in any form of music, by the innovative use of electronic keyboards, by a unique front line of electric guitar and electric violin and by McLaughlin's stunning, challenging odd-meter compositions-was a surprise. Building upon a foundation that Davis, Williams and others had laid down, McLaughlin opened up the existing musical vocabulary. He also opened up a can of worms; an awful lot of sins have been committed in the name of "fusion" in the intervening years. That's irrelevant to McLaughlin; asked if he thinks of himself as the progenitor of the swarm of fusion players that exploded in the seventies he answered, "No, I don't think of myself in those terms. I have my own exigencies to take care of as a musician and as a human being, which is to grow. In retrospect, people can say I was an influence, but I can only look at it in passing." "When I formed the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, I didn't think of 'fusion music.' I didn't think of anything! It was just the kind of music I wanted to play. That's all, it was the development of a group music. But these days, my individual development as a musician and as a human being is of paramount importance to me." McLaughlin attributes what he considers the acoustic guitar's bad reputation in the U.S. to "rock 'n' roll, and power, and stuff like that," adding, "I myself have done that, worked with very powerful and high-volume groups. But just because that is like that doesn't mean that things have to stay like that." But when asked if he ever regretted having brought so much heavy electric energy to improvised music, his response was quick: "Oh, no! That reminds me of this classic story. This guy came up to Miles and said, 'Why don't you play like you used to play?' And Miles said, 'How did I used to play?' That sums everything up." "It's like a painter. He goes through a certain period. Why does he paint like that? And why does he suddenly emerge from a period and go into another period? The artist doesn't even question it. He just follows his intuition and his instincts and his feeling for what he has to do and the way that he has to say what he's feeling and his ideas." "For me, I don't question it. I didn't question for a second the transition from the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Shakti, which can be construed as quite radical. But if I stopped to think about it-if I start to look at what I do from the viewpoint of somebody else, it's all over for me." As natural a progression as it may have seemed to McLaughlin to break up the Mahavishnu Orchestra and form Shakti in 1975, it did indeed seem like a radical move at the time. Not only was the new group entirely acoustic; its personnel was, except for McLaughlin, entirely Indian. McLaughlin had long been interested in Indian religion and philosophy, but most of his listeners were unprepared for a plunge into Indian music. Actually, contrary to what many deduced or assumed, the music of Shakti was not, strictly speaking, Indian. Rather, it was an amalgam of different influences, with Indian music a significant but not dominant element. Shakti's music, written by McLaughlin (who played an acoustic guitar with raised frets designed to simulate the sound of the sitar) and violinist L. Shankar (who subsequently showed his versatility by plugging in and playing in the One Truth Band), was really just "fusion" from a different direction-and not nearly as inaccessible as many people believed. "Shakti last worked in 1977, but last summer, I did a tour of France with Christian Escoudé, and Shankar and Zakir [Hussain, Shakti's tabla player] opened for us. They played forty-five minutes of Indian clasical music, then we played, then we all played together." Shakti will be reuniting for a tour of India in 1982, McLaughlin said, but he is uncertain whether they will ever perform again in the west. The short-lived One Truth Band, formed in 1978, never quite captured the exhilarating intensity of the Mahavishnu Orchestra-perhaps because the type of music it was playing was no longer so refreshingly new-but it produced some memorable sounds and a fine album before disbanding. McLaughlin hasn't played the electric guitar in public since then, but he has not lost his interest in the technology of the instrument. One of the first to experiment with a guitar synthesizer, he suggested that one reason he's temporarily abandoned the electric guitar is that he's waiting for someone to develop a better synthesizer: "I'm waiting for some good equipment to come out. There's a problem with pitch-to-voltage capability. Keyboard synthesizers don't have that problem. The Prophet and the Oberheim don't store patches, which for performance is absolutely essential. I'm waiting for these problems to be resolved. That would open up tremendous possibilities. But I'm not in a hurry. I'm not impatiently awaiting the arrival of new micro-technology. It can come in its own sweet time. I'm content for now with the acoustic." When McLaughlin is not on the road or in the studio, he maintains a diligent practice schedule-"I get up and I finish my breakfast and I go to work, which can mean anything from the technical aspects of playing to composition to just contemplating the music, and then I have lunch and then I go back to work." And he remains convinced that, in terms of his own music, he has a long way to go: "It's a never-ending thing. I think it's going to be the same in twenty years, but that's life. I cannot stop. I cannot stop and say, 'Okay, this works. Let me do this.' That philosophical concept, I cannot apply to myself, maybe it would be helpful if I could, but I can't. I can't think of it that way. I think there is too much to be done, and the older I get, the less time I have to do it." "Some nights I'm there. Rare nights I'm there, and those nights it's everything I live for. It may not even be all night. It may just be fifteen minutes, ten minutes, five minutes a night. But even it you have thirty seconds, it'll go on for six months. Because in that thirty seconds, or minute, whatever it is, you see everything. You see everything and you know everything. And everything is perfection at that point." "But of course, then that's your yardstick. Everything is measured against that, that experience and that kind of playing that you do at that moment. Anything less than that is just not enough. The first time I experienced it, it was like a self-evident reality. And to get to that is the reason for everything that I've done in my life. All my research, shall we say, into the Indian philosophy or into yoga or being the disciple of an Indian master, was only to develop myself as a human being, to know myself better and to discover ways of being, which is what, ultimately, music is." "At those moments, which have happened on a few occasions during my life, there's no comparison to any other experience. Except maybe incredible sex with someone you are totally in love with. The difference in music is that you can touch a lot of people at the same time. But even if you only touch one, it's enough." "My own philosophy of music is that it can only touch to the extent of where it comes from. From wherever it comes in me, it has the potential to touch that same part in somebody else. This is why it is so important for me to develop myself as a human being. Music is absolutely everything to me. It's given me everything. And so I in return have to give everything I have to it."