John McLaughlin on Fusion, 'Black Light,' and His Disdain for Smooth Jazz

Talking to John McLaughlin, you’re frequently reminded that he is a global citizen throughout.
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Talking to John McLaughlin, you’re frequently reminded that he is a global citizen throughout. His British charm is immediately evident in conversation, and his years of living in New York and touring in the U.S. have left a distinct imprint on his understanding of American music and culture. What’s more, his devotion to Indian music, fascination with flamenco, and the fact that he’s lived in France for many years pop up to underscore points he’s making. Fluent in several languages—both verbal and musical—McLaughlin is clearly a master communicator. And, as with all great communicators, being a good listener and a team player is in McLaughlin’s DNA. At the same time, while it would be easy to point to the stylistic range of McLaughlin’s output over the past five decades, it’s more accurate to realize that he is an example of an artist who had the confidence and focus to develop a unique voice early in his career, and to allow his musical curiosity to guide him in applying his singular character into a wide range of contexts.

McLaughlin recorded his solo debut, Extrapolation, in 1969 (though it wasn’t released in the states until 1972), but he primarily came to prominence by playing on a trio of remarkable albums, all produced that same year: Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, the Tony Williams Lifetime’s Emergency, and Wayne Shorter’s Super Nova—not a bad set of launch pads for a 27-year-old jazz guitarist. But it was McLaughlin’s participation in Davis’ Bitches Brew the following year that would seal the deal of making him one of the primary architects of what was to become jazzrock fusion. As such, McLaughlin was not only the first in an impressive line of electric guitarists to play with Davis (paving the way for Pete Cosey, Mike Stern, John Scofield, and Robben Ford), he also provided the sonic bits that made the album the final straw for Davis’ more traditionally minded fan-base. Indeed, McLaughlin’s rhythmic stabs and distorted guitar lines over a set of groove-based modal tunes provided a radical counterpoint to Davis’ cool, muted trumpet.

4th Dimension (from left)—McLaughlin, Ranjit Barot, Gary Husband, Étienne M’Bappé.

Leaving the band with Davis’ blessing to go out on his own, McLaughlin formed Mahavishnu Orchestra, a band that not only continued to push the fusion of jazz and rock, but also introduced influences from Indian music (“Mahavishnu” was a name given to McLaughlin by spiritual guru Shri Chinmoy), dished up with a level of raw power and all around virtuoso musicianship that was acknowledged universally. But from the very beginning, McLaughlin also had a lower-decibel side to his artistry, establishing him as a masterful acoustic player as well. Whether playing overdubbed acoustic “duets” of standards and originals on 1971’s My Goals Beyond, or doing what may be his most revolutionary work with the Indian/Western fusion group Shakti throughout the early ’70s, McLaughlin illustrated that the fundamentals of his style could be applied in radically different contexts.

Meeting flamenco legend Paco de Lucia in 1978 once again caused a shift in how McLaughlin’s guitar playing would manifest itself. Having been a fan of flamenco music since he was a teenager, McLaughlin relished the opportunity to work with the genre’s undisputed master, ultimately leading to a friendship that lasted until de Lucia’s passing in 2014, and which included duet recordings and tours, as well as the legendary Guitar Trio (first with Larry Coryell, and later Al Di Meola).

Over the years, McLaughlin has moved in and out of acoustic and electric phases, sometimes playing originals, other times standards, and still other times music based on flamenco or raga traditions, typically touring each band extensively and generally continuing to be a remarkably restless and creative force in the jazz universe. And while there are plans for a new acoustic project, as well as for the release of a 1987 live recording with de Lucia, McLaughlin’s immediate focus is on cranking up his Private Stock PRS with 4th Dimension, the high-energy quartet he began playing with in 2007. Currently consisting of Ranjit Barot (drums), Gary Husband (keyboards/percussion), and Étienne M’Bappé (bass), 4th Dimension is a force to be reckoned with, as it not only emphasizes the “rock” part of jazz-rock fusion, but also introduces heavy world-music rhythms, while displaying a disarming level of overall virtuosity.

