John McLaughlin Interview

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!

Interview With Chick Corea

Pianist,composer and bandleader Chick Corea is one of the jazz genre’s most unique and diverse artists. One of his earliest recordings, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, is a landmark piano trio recording. His stint with Miles Davis, who encouraged him to explore the electric piano, changed the sound of jazz accompaniment. His groundbreaking experiments with Return To Forever, first in a mixed electric-acoustic Latin-Brazilian format and then in pure electric jazz rock, showed a restless ambition.  He challenged the avant garde with Anthony Braxton and Barry Altschul in Circle and performed duets with Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock, Bela Fleck and Hiromi. At one time, he worked with both Acoustic and Elektric bands. In recent years, he’s toured with his bandmate from the Miles Bitches Brew period, guitarist John McLaughlin and synthesized directions with his Freedom Band. In short, there’s no direction or combination of musicians that Corea hasn’t felt a need to explore.

For his feature article in the 2010 Playboy Jazz Festival program, “Pop and Sizzle: Plugging Into Jazz Fusion,” the Rabbit had an email exchange with the always busy Corea about his early Miles experiences, his interest in all kinds of music and how his diverse past affects his equally diverse present. Here’s the complete exchange.

–As Stanley Clarke says in the “Chick Corea” documentary, “Chick has no problems with changing.” 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? Is your father’s influence a key? And how does it relate to your own composing?

I’m often asked about what others consider my diversity of tastes. Actually, the simple, but most truthful and direct answer is, I never think about it. I follow my interests and find that it leads me to trying to understand other cultures and the artists that create within them. Often, rather than seeing another way of music as only a “curiosity”, I want to understand it more intimately – and that leads me to studying the music of and participating with the musicians of that culture.
–When you look back on the period in 1969 when In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew were recorded, how do you view what was going on then? How would you characterize the musical times? Were you aware that what you were doing with Miles would be thought to be so innovative and different? That it reflected the shifting cultural and social  times?

From present time looking back on the 60’s, it seems that there was more agreement and acceptance in society of experiment and change. There certainly was in the arts. If I compare it to what’s happening now, it seems “The Media” and “big business” has the flow of art locked up and tightened down. The public has gotten used to it. The result is, less individuality and thus everything else that goes along with that negative direction.

Of course at the time we were recording In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, none of us were talking about what “impact” it might have on the future. Miles was in a constant mode of search and change; it all seemed perfectly natural. And, for me, still does.

–It would be great to have an anecdote from those days, some unique memory that reflects the spirit of those times. In his biography, Jack Chambers quotes Miles saying that after you first joined the group, you and he would “talk about music until late every night.” Is there anything that stands out from those discussions that you recall? What was the setting?

The first gig the Miles Davis Quintet played after Tony Williams left the band was a week’s engagement at a club in Rochester (Duffy’s Tavern?). Jack DeJohnette joined the band and we just finished the first set. As we were walking off stage, I was following Miles off to the left, he muttered to me: “Change again.” in his familiar cryptic way. I took it to mean that he had scanned his whole musical life in an instant and seen the constant change. Maybe he was resisting it at that moment – – I’ll never know.

–When you did the Five Peace Band Project, did you feel it to be part of a fusion legacy? Or was it something that stood apart, reflecting the current times? Both? How does the spirit of what you did then affect what you do now (ie, The Freedom Band)?

Working with John and the gang in the Five Peace Band felt fresh as a daisy to me. Not much talk about the past during the tours. But there was an unspoken (sometimes spoken) reverence expressed for Miles and “the day” – delivered in a manner not wanting to dwell on the past but with real feeling.
–Fusion can also suggest a combining of personalities, something you’re very familiar with especially considering the wide array of duo performances –Hiromi, Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock, Bela Fleck, Bobby McFerrin, et al—you’ve done over the years. Can you address the dynamic of fusing musical personalities in performance, how it affects those involved and what they create?

Making music with other musicians is an ultimate joy. To be a part of a group creation when there is complete giving amongst the group is my pay for being a musician. And each musician is a unique world unto himself. This is the subtle and high level challenge of communication between free spirits. Unencumbered by any particular protocol, and with a desire to make the other sound the best he can sound, soulful and satisfying music can be made. I’m fortunate to have these kind of associations with my musician friends.

