Over the last three decades John McLaughlin has done more than anybody else in popular jazz and rock music to explore the potential of the guitar, both acoustic and electric. Here he talks to Mark Prendergast about his eclectic career, pioneering use of guitar synthesizers, and the Synclavier.
Over the last three decades John McLaughlin has done more than anybody else in popular jazz and rock music to explore the possibilities of the guitar. Be it acoustic or electric, McLaughlin has followed a zig-zagging line of engaged study, innovation and direct confrontation with the instrument in terms of its basic structure and musical limitations.
Because of his eclectic experience, McLaughlin has admirably held onto the spirit that has informed the work of such greats as Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane. Now in his mid-forties, his eyes burn as bright as ever with the energy of his new music: part of it made up by an acoustic trio featuring Trilok Girtu (drums) and Jeff Berlin (bass), the other involved in his Guitar Concerto For Orchestra which will be touring Britain later this year. Passing through London recently on his way back from the Newcastle Jazz Festival, I had lunch with him in one of his favourite West London restaurants. Over many hours we spoke about his life in music, his spiritual and intellectual interests and, of course, his constant re-creation and use of the guitar.
John McLaughlin was born in 1942 in Yorkshire but moved at the age of seven to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. The youngest of four brothers, he received a hand-me-down guitar when he was 11. Inspired by the records of Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and Robert Johnson, he started to play the blues. By 13 he had switched to flamenco but it was a recording of Miles Davis entitled 'Milestones' that turned him onto jazz at 14, and from there he didn't look back.
"I got locked into the Miles Davis school, not intentionally. It was just that I felt it was the only sound for me. So when I first heard Miles and Coltrane at the end of the '50s, I thought it was a shame that there was no guitar player in the group."
On turning 16 McLaughlin got his first professional job with Big Peter Deuchar and his Professors Of Ragtime as well as his first experience of touring, which brought him to London where he stayed. Odd jobs such as driving a truck, selling caviar and selling musical instruments provided the necessary income to support his late-night jamming sessions.
Soon he was recruited by Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames, The Graham Bond Organisation, and Brian Auger's Trinity to become one of the many featured guitarists in London's surging R'n'B boom. McLaughlin can be heard with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce on one of Bond's earliest known recordings dating from a live gig at the Ricky Tick club in West Hampstead. John comments: "It was not a live album but a bootleg that somebody did on a home tape machine, a Tannoy. I certainly never got paid for it!"
McLaughlin quit the club circuit in 1966 for studio work. Even though the money was coming in, he found it was not for him. So, in 1968 he got a band together with John Surman (saxes), Tony Oxley (drums) and Dave Holland (bass). The latter was to receive a transatlantic call from Miles Davis so Brian Odges was brought in as replacement for the recording of Extrapolation, McLaughlin's first album project. It was described as 'extraordinary' by most and showed him already re-inventing the use of amplified acoustic guitar in order to create a ceaseless flow of original melodies.
His reputation established, it was not long before he too got a call from America, this time from drummer Tony Williams who wanted him to star in a new rhythmic jazz combo, Lifetime. In early 1969 McLaughlin left England for America and since then has not resided in the country of his birth.
"Risk is a very important part of life. I didn't know what was going to happen. It was a big thing to abandon everything, your scene, your livelihood and hope everything is going to work out. Tony had an audition arranged with CBS for himself, Larry Young and me. We didn't get it! But we went out to play clubs like The Jazz Spot and Slugs. What was really interesting was the very first day. Tony had his drums set up in a club in Harlem so that we could rehearse. I arrived and we started to play that afternoon. But that evening Tony was also playing with Miles Davis. My ex-flatmate Dave Holland was also with Miles and we were very close. So that very evening I met Miles, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter... everybody in fact.
"The next day I met Miles again and he asked me to play on In A Silent Way, which was put down quickly in an afternoon. I did one three-hour session and did not realise what was going to happen with the music. The fact that I was in a studio recording with Miles Davis was enough for me! Most of the time I was in Tony's group, Lifetime. When I wasn't working with him I would do some concerts with Miles."
McLaughlin's last LP with Davis was Live-Evil in 1971. The tangential development from In A Silent Way, which was smooth and subtle, to the powerhouse of Live-Evil was bridged by Bitches Brew in 1970, which exploded jazz/rock on the populace and became a half-million seller in its first release year. (Unprecedented in jazz terms.) In retrospect, it was the 1969 In A Silent Way that really innovated the new genre. Here with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, McLaughlin showed how the electric guitar could fit into the cool vision of Miles Davis' trumpet sound. The tracks never topple over into the turgid rock of later experiments but build up hypnotically, layer upon layer, repeating themselves in different formations, gently ebbing and flowing between McLaughlin's shimmering strings and Miles' dignified solos.