As such, the band’s just-released third album, Black Light, has McLaughlin playing some of the most ferocious music of his career. Heavily driven by Barot’s powerful and melodic drumming, Black Light has a contemporary sound that includes occasional electronic effects and loops. And while McLaughlin’s playing offers countless beautiful lines, the album’s overall character is more about texture than traditional heads. As such, the tunes provide a dense foundation for extensive improvisational explorations by each member of the band. In an unusual move for McLaughlin, whose projects don’t often mix his electric and acoustic identities, Black Light finds him playing his Abe Wechter nylon-string on a heartfelt tribute to de Lucia, “El Hombre Que Sabia.” Without being what would be considered a “world-music” album, Black Light reflects the cultural harmony that the members of 4th Dimension represent (Barot is from India, M’Bappé from Cameroon, Husband from England), with Barot offering vocalized “konokkol” rhythms on several tracks, M’Bappé playing with stunning confidence, groove, and growly tone, and Husband complementing McLaughlin’s playing with smart, adventurous keyboard lines (he also plays percussion on several tracks).

Even though, at the age of 73, he’s done with schlepping amps (McLaughlin switched to running directly from his pedalboard to the P.A. or recording console several years ago), McLaughlin shows no signs of slowing down. With Black Light in the can, he was preparing for a several week tour of Asia and Australia while taking time out of his obviously busy schedule to talk to Guitar Player this past September.

You’ve had some amazing groups and have played with many great musicians. How does 4th Dimension fit into that history, and what does the band mean to you?

I think it may be the greatest band I’ve ever had. They’re outstanding—not just as musicians, but they’re great human beings. That helps in a band, because you develop a kind of complicity, a similar kind of spirit, and a similar vision. It comes through in the playing. When I think of Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971 or 1972, that was an amazing band, and then Shakti over the years—outstanding! But maybe just because of where I am at right now in what I’d call jazz music, I feel that 4th Dimension can play anything. They’re not just straightahead bebop players, or rock players, or R&B players, or Indian classical music players. They have everything covered.

You’ve played in a lot of unconventional band formations. What draws you to this standard format of guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard right now?

Neck and neck—McLaughlin with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1973.

It’s a kind of a classical—and I use the word judiciously—formation. It’s basically what Mahavishnu Orchestra was, with the addition of Jerry Goodman or Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. They call it a classical formation because it’s got all the bases covered. I could have gotten another guitar player—and I love to play with other guitar players—but for the demands of the recordings that we do and the music that we play, I’m particularly thrilled with Gary Husband. Because not only is he an outstanding keyboard player, but what a drummer, too. I first heard him when he was playing with Allan Holdsworth. I went to see Allan, and there was this great young drummer. This is about 20 years ago. We jammed together, and then about ten years ago, when I first had the idea of the 4th Dimension, he was there from the beginning—he’s the only one who was in the original 4th Dimension. Etienne, I love him. I’ve known him a long time, because I knew him when he was with the Joe Zawinul Syndicate. We’ve been together now for about seven years. And Ranjit is a great drummer. We’ve been associated for a long time, but it was primarily when I’d go to India that we’d play together. I made an album called Floating Point in 2008, and after that recording, I just knew that he was made for the band. He’s been in the band for about six years now.

Besides presenting a new set of tunes and having it be an outlet for your writing, was there something specific you wanted to accomplish with Black Light?

you!” But is he going to stop painting? No, of course not. It’s like me: Am I going to stop recording? It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. A live recording is a like a living photograph of one night with the band, and it’s great, but a studio album is where you have a really big canvas, and there are all kinds of things you can do. I only make a new record when I have enough music in my head, and I’m not really able to just sit down and write music. I have to wait for it to come into the old pumpkin. Once I have enough, I go, “Hey, let’s record.” I don’t have a goal though, and I don’t even know how many records I’ve made in my life.

