JOHN McLAUGHLIN RARELY SITS STILL—EITHER LITERALLY or figuratively—unless it is to meditate or enjoy a good meal. At the time of this interview the 68-year-old guitarist and his band, the 4th Dimension, were in the midst of playing 24 concerts in 13 European countries, supporting the Coltrane-inspired To the One [Abstract Logix] recorded just a few months earlier. Of course, McLaughlin has been on the move throughout his storied career, from altering jazz history with Tony Williams and Miles Davis and spearheading jazz-fusion with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the ’60s and ’70s, to sharing the Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album with Chick Corea for their Five Peace Band Live album last year.
Backed by keyboardist and drummer Gary Husband, drummer Mark Mondesir, and bassist Etienne Mbappe, McLaughlin inwardly recapitulates his musical and spiritual journey on To the One, a consistently strong album featuring beautiful ensemble interaction, inspired improvisation, and passionate guitar playing. As Miles famously exclaimed, “Go ahead John!”
You have said that Coltrane inspired the music on To the One. Are there musical as well as existential links?
The music arrived in my mind in an unusual way. Firstly, I had no intention of making a recording last year, and second, the relation to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was secondary. The musical ideas came with their own direction as to form—that is they were definitely for the 4th Dimension—and the innate character of the music suggested the atmosphere of A Love Supreme. There was also a third reference to this which came in a dream I had in October of last year, in which the liner notes and track titles came to me as a kind of dictation. I had to get up in the middle of the night and write everything down, and only after seeing the notes in the morning was the degree of impact so noticeable. Also, the track titles themselves told another story, which was that of my own itinerary and endeavors in music and the interior world since1965, which was the time I first heard Coltrane’s record.
There are several references to previous compositions tucked away within the music. To what extent were they conscious?
In any creation of any kind the mind and imagination of the artist functions in both conscious and unconscious ways. The two most obvious references are the melody in “Lost & Found”—which is a theme I wrote in the 1970s, part of which was recorded by Shakti at that time, and that I have wanted to record since then, but have never found the right way—and the second was an allusion to “Lila’s Dance,” recorded in the early ’70s by the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Briefly retrace your spiritual journey, from dropping acid to the Theosophical Society to practicing yoga to Sri Chinmoy and beyond—specifically in terms of your relationship to creativity and playing music.
Since the first three stages you already mentioned, I’ll continue after my five years with Sri Chinmoy. I should clarify one thing at the outset, and that is the spiritual journey began as a separate consideration from my music. From an early age I was blessed or cursed, whichever you prefer, with a profound desire to understand the meaning of existence. The relationship to music came only after fully understanding that however I am in life is how I will be in music. This understanding was due to both A Love Supreme and its musical and spiritual origins, and the discovery of Indian music and its complete integration of the human spirit in all its aspects. The pieces “Lost & Found” and “The Fine Line” refer directly to walking the path. That is, being on the way, hopefully, towards enlightenment, liberation, and freedom—and from time to time falling off the path. This has happened several times during my life, but here I am, still on the way, and hopefully I’ll be on it for the rest of my time here. The spiritual work after my time with Sri Chinmoy was the study and application of meditative techniques to develop interior clarity. The techniques found in Bhakti Yoga and Buddhism in general, and Zen Buddhism in particular, interested me most. There are also wonderful Westerners who have played and continue to play an important role, and they are D.E. Harding, Alan Watts, Karen Armstrong, and Eckhart Tolle.
Is improvisation something you do or something that does you?
Improvisation is the living of the moment—the only one that we truly have. Spontaneity is the essence of jazz music. In spontaneity we are truly ourselves. Notoriously, it takes much time to learn everything only to go to the stage and forget everything and be spontaneous!
When playing with other musicians there’s the “music”—the chords and rhythms and notes—and there’s the music. What’s the difference?
The difference is when the music lives. When the music reflects the richness of the players’ personalities, and the richness of the relations between them as part of a group activity, and as individuals. When the group moves as an entity, the music takes on this entity and becomes rich itself. Without this, the music remains just notes.