McLaughlin was very busy during this period. In 1972 came his third solo album. My Goal's Beyond, which for this writer still stands as his best. The potency of the music was attributed in no small way to McLaughlin's public manifestation of his conversion to the teachings of Sri Chimnoy, a Bengali mystic who re-christened him Mahavishnu.
"That period for me was very fruitful in so far that I was playing with Miles, playing with Tony, and doing records with Wayne Shorter and Miroslav Vitus. It was provoking a lot of things in me from a writing point of view and, in fact, during those first two years I wrote a lot of the early material of the first Mahavishnu Orchestra. I was already planning the Mahavishnu Orchestra and had already been in contact with Billy Cobham and Jerry Goodman."
McLaughlin went out with the group featured on Side Two of My Goal's Beyond and played an extended residency in New York's Gaslight Club. Within months it was electrified with the addition of Jan Hammer (keyboards) and Rick Laird (bass). The two Mahavishnu Orchestra albums The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire established jazz/rock fusion in America as a dominant new hybrid and McLaughlin was seen as its guru. It featured the complexities of acoustic jazz transferred to a piercingly loud arena, with McLaughlin utilising the first of his special guitars, a double-necked Gibson, to produce incredibly raucous sounds that owed nothing to the normal hackneyed heavy blues solos of the era.
"... with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, McLaughlin showed how the electric guitar could fit into the cool vision of Miles Davis' trumpet sound."
"One was a 6-string, the other a 12-string. One of the things I like about guitar is the arpeggios on the 12-string. A lot of people obviously like that sound because you've seen the effect the chorus pedal has had on guitarists; Pat Metheny for example. Now you hear chorus used a lot on guitar and that, in a way, replaced the 12-string because with chorus you can get a similar effect on the 6 string guitar."
In my opinion McLaughlin's best use of this double-necked guitar was on the collaboration with Carlos Santana Love Devotion Surrender in 1973. This was a meeting which defined the players at a certain peak of recorded performance. Santana's famous use of sustain is coupled with McLaughlin's dazzlingly powerful electric breaks that couple fuzz and reverb effects in never ending spirals of quite astounding intensity. The best track of this kind of playing is a practical reinvention of John Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme'.
"I met Carlos when the first Mahavishnu went to California. We had about four or five concerts up and down the West Coast and Carlos came to every one. Of course, seeing him there, I went to talk to him and found him a very charming, humble and engaging person. A couple of months later I had this dream that I had recorded with Santana and the next day I called Clive Davis, who was then President of CBS Records, and I told him what had happened. I told him that I had a very good feeling about it and he said 'Let's do it'. So I phoned Santana and we got together and very quickly found that things just flowed. One reason was that Carlos had also become very spiritually motivated and that he was looking for another level of existence and enlightenment, and when you have that, a lot of the unnecessary things become automatically discarded."
Both McLaughlin and Santana were pictured on the record sleeve with their adopted guru, Sri Chimnoy. It was this spiritual aspect that led to overt criticisms of the collaboration, criticisms that would become more hostile as the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra became more spatial, cosmic and ambitious.
The first group line-up disbanded after a live Central Park recording titled Between Nothingness And Eternity in 1973. In 1974 McLaughlin formed the second Mahavishnu Orchestra with more instrumentalists like Jean Luc-Ponty and a string section added. With the help of the London Symphony Orchestra and Beatles' producer George Martin the album Apocalypse was recorded and was reviewed with distinct disfavour. In '75 came Visions Of The Emerald Beyond, which increased critical opinion that something was amiss. The 1976 release Inner Worlds was recorded in France and again failed to score with the critics. Though the music on all three albums seems to attempt to scale heights of expressiveness while losing much emotion, they do show a positive discovery and use of synthetic sound, particularly the Inner Worlds set where McLaughlin's use of the guitar synthesizer reflected an uncanny grasp of the future of guitar technology. I asked him when exactly he first got involved with guitar synthesizer?
"It was when I met the Emulator people in Santa Cruz, California, as early as 1973. They were experimenting with actual voltage being used to trigger a synthesizer. You see, the electric guitar has a very narrow dynamic range but the acoustic guitar is very wide in this area. I wanted an electric or electronic instrument that had the range of an acoustic guitar. In 1975 I started using the prototype, which was 'elephantine'. It had precisely six mini modules, one for each string, and the whole thing was just a nightmare. But I believed it had a really good future. I used to take this mammoth guitar synthesizer on the road and it was so unwieldy. You must remember that the technology in those days was very primitive, and to even tune it was a 10-minute job. To change the patching was again another 15-minute job. So I said maybe in another 10 years or so we'll have some good technology?"