I remember a wonderful incident when Herbie Hancock and I were first beginning to play 2 pianos together. At first we were careful about “not getting in each other’s way”. The playing moved cautiously and slowly. Then we both discovered that we could play whatever we wanted and never get in the other’s way because there was no offering from the other that wasn’t fully accepted and enjoyed. We were both trying to make the other sound good. We had a good laugh over that.

Days of Future Passed

Jazz-fusion, jazz-funk, jazz-rock…we’ve never been quite sure how to define the music that plugged in around 1969 with Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way and burned out some five years later when “jazz” pretty much left the hyphenate and all the other components—the things that hybridized it—began to short-circuit in our ears. Oh, sure, lots of good electric and cross-cultural improvisational music has been recorded in the intervening 35 years. But nothing quite matches the frantic burst of creativity unleashed by the melding of electric instrumentation, rhythmic innovation, cultural assimilation and avant jazz improvisation, all played with amazing speed and dexterity. We’ll never forget the first time we heard Miles Davis’ Live At the Fillmore East or Tony Williams’ Emergency! or John McLaughlin’s My Goals Beyond or Chick Corea’s first Return To Forever recording. Here was music that matched the era’s cultural shift, played at speeds that paced changing times, that embraced global influence, that turned on to the electricity and promise of those psychedelic days. In the parlance then current, we were blown away.

And then it was over. Miles, as documented on Pangaea and Agharta, melted down and disappeared. McLaughlin and Corea, having recruited massive audiences with Mahavishnu and Return To Forever, began to repeat themselves (to the delight of their fans). I can’t tell you what happened to Tony Williams after the release of the excellent Turn It Over (with Cream bassist Jack Bruce), even as he continued to play like no one else. Like the rest of the fusion movement, he seemed to be reaching for something that was never there.

So forgive the Rabbit for getting all nostalgic—and a bit bitter—about those days of once-and-future glory. The mood’s been brought on by the new McLaughlin-Corea project Five Peace Band, which was recorded live at various European concert locations in the fall of 2008. The double album, while not exactly a rehash of those bygone energies, certainly recalls the spirit of that time—dig the word “Peace” in its name–as well as something of what it became.  Much of  it is good, even great, in surprising ways. And some of it–the minority–disappoints in ways that fusion came to disappoint us. A good part of the music is new, and what isn’t—“It’s About That Time,” Joe Zawinul’s “In A Silent Way,” Jackie McLean’s “Dr. Jackle” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”—all traces back to Miles.

So does the core of the band. Corea and McLaughlin both appeared on In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew as did guest keyboardist Herbie Hancock. Saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who provides much of FPB’s (sounds like a florist, eh?) linear excitement, was a member of Davis’ last bands. Though we’ve never been able to confirm Davis’ alleged comment that Garrett played like he was wearing Sonny Stitt’s “dirty shorts,” we can confirm a certain rank tone to his often suggestive play. Rounded out with frequent Corea collaborator Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and bassist Christian McBride, the quintet has definite super band credentials. But that doesn’t mean it always flies.

The first problem here, as with a lot of post-glory-days fusion, is a tendency to riff. The principles aren’t so much guilty of this in their play as they are in their composing. The main offender is Garrett who too often sets up camp when he should be breaking it. Then there’s the drumming. The best fusion drumming brought funk and poly-rhythms to otherwise straight beats. The worst of it just played it straight and Colaiuta, as quick and agile as he is, often falls into this trap. When he’s challenged with less obvious rhythms, he rises to the occasion with color and shading.

The disc opens promisingly enough with McLaughlin’s “Raju,” its theme moving as quickly as a summer thunderstorm with plenty of lightning-like punctuation. As he does throughout the set, Corea tinkers with his electric sound as much as he does with the lines he improvises. Listen to McLaughlin comp behind the keyboardist and you can’t help but recall the fine, unpredictable backup he provided on Bitches Brew. Corea’s “The Disguise” is one of the recording’s better pieces, with the composer’s quirky acoustic piano making something hopeful of the minor-key theme. McLaughlin’s “New Blues, Old Bruise,” is more bruise than blues but his “Senor C.S.” with melancholy suggestions of “My Funny Valentine” in its introduction, takes to soaring like a wide-winged glider once Colaiuta and McBride get it air borne. The tune also features Garrett’s best play and is the disc’s standout piece.