Carlos Santana told me that he wished you would get your tone together by just plugging a Les Paul or a Stratocaster into a Marshall or some other tube amp. What does the concept of tone mean to you at this point in your career?
We are constantly evolving, and I believe this affects our perception of tone, which evolves accordingly. I can understand what Carlos says about just plug a Strat or a Les Paul into a Marshall and go. However, the music I play is not the same as Carlos’ music. I had already been influenced by Jimi and Eric Clapton beginning in 1969, with Tony Williams and Miles—but to integrate the kind of guitar sound you’d normally associate with blues or rock into complex and relatively sophisticated music was a special kind of work for me. You can see this in the first Mahavishnu recordings. My music doesn’t stop evolving, and I am continuing to work on my tone. I feel I am getting closer to what I want from the electric guitar.
Have you made any significant changes to your rig during the last year or so?
I’ve been using a Mesa/Boogie V-Twin preamp for a couple of years now, and I’m very happy with it. I also use an MXR Carbon Copy analog delay and an MXR Stereo Chorus. I’m still running Apple Logic Pro on a Mac laptop, with a Roland GI-20 for the MIDI interface. I’m not completely happy with the Roland, but it’s about the best on the market. I’m hoping someone will come out with a real synth guitar interface soon. When I think of the Synclavier guitar synthesizer I played in the ’80s, which was amazing for the time, it appears there really hasn’t been much evolution since then.
Are you still using the ES2 Virtual Analog Synth?
Yes. In fact, the synth guitar tone I used on To the One is basically the same patch that I used on Industrial Zen and Floating Point, though I’ve been tweaking it the whole time. There are quite a number of parameters you can modify. The basics are the envelope— attack, sustain, decay, etc.—and various filters which change the character of the sound. Since I liked the basic sound from the beginning, it was a question of length of note and EQ, coupled with the degree of pitch bend programmed. There is also a panoramic aspect to the sound that makes it move in a subtle way. I like that as it lends a sense of space.
Talk a little bit about your approach to using the vibrato bar.
The vibrato bar allows me to drop the pitch of a note suddenly, which is the main reason I have one. Studying Indian music definitely affected my approach to music in general and improvising in particular—and those sorts of pitch changes are reflective of that. Miles also had a way of dropping the pitch of a note, so that was also no doubt an influence.
The Godin you are playing in a recent video has True Temperament frets and a scalloped fretboard. What’s the story behind that guitar?
My friend Cherian Jubilee had a Godin Freeway modified with True Temperament frets and a half-scalloped fretboard—the space under the first three strings is scalloped— which is a new experience for me. Chords are in tune in every position, but having spent more than 50 years playing regular frets, it’s taking time for me to feel completely comfortable with it. The fretboard, however, is an echo of the scalloped fretboards on the acoustic Shakti guitars I played in the 1970s, which I know well. The scallops prevent the fingertips from touching the board itself, so the strings are suspended in the air, and one can bend them in either direction very easily. Robert Godin also presented me with a guitar as a Christmas present. It’s a blonde Freeway, but without the middle pickup, since that always interfered with my right-hand technique. I’m touring with it at the moment.
What strings and picks are you currently using?
I’ve been using D’Addario XL strings, gauged .010 to .046, for as long as I can remember. And after making my own small picks from pie boxes for 20 years, I’ve been using Jim Dunlop Jazz IIIs, though I roughen up the tops with my Swiss army knife so I can get a better grip.
Is it true that you’ll be playing with Allan Holdsworth on the new Gary Husband album?
I’m hoping so. I already struck out once with Allan for a piece that I wanted to record with him, but since Gary knows him really well, maybe he’s the one who can pull it off.
Is there any possibility that the original four members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra will ever play together again?
It was a dream of mine for decades. I tried to get together a series of charity concerts back in the ’80s, and while there was muted interest from some of the members, one wouldn’t even speak to me. It isn’t meant to be, but at least this way the band will remain as it was in the hearts of a lot of people for some time. Especially mine!