In 1975 McLaughlin told the guys in Mahavishnu that he would have to continue his musical quest in a different way, and from then on he played acoustic guitar with Shakti.
Shakti was basically an Indian acoustic group that featured Mclaughlin on acoustic guitar with L. Shankar (violin), T.S Vinayakram (vikku), and Zakir Hussain (tablas) augmented with other Indian players. Three fabulously inventive albums were to be released, Shakti (1976), A Handful Of Beauty! 1977) and Natural Elements (1977), where chiefly McLaughlin's sitar-like playing was squared nicely by the raga beats of tabla and the haunting violin of Shankar. For this, McLaughlin utilised a very special instrument.
"I knew Ali Akbar Khan, one of the great Indian instrumentalists. He had a school in California and I admired him enormously. I asked him one day at his house: 'If I were to build a guitar that had some accompanying strings, what would be the minimum number I would need?' And he said 'Seven', and I said 'Fine', and that was the beginning of the prototype Shakti guitar."
Anyone who has ever seen the cover of the first Shakti album will know that it shows a youthful McLaughlin seated in front of an Indian wood carving holding his special guitar. One can clearly see the seven 'sympathetic' strings strung across the sound hole at an angle of about 45 degrees to the main strings. The lower part of the body reveals more than the top so that they can be plucked simultaneously with the others.
"I used an extra fingerpick on my little finger so that I could get the specific sound. I could accompany the violinist but he couldn't accompany me and I needed the accompaniment. I required this harmonic thing with the scale or the raga we were playing in, and that's how it came out. It was a wonderful group and two or three years ago we did a reunion tour of India where Hussain, Shankar and Vinayakram are all well known."
"Studios for me are like big paintings."
This new-found acoustic period was to produce some of the best music of his career. In 1979 a chance meeting with Paco De Lucia, the great Spanish flamenco player, led to a collaboration. This was soon expanded to include the classical influenced Larry Coryell and the threesome performed a special televised concert from the Royal Albert Hall titled 'The Meeting Of The Spirits'. This was wonderful stuff, and although McLaughlin used a standard steel-strung acoustic guitar, his Indian embellishments were unmistakable in the fine mesh of De Lucia's raw chording and Coryell's delicate but fullsome jazz fretwork. The latter had to bow out of a planned tour of Europe and Al Di Meola was recruited. The zenith of this music was captured on a live album, Friday Night In San Francisco. Two tracks in particular, 'Short Tales Of The Black Forest' and 'Guardian Angel', show how fast, dexterous, emotive and encompassing McLaughlin can be in the right circumstances.
"For me, it was a very, very special recording and full of atmosphere. It is impossible to get that feeling in a studio."
In the early 1980s John McLaughlin moved to Europe where he formed The Players, an ensemble which included his classically trained lady-friend Katia Labeque on keyboards and synths, and a host of other musicians on keyboards, synthesizers, acoustic bass, percussion, horns and strings. Recorded in Paris in July 1981, Belo Horizonte was a delicate merging of acoustic guitar and light classical jazz. The setting was electronic but without the rock elements of earlier Mahavishnu.
On the more fusion-oriented Music Spoken Here album in 1982, the Synclavier sampling system was in evidence. McLaughlin formed a special relationship with NED, the Synclavier people, in Vermont and for the next few years would provide them with information to programme into their design computers. McLaughlin debuted the Synclavier II guitar synthesizer on the album Mahavishnu in 1984.
A splendidly worked album, it merged the rich tones of the new instrument with the capable playing abilities of Mitchell Forman (keyboards), Billy Cobham (drums/percussion), Bill Evans (sax/flute), Jonas Hellborn (fretless/electric upright basses) and Danny Gottlieb (drums). On the album McLaughlin's early 1970s fusion experiments were reinvented in terms of the newer technology. Beside the climactic pieces were two atmospheric ballads 'Nostalgia' and 'When Blue Turns Gold'. The latter featured an Indian flute player and a bamboo flute player and had that familiar mystical essence.
"I was one of the first to use the Synclavier. In that instrument you will find an incredible power in the construction of sound. It is a wonderful world that I got involved in. I sort of gravitated towards it. When they were working on the design I would go to the factory in New England and suggest this and that. One can create the most fabulous sounds with real quality. It's an electric guitar but one that is designed most differently. It has a hexaphonic pickup and the signals are processed and transformed by virtue of an interface into digital information which can then control the Synclavier computer. My luthier, Abraham, is building me an acoustic guitar at the moment which has a special pickup made by some friends of mine in Germany that can give it a MIDI output. I think this is most interesting but it won't be ready before August."