The other standouts are those that look back, both to the fusion era and past. With Hancock on board, the group makes something new out of the Zawinul tune Miles made famous. McBride’s electric bass on “It’s About That Time” is a monument to what the instrument’s become since  Jaco, Stan Clarke and  others  first broke from the ranks. “Dr. Jackle” is played at a much slower tempo than what’s heard on Milestones and with a bit of stride. Corea thoughtfully introduces “Someday My Prince Will Come,” even as McLaughlin anxiously races around the piano as if that day will never come. By the time they break into the familiar theme, the two, unaccompanied by bass and drums, show how well attuned they are to each other. In a sense, the piece represents what the recording is all about: making something new out of something old. Saying this is one of the best fusion recordings of all time is a lie. Saying it’s one of the best in the last 35 years, well, that’s not saying much. But it is. Who should buy it? You know who you are.—Cabbage Rabbit

East Meets West

In his liner notes, producer-arranger Bob Belden calls this meeting of Miles Davis alumni and Indian musicians “a grand gesture at reconciliation between disparate cultures bound together by a universal truth. Music.” That word “reconciliation” is a bit off, since Indian music has influenced everyone from the Beatles to Zappa. Miles himself famously added sitar and tabla to his early 1970s bands, notably when recording On the Corner and Get Up With It (his 1972 recording at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, In Concert, made exceptional use of Khalil Balakrishna’s sitar and Badal Roy’s tabla). Miles’ embrace of Indian music was about more than just instrumentation. His use of modal forms recalled Indian raga forms and the droning sitar strings served the same purpose as Michael Henderson’s resonating bass, providing soloists firm bedrock on which to build their improvs.

Balakrishna isn’t to be found here, but percussionist Roy appears as well as some 15 other Indian artists and nearly a score of Miles’ sidemen, ranging from Jimmy Cobb and Ron Carter to Benny Rietveld and Adam Holzman. Wallace Roney, in a familiar role, is the Miles stand in. What they come up with over two CDs is a mixed bag with more hits than misses. Generally the older material—“All Blues,” “So What”—is less successful. The exception is “Blue In Green” with Roney’s muted trumpet and Shankar Mahadevan’s vocals hovering eerily over Louiz Banks’ piano and Mike Stern’s guitar. Of the later material, “Jean Pierre” strikes the only off note. Without Miles making something of his little ditty, the song remains just that: a ditty.

Everything else ranges from good to excellent. It’s great to hear lesser known tunes like “Ife” and “Great Expectations” from Miles’ electric period covered in this format. Ravi Chary’s sitar solo on “Expectations” stands up to the frontline with an attack that recalls Mahavishnu era John McLaughlin. McLaughlin himself contributes disc two’s final cut, a respectful coda to what was obviously a labor of love. It’s not news that Roney, both in tone and phrasing, can sound like Miles when he wants. Here, he’s especially haunting when muted and a bit more athletic than Miles on “Great Expectations.” He calls up memories of the master in every note, whether working his way slowly into “Spanish Key” from Bitches Brew or adding funky punctuation on the slow version of “Ife.” And how wonderful for those of us who cut our teeth on electric, post-Bitches Brew Miles to hear guitarist Pete Cosey, bassist Henderson, drummers Lenny White and Ndugu Chancler, saxophonists Gary Bartz and Dave Liebman (who takes a turn on Indian flute) and keyboardist Chick Corea playing this music again. The surprise here is the Indian pianist Banks whose work is sharp and distinguished throughout. Then there’s alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa who ignites “Spanish Key” with his fried-in-butter tone. This is not the Indian-electric hybrid that Miles pioneered. It’s richer on the Indian side of the equation, thick with percussion, humming with strings and spiced with voices. The more we listen, the more we like it. Released June, 2008. Recommended.—Cabbage Rabbit