John Mc Laughlin
by Mike Zwerin
He felt like
telling jokes. There was one about an elevator operator with a lewd ending, another about
a nun allowed to speak only two words every five years and the old gag about four
businessmen bragging about their children.
"This is so much more fun than being interviewed," he said, not trying to escape anything. It was just a fact. He was prepared for what the moment had to offer but also capable of affecting that offering in a variety of twists and turns. Although the meter was ticking, other journalists were waiting their turn, it seemed advisable to go with the flow. Let the yarns flow.
Meanwhile, to fill the time constructively, here is some biographical background leading to our subject of the day, his arranging and soloing on a recording of the quietly sensitive music of (and in homage to) the pianist Bill Evans for six acoustic guitars.
McLaughlin's first band, Mahavishnu ("divine compassion, power and justice"), was a name suggested by his guru Sri Chimnoy. It involved meditation, asymmetrical rhythms, complex Indo- European compositional techniques, high-flying improvisation and megabucks. It formed the early contours of instrumental rock. The title of one of his best-selling and most admired recordings is "The Inner Mounting Flame." You could see it continuing to burn today.
"I've always wanted to stretch the envelope. I like that expression," he said in response to a question about his Bill Evans tribute, "Time Remembered" (Polygram). "My record company wasn't too happy about it. 'I'll assume responsibility,' I told them. 'If it doesn't work, that's my problem.' I love Bill's music so much, it was just something I had to do even if it made no commercial sense. It took me six months to write those arrangements."
Something similar happened when he formed Shakti ("creative intelligence, beauty and power"), which had energy, interplay and virtuosity like Mahavishnu but with more subtlety and much less volume. He laughed remembering it: "Talking about stretching the envelope, Mahavishnu had all this electric energy, we were at the top of the charts, selling like crazy. You take this form that's working so well commercially and managers, promoters and record company people are not going to be very happy when you follow it with an acoustic band with three Indians in it."
He had been going back and forth between electric and acoustic formations ever since, in search of new envelopes to stretch rather than from lack of direction. He lived in New York, Paris, and then Monaco. At the age of 51, he looked like a winner on the professional senior tennis circuit, capable of winning tough three-set matches. It is astonishing how the making of honest music invigorates. It jogs the mind as well as the body. His recent association with the master Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu and his eagerness to take risks like dedicating six months of his life to non-commercial music for the love of it could not help but keep the flame lit.
He found a well-known working quartet of classical guitarists "just down the road from me" in the south of France (The Aighetta Quartet). Call it luck if you will, in the '60s it would have been called "good vibes." He would have preferred jazz guitarists but the Aighetta were both virtuosi and nearby (his student Yan Maresz played bass guitar). The guitar is a romantic instrument. Bill Evans was a romantic pianist. But the transposition from keys to strings was not evident. The Aighetta Quartet had never heard of Bill Evans.
Swing and articulation were problems. He switched voicings and octaves, changed tempi. What do you treat as a background? As a tutti? Transitions had to be fashioned, passages recast from scratch. He kept asking himself how he got into this mess. But he never doubted he could write and play his way out of it.
At the end he arrived at a "certain sobriety, even austerity, which was typical of Bill." There were a lot of criteria to observe involving spirit, lyricism and, most of all, economy: "I wanted to keep from being garrulous. You can hear Bill's enormous French Impressionist influence - Satie and Ravel particularly. He was romantic but he had this economy which fit the guitar so well. The album is dedicated to the guitar as well as Bill Evans."
At the same time he had been working whenever possible with his jazz organ trio, with Joey DeFrancesco and Dennis Chambers, which he described as "classical." This meant the Jimmy Smith/Larry Young sort of classic Hammond organ funk. Although he prefers the acoustic guitar to the rough edges of distorting amplifiers, he never hesitated to go electric when required. Notably, he did it for Miles Davis, who called him in 1984 to play on his comeback album "You're Under Arrest." "I'd do anything for Miles," he said. "Miles would call me and say: 'Come to the studio. Don't bring a guitar. We've got one for you.' And there would be this weird instrument, sky-blue, acrylic, with a fretboard reaching halfway to the ceiling." Miles preferred to break envelopes rather than stretch them.
McLaughlin sometimes wondered if he was stretching enough. He once made an album called "My Goal's Beyond." He would like to go as far beyond as Miles or Coltrane - beyond existing elements - but he wondered if he was limited by his love of structure. He loved Picasso, Degas, Bach, Debussy... Bill Evans. He wondered "why people have such preferences one way or another. Why does someone play the tuba and another the piccolo. I don't think I'd ever be able to abandon harmonic or rhythmic structure entirely."
Working with the Bill Evans album, he kept asking himself: "Why?" The original already sounded so wonderful. What could he possibly add? Transposing four part piano chords to four guitars was possibly irrelevant and maybe biting off more than he could chew to boot. "But," he concluded: "I gave it my best shot. That's all you can do."
He looked over at the growing group of journalists and photographers awaiting their turn, smiled mischievously and said: "Did you ever hear the joke about he guy who...?"