The album has a very cohesive sound. Were the tunes written specifically with this band in mind?

Yes, except for the acoustic piece. Paco [de Lucía] and I were due to record an album together last year. We’d already gotten some tunes together, and I had sent him some ideas and mp3s. The piece that’s on the album is one that he particularly liked. I talked to him just before he left for Mexico, which is where we lost him, so of course the album will never be. But that particular tune, I thought, “I’ve got to do something because he really liked it.” I didn’t even have a title for it, but I called it “El Hombre Que Sabia,” which means “The Man Who Knew,” because he did.

Can you describe your relationship with Paco and with flamenco music?

Paco was like a brother to me. We went back to 1978. He was a beautiful human being, a fantastic guitar player, and I loved him. I miss him dearly. I became a big fan of flamenco music when I was about 14. It really hit me hard. I actually wanted to be a flamenco guitar player, but it’s really much better if you live in Spain and you have a teacher. I was in a village in the Northeast of England, south of Scotland, and nobody had even heard of flamenco. It wasn’t meant to be, but ever since then, I’ve had this big love for Hispanic culture in general, and flamenco music in particular. Then I became captured by Miles [Davis] when I heard the Miles Ahead album. I was 15 years old, and that was it. There’s a track on there called “Blues for Pablo.” It’s with a big band, and you hear Miles playing the blues, and there’s this big, beautiful Spanish flamenco mood permeating the music. It really made me so happy that Miles, who would become my number one hero, loved flamenco as well.

When I first heard Paco play in 1978, I found out where he was, and I invited him right away. I said, “Listen, we have to work together!” I didn’t want to just record with him. We played, and at that time, I found Larry Coryell, which led to the trio. Just to be with Paco and to play with him was a thrill. He was a very funny, witty guy. In fact, there’s a documentary by his son Curro Sanchez. I’m in it, talking about our association and friendship. But Curro missed one important aspect of Paco: He missed the crazy humor side of Paco. He was a very funny, crazy guy. He was just delightful.

Back to Black Light for a moment. How thoroughly composed was the material when you presented it to the band? How much input did they have, and how much improvisation is there?

I tried to set it up so that it provokes them. Some of the arrangements are a little tricky, but these guys are so good that they don’t have to worry about that. And I mean “provoked” in a nice way, more like stimulated, but that’s not even the right word either. They need to be provoked in the improvisation part, where the structure and time signature might be a little tricky. There are parts, even in a 4/4 piece like the opener, “The Jiis,” where the bridge is in 3/4, so that’s an integral part of the improvisation. That has to be absorbed and dealt with as the improvisation continues, collectively and individually. They did a fantastic job playing together, which I think is probably the most important thing. Even when we hear R&B, Hispanic influences, or Indian influences, by discipline we’re all jazz musicians, and in jazz music, you’ve got to have that connection, especially with the drummer. You have to have that unspoken understanding, where you’re always together, no matter where the music may go, and that’s marvelous.

You have a history of playing with complex, and really pretty busy drummers, Ranjit included.

That’s what I want. We hear enough of this smooth jazz, or funky jazz, and when I hear those drummers, I think you might as well have a drum machine. That’s not jazz. The drummer needs to have freedom, because the whole point is that I’ll set up these pieces with some harmonic and rhythmic structures, but what the guy is doing is his business. I want them to be who they are in the music, so whatever they want to throw at me, I want that. Sometimes we’re in a 5/4 piece, and he starts playing 4/4 in the middle of it, and it’s beautiful. I love that. It’s surprising, and I want to be surprised; that will spontaneously push me into another place entirely. And Étienne, with Gary playing percussion, those two together, they kill it! They cut loose, and that’s exactly what I want. Smooth jazz is kind of the way of the world. People have changed, and they want to hear a swinging, funky, smooth jazz so they can talk over it. As far as I’m concerned, you cannot talk over jazz—you cannot talk over Coltrane, and you can’t talk over Miles. How can you talk over Jimi Hendrix? He’s not a jazz musician, but what a passion! That’s the keynote: It if it doesn’t have that passion, then it’s not speaking to me. It’s just like wallpaper. I mean, it can be nice, if you’re in a bistro and you’re having a coffee and you’re chatting, but it’s not jazz. Let’s be clear about that.