The most recent John McLaughlin album is the second with the new Mahavishnu line-up. It is entitled Adventures In Radioland, was recorded in Milan in 1986, released in 1987, and does not feature Billy Cobham. On it McLaughlin plays three types of guitar: a Les Paul Special, the Synclavier controlled by a Mike Pedulla guitar, and an acoustic fashioned by Wechter. The digital guitar is made to sound like everything else and one is left guessing, on hearing the funky up-tempo jazz/rock tunes, where the real trumpet or sax ends and the guitar takes over. McLaughlin views it as the best use of the instrument on record. Since the Synclavier can sample any audible sound and replay it across as many octaves as one sees fit, what does he think of this?
"I'm not a great fan of sampling unless it is really modified. For me, you can never replay the exact sound of a trumpet on the Synclavier. You can never get that 'feeling'. You can replace the sound but never the effort. You can can never replace the physical life of what happens when you play one note on a trumpet, piano, or anything else."
Have you played the Stepp DG1 ?
"I've played all of them - the Photon, the Stepp - but for me it's the Synclavier. It's the feel of it, and it's the quickest. You see, you have to adapt your technique. If you are playing a timbre which is long, you are obliged to adapt because the decays will be too long. With the Synclavier it wasn't difficult because once I heard the sound it was easy. As far as other controllers are concerned, like the GMT6 - the Shadow guitar - I think there are great possibilities there. Recently I was in the R & D department of Yamaha giving their new guitar synthesizer a workout and I think they are going to come up with something too. A lot of things are going to be coming out I think over the next year."
As somebody who has produced his own records, what do you look for in a studio in terms of, say, approach, technology and equipment?
"I don't mind. When I go in there I have sketches but then I will allow for anything to happen. Studios for me are like big paintings. Say I have a big canvas here and I put blue on it, and then I see that maybe yellow should go on top. That for me is the studio. I prefer digital recording but I've recorded all over like in Paris, Switzerland, Italy, New York, London... I don't have a studio at home, just a cassette recorder, a Macintosh computer with music software, and a MIDI piano. This is all in Monaco where I live. I love it down there, it's warm, good for writing and creating."
"If electric and electronic instruments are used without imagination they sound bad. But in truth they are just other instruments. It's what you do with them that's important."
Robert Fripp once said to me that you are an 'acoustic' player. Yet all the electric and synthesizer work you've done would prove the reverse. Are you endorsing all this new electronic technology for the younger generation of guitar players?
"I'm a guitar player, just a guitar player. I've gone through long periods of playing the acoustic but then I get a real kick out of playing electric guitar from time to time. I'm not really an endorser of this equipment. But it is a fascinating world and I'm intrigued by it. I love science, you know - I like astronomy, I like to read about quantum mathematics, things like the Mandlebrot equations on fractals. It's an incredible world out there."
It will be no surprise to anyone that John McLaughlin takes tapes of such people as Stravinsky, Bartok, Coltrane, Miles Davis and even Prince on the road with him. How does he view musicians starting now with the new technology compared with those that started in his era with only acoustic sounds?
"It depends what one feels really deep down. If electric and electronic instruments are used without imagination they sound bad. But in truth they are just other instruments. It's what you do with them that's important. It's not the sound of the instrument itself but what's put into that sound by the musician. My favourite synthesizer player has to be Joe Zawinul (of Weather Report)."
Are you cogniscent of the jazz revival that's happening in London at the moment?
"You mustn't forget that I'm first and foremost a jazz musician, so for me jazz is - to quote the old saying - the rhythm of life, and jazz is always alive for me. It always will be alive, jazz cannot die, it's too powerful."
Did you enjoy being in Tavernier's film 'Round Midnight'?
"Yeah! It was fun doing bebop. I was invited by Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock to a jamming session in Paris. What was so good about that was that the music in the movie was recorded live, completely live, and that's a first."
Did you complete your guitar concerto?
"Yes, oh yes. I've played it about a dozen times already. It's for symphony orchestra, 64 pieces. I've performed it in France, in the United States, in Japan, in Belgium and in Switzerland with different orchestras. I'm going to record it in September with the London Symphony Orchestra for CBS Masterworks."
You are playing London's Royal Festival Hall on June 30th with a new group featuring just you and two instrumentalists Trilok Gurtu and Jeff Berlin. What's all this about?
"It's an acoustic set-up. It's jazz but you will hear R'n'B, Indian and Iberic influences. You are going to hear everything that has happened to me in my career. I hope that the music comes over as a kind of totality. They are two fabulous musicians and for me a trio is special. I've never had a trio before so it's quite a unique situation. Trilok is really a jazz drummer but, of course, he has classical Indian discipline. We can also communicate vocally through the Indian rhythms in a way that is really unique. I would like to record an album together before the end of the year."