In late 1968, guitarist John McLaughlin got a call from drummer/composer Tony Williams inviting him to come record with his band in New York the following February. Up to that point, McLaughlin had been in the UK, making most of his living playing in R&B bands. “I would play R&B to survive,” says McLaughlin, “I was doing pop recordings — and some of them were very nice … in the ‘60s.”
He had no idea that within two days of landing in New York City he would be hanging with Miles Davis, and laying down chords that would revolutionize jazz music, decisively leaving a past era behind and giving way to a future of unbridled possibility.
Xpress: So what was that like — making the jump from playing R&B in ’67 to playing on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew a couple of years later? I mean did you have those skills already nascent in you—that kind of exploratory nature?
McLaughlin: Well, I’m still working on it! It’s never ending. It’s endless. I mean, from the beginning I was a jazz musician — I love jazz, are you kidding? I loved Miles. I was already a jazz fan at 13 when I heard Django Reinhardt. But when I heard Miles, and Coltrane … that blew my mind — that was it! I must have been 15 and it just killed me. And that was my school.
Because Tony was playing with Miles, I met Miles the day I arrived in New York, and Miles knew what he was looking for: he was moving … out. I mean you’ve listened to the recordings, and already in ’67, there was a kind of bifurcation—if I can use that word —a splitting up of directions in the group, between Herbie and Tony, and Wayne even, and Miles … and Miles was moving toward the R&B side, the funk side — and I just happened to be there — and when Miles invited me to In a Silent Way that was a bolt from the blue, are you kidding! That was the last thing I expected! From my hero! I mean I’m in the studio and I’m sweating blood! I didn’t know what was going on! Especially because I didn’t have a guitar part for any of the music!
And so we ran down the tune, and it’s a Zawinul tune — a beautiful piece — but Miles didn’t like the way Zawinul wrote it. And so out of the blue he looks at me and says “You. You play it. How do you want to play it? How do you hear it? How do you see it?” And I’m floored! I’m just this new kid on the block from Europe, and all I have is this piano part written out, and then he says this famous anecdote: “Well, play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar.” He was renowned for his cryptic requests. In any event, I threw the chords out. I threw the rhythm out. And Miles was recording from the first note.
Get that! And I didn’t know that, I mean I was in galactic space: My mind was gone. I had no idea what I was doing. And Miles played it back, and I was in shock. It was so beautiful, what he made me do.”
Also in the studio for that pivotal recording of In a Silent Way were jazz titans Chick Corea on keys, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Dave Holland on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and of course, Davis on the trumpet. Not only did this album take the jazz world by storm, but it was the first of many recordings McLaughlin made with Davis, including the 1970 gold record Bitches Brew. ! Since then, McLaughlin has firmly established himself as a guitar legend, consistently going where none have gone before in his rhythmic and modal flexibility, bringing a fresh sound and approach to jazz, rock, Indian and Flamenco, creating genres within genres at every step.
He is renowned for his exploration and incorporation of Indian classical music which can be discerned throughout his style, but most poignantly found in his 1970s bands Mahavishnu Orchestra, a pioneer project of jazz-fusion music, and Shakti, a band comprising McLaughlin and an amalgam of virtuosic Indian classical musicians, including tabla player Zakir Hussain. Other musical milestones include The Guitar Trio, which he spearheaded in the ‘80s with Paco de Lucia and Larry Coryell (who was later replaced by Al Dimeola), and The Free Spirits in the mid-‘90s, with Dennis Chambers, Trilok Gurtu and Joey DeFrancesco.
This Thursday, June 13, McLaughlin makes a stop in Asheville with his current band The 4th Dimension, on a 15-day tour which includes Bonnaroo and a three-night stint at The Blue Note in NYC. It is the first time that McLaughlin has toured the U.S. in three years, and Asheville is one of just eight stops they will be making.
Xpress: For me, one of the things that jazz and Indian music have in common is the ability to express really nuanced emotion. Do you ever feel like you are discovering new emotional states in your music?