On your instructional DVD, This Is The Way I Do It, you say that jazz can be defined in a lot of different ways. What is your own definition?

For me, jazz is a way of liberation through music. Because by definition, you have to be spontaneous, and when you’re spontaneous, you’re the most honest you can be. You can’t hide anything when you’re spontaneous—you’re your true self, with all your thoughts, with all your qualities. That’s the way you are. That’s the real person. It doesn’t happen every time, but when you can be spontaneous with people, collectively, the whole thing gels together in such a marvelous way, and we all get that buzz. The music becomes magical, and the audience knows that. They feel it when that happens, because we all speak music. Who doesn’t speak music? They might not play it, but we all speak it, we all understand it, and that magical thing can only happen if you’re free. So I don’t want to direct the guys at all. When we go on stage, they are free to let me know how they feel that day, right then, at that moment. To me, that’s an expression of freedom, but it’s not a self-indulgent freedom. It’s a freedom that allows for a collective experience of liberation, and there’s nothing else like that. I can get this in my meditation, or when making love, but that’s the only other way I can have this experience of liberation that I get with the music.

You’re respected for both your electric and your acoustic work, but you tend to do one or the other on a project. Something like the single acoustic tune on Black Light is an exception. Is the general choice about the musical context, or is just a mood or a preference?

The first guitar I ever picked up when I was 11 years old was an acoustic guitar. I didn’t even know what an electric guitar was, so the guitar I fell in love with was an acoustic guitar. But to play in a group with keyboards and drums, it’s very difficult to play acoustic guitar in such an environment, simply because of volume. There’s no mystery why the great composers didn’t like the guitar or the lute: They didn’t like it because nobody could hear it, so why bother? It’s a great instrument for playing solo, or with two or three other guitars, like that album I made a long time ago that was the homage to Bill Evans [Time Remembered: John McLaughlin Plays Bill Evans]. In a sense, that album is also an homage to the acoustic guitar, because the way his music sounds on guitar is just so beautiful.

Let’s go back to 1975. Shakti had been in existence for two years, and I was playing acoustic guitar, and by the end of 1975, I realized that I couldn’t keep the big Mahavishnu Orchestra going and do Shakti. It was one or the other. I just said, “Listen guys, I’m sorry—I have to go with Shakti.” I got some flack from my record company and I got flack from my agent. I was breaking up a very successful band, and they were asking me, “What are you doing? You’re sitting on a carpet, playing with some Indians?” I said, “I’ll assume the consequences. I know I’ll lose some fans, but maybe I’ll pick up some new ones along the way,” and that’s the way it was. I continued to play the acoustic guitar, and I didn’t even touch an electric guitar for the next four years. Then, for a brief time, there was the One Truth Band, where I was playing a 335 with a scalloped fingerboard. That went on for a while, but then I went back to acoustic guitar again, with Paco and Larry.

And you switched to nylon strings at that time.

When we first did the trio with Paco and Larry, I was playing an Ovation with steel strings, but by the time Al Di Meola came in a couple of years later, I’d switched to nylon strings. I just really liked the percussive quality of the nylon strings with a pick. I know it sounds strange, but actually, it’s great for articulation on a nylon-string guitar.

Do you basically play with the same technique on acoustic and electric?

Absolutely. The demands are different: The acoustic guitar is more physical, a little more muscular, if I can say it like that. The electric guitar is, in a sense, easier, because you’ve got the amplification, so you don’t need the physical strength as much as you do with acoustic. But I love the acoustic guitar, and I’m planning more acoustic recordings.

Are you still playing the Abe Wechter nylon-string guitar that you started using in the 1980s?

