John McLaughlin was a 27-year-old, relatively unknown guitarist in 1969 when he arrived in the U.S. from England to join drummer Tony Williams’ Lifetime band with organist Larry Young. His background was broad and without category. He had been brought up by a concert violinist mother to love classical music, flamenco and traditional jazz. He had worked with Brian Auger and Graham Bond as well as jazz and R&B singer-bandleader Georgie Frame. Before leaving, he recorded Extrapolation (with John Surman and Tony Oxley), hailed by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in theThe Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings as “one of the finest jazz records ever made in Europe.” It took his coming to America for that recording to catch on.
Within days of arriving in New York, McLaughlin was recruited by Miles Davis to record what became In A Silent Way and later Bitches Brew. His participation in those projects — Davis titled one of the cuts on Bitches Brew “John McLaughlin” — changed the shape of jazz to come and helped define the fledgling fusion movement as a form not only powered by electricity and virtuosity, but a willingness to embrace a variety of forms and influences. McLaughlin would go on to form the energetically-charged and influential Mahavishnu Orchestra and pursue a host of directions, including flamenco with fellow guitarists Paco de Lucia and Al DiMeola, Middle Eastern with Trilok Gurtu, classically-tinged orchestral fusion with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Indian-influenced with Shakti. His latest recordings, Five Peace Band with Chick Corea (see Corea interview here), and To the One, are a return to the creative and electric power of his early days.
The Rabbit exchanged e-mails with McLaughlin as part of the research for our story “Pop and Sizzle: Plugging Into Jazz Fusion” written for the 2010 Playboy Jazz Festival’s program. Here are the high points of that exchange.
—You’ve explored and developed so many styles of music—no need for me to list them—what has driven you? Why have you been (and continue to be) open to so many styles and genres? Are your broad early influences and experiences—your mother’s classical influence, early exposure to Flamenco, Django, traditional blues, South Indian Temple Music, Miles, work with John Dankworth, Georgie Fame and others–a key? And how does it relate to your own composing?
Truth to tell, I don’t know why I’ve been involved to such a degree in my musical explorations. Most probably it is due to the environment I was subject to from an early age. I believe that we are ‘marked’ in some permanent way by our early influences, particularly when they are dynamic, and the influences you mention above were very dynamic. For example after hearing flamenco music between the age of 13 and 15, I really wanted to be a flamenco guitar player. However finding a flamenco teacher in my little town was impossible, and then shortly afterwards I heard the music of Miles, and the particular LP that I heard had also integrated Miles’ own influences of flamenco and Hispanic music. It was the album Miles Ahead with Gil Evans. From that point Miles became a kind of Guru to me. This was the real Jazz.
How I compose is still a mystery to me. There have only been two instances when I actually sat down to write music, and they were the pieces I wrote for guitar and orchestra. Other than that, the music basically just arrives in my mind. Once I hear it, I really try to stay out of its way and let it be. Of course, the music itself is probably deeply influenced by the experiences stored in my subconscious. These influences relate to all of the different forms you mention above.
–-Can you give a sense of your feelings those first few weeks in 1969 after you arrived in the U.S. to work with Tony Williams and were then asked to join the In A Silent Way . Are there any anecdotes, special memories, say meeting Miles for the very first time, that stand out?
I was in a state of euphoria arriving in New York to join Tony Williams and Larry Young for Lifetime. The fact that I ended up recording with Miles the following day was really out of a dream and totally unexpected. I can never forget meeting Miles for the 1st time. I should remind you that Tony had a week to finish up with Miles at Club Baron in Harlem. This was convenient since Larry and I would go up to Club Baron during the day to rehearse with Tony as his drums were already set up there for Miles.
The 1st night in NY I went up to Club Baron, and Miles knew that Tony had invited a guitar player from the UK to join his own band, and for some reason he recognized me when he came in the door of the club. He looked amazing – as always – wearing a long black cloak, and he walked right up to me and brushed my shoulder with his saying, ‘John’ in that whispery voice of his… That was it. The following day I was with Tony at Miles’ house, and as soon as I walked in Miles came up to me and said ‘bring your guitar to the studio tomorrow’. It was just like that.
The following day in the studio was the Silent Way recording date and all I had was a piano score from Joe Zawinul. Joe didn’t know I would be there since Miles had only invited me the previous evening. After running through the tiltle track from Joe ‘In a Silent Way’, Miles wasn’t happy with the result and turned to me and said ‘Play it alone on the guitar’. Since I had only a piano score I asked him if he wanted the left and right hand together. He said yes, and I said it’ll take me a minute to put it together on guitar. He said ‘Is that a fact!’… Sweat was already running down my back and got worse after that. After a few seconds he must have realized that it was a pretty tall order, and he bailed me out by saying’ Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar’. Another of his famous cryptic statements. He was standing in front of me waiting to see what kind of reaction that would make, and after a few seconds I threw caution to the winds, which meant that I also threw all of Joe’s chords from the piece to the winds. I played the melody in E Major with no harmony no tempo, nothing… Anyway everybody knows the E chord on the guitar even if you don’t know how to play… The red light was on and I just kept on playing. On the playback Miles was delighted. I was dumbfounded. It sounded so beautiful, and that was one of Miles talents – to be able to pull music out of his musicians that they didn’t even know was inside them.
—When you do a project like the Five Peace Band or 4th Dimension, do you have a sense of legacy from those days of Miles and Mahavishnu? Or is it something that stands apart, reflecting the current times? Both? How does the spirit of what you did then affect what you do now?
Both Chick and I are very aware of our histories, and I could ask how can what we do today, stand apart from what we did yesterday? The only reason we can do what we do today is because of all our yesterdays. The time we both spent with Miles was marvellous, but already by 1972 I had the first Mahavishnu Orchestra – incidentally it was Miles who advised me to put a band together in October 1971, and Mahavishnu was the result of that suggestion – Chick put Return to Forever together and we’ve both had a lot of experiences in music since the Miles’ days. That said, during our 5 Peace Band tour together, we were very aware that it was 40 years since we’d first met and played together with Miles. That’s a lot of water under the bridge!