McLaughlin: There’s that, of course there’s that. But that’s very much part of the jazz tradition. If you listen to some of the recordings of Miles, or the recordings of Coltrane, you can find the emotions that you speak about; feelings that are expressed that are unique. There are many aspects of the human dimension that are integrated into our music, as there are in Indian music. Particularly since John Coltrane — God bless him — brought the spiritual dimension into jazz music … which really completed it.
But I would also add to that, that what we have in common with Indian music is we have the possibility of an individual-liberating experience, because improvisation is such an integral part of both cultures and both musics. And not only do we have the possibility of this individual experience, but we have the possibility of collective experience in a group, and this is unique, it’s marvelous. Even if the music is kind of complex and sophisticated, the feelings and the emotions that are going through the music — everybody can understand that. They feel it directly with a kind of intuition. We all have this intuition, and music speaks directly to that, and that’s one of the wonderful things about it.
And, of course, these possibilities really belong to jazz music and Indian music, which is why we have so much in common. I mean look at the group Shakti: We began in 1973 and we will do a major European tour this fall. We’re still going strong after 40 years!
With Shakti, as with the 4th Dimension, there’s a very strong awareness of what can happen in music. We’ve dedicated our lives to music because music demands that. You can’t really be too narcissistic with music, it will get to you in the end and kind of say, “Come on, what’s really going on in the depths of your soul?” So what are we really saying? Even in Indian music or in jazz music — even in a spontaneous way — the only thing we can really speak about is our life story. The unspeakable side of our life story. The one that doesn’t translate into words. Because its really just the experiences and the feelings and the emotions that go with music. The experience and the relations that we enjoy with the people around us — the musicians — but even the world at large and even the universe. These are all the relationships that we enjoy with either the smaller or the greater environment and the beings in it.
So what do we speak about? That’s really all that we can speak about. But when you have a kind of complicity between musicians, then we have a greater possibility to get to that point where we can go into the unknown, as it were, into the immediate now … where everything is fresh and magical and wonderful. and so that’s really what we live for.
The current incarnation of the 4th Dimension features Gary Husband on keys, Etienne Mbappe on bass, McLaughlin on guitar and Ranjit Barot on percussion. The 4th Dimension is clearly a testament to the culmination of a career of virtuosity for McLaughlin; offering a fiery amalgam of rhythms and finely tuned harmonies which testify clearly to their diverse provenance. The time signatures are open and undulating and crescendos rise spontaneously and are diffused back into the musical fabric like a river rapid.
“I’m just delighted to get Ranjit,” says McLaughlin of the percussionist. “He’s a Western drummer, but he brings all of that Indian rhythmical side to his playing which is just phenomenal.”
Xpress: I was reading on your website that A Love Supreme was an inspiration for your last album To the One in the sense that that album was for you a similar spiritual venture that A Love Supreme was for Coltrane. With your most recent album Now, Here, This, what kind of spiritual exploration is the 4th Dimension up to?
McLaughlin: The music that we play is all inclusive. It’s based on the same principles as Indian music, in so far as we all want to feel, we all want to hear the depths of the feelings of each individual, and we want to have that individual liberating experience. If someone is listening to a musician having a liberating experience, then that listener too can be liberated. Especially if we can move into a collective experience, where the really profound side of our being becomes an integral part of the music.
And coupled with that, of course, is quite and intense discipline. The restrictions we place on ourselves are significant in so far as that there are very sophisticated harmonic movements sometimes, in addition to complex time signatures. And you would say, “Well why?” And it’s because they all belong in music; 7/4 is as natural as a 4/4, but it has a different mood. And it has a different effect on the mind/body complex.
In addition to that, it’s like, you get a game of tennis, just for example, you got two players playing, and the ball goes out just a millimeter — it’s out! Because those are the rigors of the game. But within the rigors of the game, you can find total freedom. Because if you say it does matter. “It’s out, but it counts” — that doesn’t work, does it?
You have to have the rigor. You have to have the discipline, in which you can find the freedom. And that’s how we feel about what we do. And because we’ve dedicated our lives to it, you can bet your bottom dollar that we feel very strongly about what we do! And those emotions will come through the music, and hopefully the people will enjoy those emotions.
John McLaughlin plays The Orange Peel on Thursday, June 13 at 8 p.m. $28.