Yeah, it’s a great guitar.

And the electric guitar on Black Light is your PRS? It seems that you have a great relationship with Paul Smith.

Oh yeah. We go back a long time. I got one guitar from him about 20 years ago, which I love. It was right in the middle of my acoustic era, but I kept it at home, and I used it quite a bit. It’s a real beauty. But when I did my instructional DVD, the idea was to have a score moving in sync with everything I played, so I had to find the best MIDI guitar that also had a good electric sound, and it was a Godin. I recorded the guitar and MIDI somewhat painlessly, but I had to go inside the MIDI file and clean it up, because still to this day, MIDI is not perfect. It needed to be quantized to make it readable. It was a big job that took me 18 months, and by the end, I’d become pretty attached to my little Godin. By this time, I’d also moved into Remember Shakti, and because both of my Shakti guitars had been destroyed, I started playing the Godin. Then I ran into Paul Smith at the Frankfurt Musikmesse, and he asked about his guitar. I said, “She’s beautiful.” He said, “I want to make you a new one,” and he ended up making me one with a MIDI adapter. Now I use the Fishman Triple Play, which is a very good unit. I think it’s the best thing on the market. The guitar is beautiful. Paul just went bonkers. It’s got the skyline of New York inlayed in the fingerboard, which I love so dearly. When I arrived in New York in the ’60s, I could have kissed the ground. In a way, New York made me. I started playing with Tony Williams, and the next day I’m playing with Miles, and the rest is history, so New York is very dear to me as a city. I’ve got three of Paul’s guitars at the moment, and he’s just one of the greatest luthiers around.

You stopped using amps a long time ago. How do you interface with the PA or recording console?

I have three different tube preamps. I like them all, but the one I recorded Black Light with is the Seymour Duncan Twin Tube. I also have an old Mesa/Boogie V-Twin and a Hermida Audio Zendrive, and I go back and forth. I’m now using a Line 6 wireless, which is really the best, and I’ve tried them all. I use an MXR delay, an MXR chorus pedal, and depending on my mood, I use the Zendrive—which has one tube in it—the Mesa/Boogie, which has two tubes, or the Seymour Duncan, which has two miniature tubes in it.

What can you tell us about the acoustic album you’re working on?

It’s still really up in the air. It will be with a string orchestra—not a big orchestra—but it will also have Shankar Mahadevan, the singer in Remember Shakti. He’s been in the band for about 15 years, and we’ve been working on a project now for the last year, and it’s very exciting. It’s very special to me—he’s singing, and I’m orchestrating behind his voice. It’s not just a drone, it’s got Western harmony. We have parts where I improvise, and other parts where he improvises, and then we both improvise along with the orchestra, but with acoustic guitar. I think the combination is going to work really well. We haven’t started the improvising sections yet, but we already have a good amount of music done between the vocal and the orchestra, and it’s a really big work. It’s 30 or 40 minutes of music, and it’s a new approach to East/West collaboration, or fusion, or whatever you want to call it. But the acoustic guitar definitely belongs in there.

How do you keep up your chops? Do you have a practice routine?

No, I don’t practice. I just want to play. But of course, if there is something that’s over my head, I’ll wonder how I can play it. The thing about a stringed instrument is that you’re continuously looking for new fingerings. There are always new ways to finger something, and there are a number of surprises that lead you to discover new aspects of playing the guitar. I’ll hear a particular phrase or a linear harmonic movement in my head, and it might be very tricky, but if I look at it, there is a way I can play it, even if my first thought might be, “Wow, wait a minute, this is not going to happen.” But if you continue to examine it, it’s amazing. There are all kinds of astuces—that’s a French word for “trick”—and that’s what we find when we continue to experiment.

It sounds like you’re still incredibly excited about the guitar after all these years.

I’ve loved the guitar my whole life, and I’m never been very far away from it. I get nervous when I’m too far away from the guitar—it’s my daily bread.