John McLaughlin: Zen and the art of guitar-playing

John McLaughlin's new LP was 12 years in the making. Meditation kept him sane, he tells Martin Longley

Thursday 26 February 2004 01:00
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The career of John McLaughlin is full of extreme musical contrasts. When his guitar was electric - as with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Tony Williams's Lifetime - he gave us frenetic runs at awesome speeds, cloaked in murderous feedback. But when he moves to an acoustic guitar, he is one of the most delicately sensitive players, exploring Indian classical music with Shakti, or reinventing flamenco with Paco de Lucia.

The Yorkshire-born McLaughlin flew to New York in 1969; two days later, he was playing with Miles Davis on the sessions for In a Silent Way. McLaughlin stayed in Manhattan for 15 years, but has now lived in Monaco for the past 20. When we meet, his thumbs are encased in sticking plasters. Has he been playing too much vigorous axe, fast and intricately picked? Er, no: he hurt them during a spell of DIY.

McLaughlin recently released Thieves and Poets, an ambitious work for orchestra and improvised guitar that was 12 yearsin the making. McLaughlin considers it a monumental effort. "That was without doubt my magnum opus," he says. "I never worked so hard on a recording."

Improvisation lies at the heart of McLaughlin's playing. "I'm improvising a lot. I'm not a classical player. I don't want to be a classical player. I love to improvise, because things happen that never happen anywhere else."

The standards on the album are all identified with jazz pianists. "I started off as a piano-player," McLaughlin says. "I was 11 when I started guitar. Blues came, and I was blown away by that. And then, in the space of four years, flamenco, jazz and Indian music. By the time I was 16, I was already under the influence." All those are improvising forms, of course.

In the late Sixties, McLaughlin and the Wolverhampton-born bassist Dave Holland shared a flat in London, before both were discovered by Miles Davis. "Can you get more lucky than that, for a European jazz musician? We were sitting in this club, and Miles turned round and said, 'It's time you formed your own band.' This is the most honest man I ever met. Brutally honest."

In 1997, Zakir Hussain was invited to tour by the Asian Music Circuit and given free rein to choose his musicians. The tabla-player met McLaughlin and suggested a Shakti revival. "I'm hooked again," McLaughlin says. "Shakti are phenomenal players. I have a great affection for Indian culture and music. They're delightful people just to be with - there's a wonderful atmosphere in the group."

That wasn't the case with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Between 1980 and 1985, McLaughlin tried to re-form the original band because it had ended in such acrimony. "This really pissed me off, because music's not about that - it's not about your ego. It's about joyful experience or moving experience. We were together only two years. I think we had too much success too quickly. I'd just finished this Love Devotion Surrender tour with [Carlos] Santana. All was not well. Jan [Hammer] and Jerry [Goodman] would not talk to me any more, which was very weird. We went on stage for the first concert and they still weren't talking to me. We had a break and I said, 'I don't care if I'm the worst sonofabitch in the world, but spit it out! I don't want to play with people who don't speak to me.'

But they just turned round and walked out of the room. Next time I saw them I said, 'I don't know what's going on with you, but I don't want to live like this. If you don't want to talk to me, then we'll fold the band and you do what you want, and that'll be the end of that.' They went their own way and formed their own band, but they were soon at each other's throats. Human nature!

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"It was a great band. Jerry came to me some time later and said that he couldn't believe he was responsible for the break-up. He regretted it deeply."

McLaughlin gave up trying to re-form the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. John and Jerry renewed their friendship, but Jan never called. "I must have been a little weird at that time," McLaughlin says. "I was studying meditation with Sri Chinmoy and had a spiritual name. Maybe that got up their noses, I don't know. I didn't ask them to meditate with me, or pray. I don't care, they could have as many girls as they want, do drugs. Everyone's got to live the way they want to."

McLaughlin's spiritual quest is central to him. "I have a profound affection for Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism's particular ways of meditating. This is the way I want to live, because it makes me feel good. I'm an old hippie: I did a lot of acid, a lot of grass, a lot of other things. By the end of the Sixties it was clear to me that to have an altered state of consciousness is very important, for sanity's sake. For my own sanity, let's say. I can only speak for myself. I didn't want to have an altered state of consciousness by ingesting chemicals, or mushrooms, or stuff like that. This became part of my life by the end of the Sixties. I will do it until I'm gone. I'm convinced that it helps me not just mentally, intellectually or spiritually, but physically." He must be right, judging by his trim, youthful appearance.

Shakti will tour again this summer, probably in a double bill with Jeff Beck. "My old comrade-in-arms, another one who's about as deaf as me. Listen, when you put everything up to 11, your ears pay for it eventually..."

The two toured together regularly in the 1970s, and McLaughlin says Beck is his favourite guitarist. "He's looking for new formats, and I identify totally with that. My next record's going to be completely bonkers. I want to go more underground. I think the jazz critics will really crucify me this time."

All McLaughlin's musical incarnations are brought together on a new box set of live recordings made at the Montreux Jazz Festival between 1974 and 1999. McLaughlin hadn't heard that music since it was played. "It was very emotional for me, to hear this music, these bands. I don't have time to listen much to what I do. It was so powerful, very nostalgic."

McLaughlin is also recording a DVD guitar tutorial, documenting the content of his masterclasses. "Teaching is a very strange thing. I believe that all we can do is show how we do what we do, starting with the basics. How to master improvisation, exercises, development of phrases.

"I'm 62 years old. I've got a lot of stuff in my head and I don't know when I'm going to go. Jazz musicians are not known for their longevity. I want to get it down, so people have access to it."

'Thieves and Poets' is out now on Emarcy; Verve is reissuing his 1992 album 'Que Alegria'; and the 17-disc box set 'The John McLaughlin Montreux Concerts', is available through Warner Jazz

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