John McLaughlin first made a name for himself while working with Miles Davis in the late 1960s. Afterward, he formed one of the most influential jazz fusion bands of all time, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and has since released many, many solo albums, all approaching different styles and experimentation. Sea of Tranquility Staff Writer Jordan Blum recently caught up with the guitar icon for this fascinating interview.
SoT: What musicians inspired you to pick up a guitar and how did you learn to play?
John: I'd studied piano for some prior to discovering the guitar, but it was the blues players such as Muddy Waters, Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly that inspired me to play guitar at 11 years old.
SoT: How has your guitar style changed over the years? Are you still learning new things?
John: I believe we are changing constantly, I certainly am, and consequently my music is changing and evolving constantly. Every day I learn something new, and while a day is not much, over a period of 6 months, I can see and hear the change. It starts in the imagination, and then you need to work to close the gap between the imagination and your hands on the guitar.
SoT: How did A Love Supreme inspire the new record? Is it your favorite of his?
John: I feel that my new CD is more of an unconscious expression of the very big event in 1965 which was when I first heard A Love Supreme. My life was changed forever after this recording.
SoT: Have you played the Keswick before? If so, do you like it? Any particularly memories of Philadelphia or its surrounding area?
John: Yes I've played the Keswick before and I like the venue very much. It has it's own atmosphere. I have a long relationship with Philadelphia as I used to play in the area already from the late 1960's. It was here that I met Freddy Freeloader who was made famous on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue recording.
SoT: What can your longtime fans expect from this upcoming Keswick show in terms of the set list?
John: They can expect us to give our absolute best. Also we'll be playing music from today to pieces going back to the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
SoT: You formed the 4th dimension a few years ago and To The One is your first studio recording with them. How did you find the musicians and what makes them special?
John: I partly answered this question in the preceding one. As a group we've been performing for about 8 years now. The only changes have been in the bass chair which is now occupied by Etienne M'Bappe. The fact that we are still playing together after such a period of time is itself a testimony to the players themselves. They are great players and wonderful human beings.
SoT: How does this new record differ from your previous ones? What did the 4th dimension bring?
John: As I said earlier, we change every day, so it's clear that every recording is different. The pieces are all new, and we hadn't recorded for about a year. A lot can happen in a year, and the 4th Dimension is no exception. The group has its own sound and atmosphere. If you listen to my previous CD you'll hear quite a difference.
SoT: Is spirituality still a major aspect of the music and concerts?
John: Spirituality is the major aspect of my life. It permeates my life from every aspect.
Naturally, it permeates my music. However, I will add that I have no spiritual message to make with music. Music is the message. We are all spiritual beings, and we all have to face the great questions of life and death at some point in our lives.
SoT: The Mahavishnu Orchestra helped pioneer jazz rock fusion. Looking back on the days of the original incarnation, how do you feel about the music you guys made? How did the music change with the second line-up?
John: I still feel very good about those bands. The first one was just outstanding, and the second was a natural extension of the first which included strings. The music we made in those days still makes me happy when I listen to it.
SoT: As your music became increasingly more electric in the early 70s, were you consciously attempting to reach a larger rock audience? How do you respond to the jazz purists who thought you'd gone Rock 'n' Roll?
John: I've never consciously tried to reach a bigger audience. Personally, I feel that if we betray the true foundation of music which is being true to yourself, at some point you will betray yourself. That's quite serious. The purists are everywhere. They believe that only they know what the 'real' jazz is. I've seen them at work in Indian music, Flamenco music as well as jazz music. They are always the same. Only they know what's true.........
SoT: How do you feel about the Mahavishnu Project and the idea of recreating great music from decades past for a new generation?
John: It's very flattering to me personally, and Gregg and the band play so well, it's really impressive.
SoT: What artists do you like today? Who is carrying on the torch you helped light (metaphorically speaking)?
John: It's very kind to say that I helped light a torch, but in my opinion, the torch has been lit since music was invented. There are so many fine musicians and human beings in music that I have no worries whatsoever for the future of music. It just gets brighter.
SoT: For you, is the perfect audience a reverently quiet audience or an audience that claps at any time if they're impressed?
John: Since spontaneity is the heart of jazz music, I think we should let the audience act spontaneously also. If they want to clap, fine, if not, that's also fine.
SoT: How long did it take to write the music on To The One?
John: The music for this recording came to me during the summer of last year over a period of about 5 weeks.
SoT: What's next for you and the band?
John: The North American tour which starts in one week.
SoT: How much improvisation is allowed in the live performances?
John: Improvisation is the heart of jazz because it's spontaneous. The pieces are important because they set the mood, but from then on it's improvisation all the way.
SoT: You recently played with your old bandmate, Chick Corea. How would you describe your relationship and that experience?
John: Chick is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We have a personal history that goes back over 40 years. Over that time we've played together many times and it's always a joy for me to play with him. Forming and touring with 5 Peace Band was a real joy and an experience that I'll never forget.
SoT: You're consistently rated as one of the best guitarists of all time. How do you feel about that and what other guitarists would you include in that list?
John: As my life has been dedicated to music in general and the guitar in particular, it's great to know that I can bring something to the guitar. I love this instrument. Of course I admire my contemporaries such as John Scofield, Bill Frisell or Pat Metheny, but there are younger players coming up who are really playing some great guitar: like Jimmy Herring, Eric Macacheck and ........(slide player). Vincente Amigo is one of the great younger flamenco players today, and in India Debashish Battacharya is playing outstanding slide guitar. The list grows...