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John McLaughlin Discusses Mahavishnu Orchestra, Liberation Time, and More

Fifty years ago, he founded that epochal band and revolutionized the jazz world. Today, he’s making music that reaches back to his roots, and his first instrument (not guitar). Learn more in this exclusive interview

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John McLaughlin at home in Monaco
John McLaughlin at home in Monaco

Five decades ago, John McLaughlin sensed something monumental was coming in music. “I knew things were going to change,” he said. “All the musicians felt it. All of us wanted it. Then, just a few months later, I got to be part of that change.”

In fact, he got to be a foundational part of it. In the incredibly dense year of 1969, McLaughlin played a crucial role in the creation of nearly every work that would herald the fusion revolution, in the process refiguring the entire texture and history of jazz. The British-born guitarist had come to New York at the start of that storied year to help form what many consider to be fusion’s ground-zero band, Tony Williams’ Lifetime. But before they even had the chance to record their debut album, Emergency!, Miles Davis borrowed the guitarist to help create two of the genre’s other inaugural works, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

Just one year later, McLaughlin was ready to lead his own band into history. At the end of 1970, he began formulating plans for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a group that would bring to fusion a level of ferocity no one had previously imagined or would subsequently match. Mahavishnu mixed rock and jazz in the same way that a madman mixes fire with gasoline. They burned down every place they played. Between McLaughlin’s incendiary runs, the spiraling electric violin work of Jerry Goodman, the loop-de-loop synthesizer lines of Jan Hammer, and the gut-punch drums of Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu created cataclysms in sound. At the same time, their music could evoke a deep sense of tranquility, offering passages that rippled with the serenity of a cool mountain stream.

August will mark 50 years since the Mahavishnu Orchestra released its roiling debut, The Inner Mounting Flame. To mark the occasion, John McLaughlin spoke at length by phone from his home in Monaco about the creation and intent of the band. He talked, too, about his striking new project, Liberation Time, which evokes the jazz world he grew up loving, whose principals helped him to patent a sound of his own. McLaughlin also spoke of his undimmed productivity at age 79 and of the physical challenges that almost stopped his career cold seven years ago. Throughout our talk, he spoke very much like he plays—with speed, spontaneity, and great animation.

JazzTimes: You created Liberation Time during the lockdown, but it’s anything but melancholy. It’s full of enthusiasm.

John McLaughlin: If you don’t have enthusiasm, you have no gas in your car. You can’t go anywhere. And we had plenty of it. I was going crazy from the lockdown. It got to the point where my creative kettle was steaming, then it started to boil, and then this came out.

You worked with different configurations of musicians on each track of the album rather than using a stable unit as you usually do. Why?

Choosing the musicians was a function of the piece itself. Whatever atmosphere each piece called for, it got. And there are so many great musicians to work with.

Because of the lockdown, the players had to record their parts separately. That must have been a challenge for music that requires improvisation.

Even though we were in different countries, in different time zones, once you put on the headphones you feel like we’re in the room together. On the other hand, sometimes the music that came back to me was so formed that I would have to redo my part based on what the other musicians had put into it. That changed the direction of the piece. But I welcomed that because that’s the nature of spontaneous music.

Two pieces on the album feature you alone on piano, an instrument you rarely play.

I actually recorded those two pieces 40 years ago. Piano was my first instrument, so it represents a side of my musical heart. But I don’t play it anymore. I don’t have the technique. These performances are very short. I wanted to briefly share them with the listener because they have a different color, and because they’re part of my history, which fits into this whole album. Essentially, the album is a recapitulation of the music I loved in the ’50s and ’60s when I was a teenage jazz fanatic. I was listening to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, and some of the first albums Miles did with Gil Evans, especially Miles Ahead, which knocked me sideways, and Sketches of Spain. There’s a piece on Miles Ahead called “Blues for Pablo,” which is a blues but there’s such a strong Hispanic influence in it. I was already very influenced by flamenco music. I discovered it when I was about 13 and it marked me for life.

Why do you think you went back to those early influences now?

Why? That’s a question that doesn’t belong in music. [Laughs] It just came out of the feeling I had. I never intend the shape or genre of a piece I play. The sound I hear in my head dictates the music.

It’s clear from this record that you haven’t lost any of your finger speed or dexterity. That’s rare. How do you think you managed that?

I’m lucky. Also, I keep my interior life very healthy with a routine of meditation and yoga. That’s important, because everything comes from your inner life. But, from a physical point of view, I can be candid about this: About seven years ago I got hit by arthritis in both hands. I thought maybe that’s it for me. But I started seeing doctors and having steroid injections every three months and it was very helpful. But I got to a point where I thought I should be able to heal myself. So, before my morning meditation I began to talk to my hands. I told them how beautiful they are and how grateful I am to have them. I know that sounds loony, but I don’t care. Within about six months I told my doctor I feel so good I don’t need to have a needle in my hand. To this day I don’t have any pain. What the human mind is capable of is phenomenal!

That story speaks to the power of the spirit you’ve cultivated ever since Sri Chinmoy gave you the name Mahavishnu in 1970. Tell me about how you came to form Mahavishnu Orchestra just after that.

I have to give credit where credit is due. I was sitting in the band room with Miles in a club just outside of Boston. We had just finished a gig and I played like shit. I was apologizing to him, and he said, “Don’t worry about it.” A few seconds later he said, “It’s time you formed your own band.” That was the last thing I expected to hear from Miles, but he was the most honest person I ever met and I took everything he said so seriously. I thought, “If he thinks I can do it, I’m going to do it.”

John McLaughlin in the 1970s (Photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Entertainment)
John McLaughlin in the 1970s (Photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Entertainment)

How did you pick the players you wanted?

I had just recently hooked up with Billy Cobham on the Jack Johnson album with Miles. And I loved the way Billy played. We got really tight after that. So he was the first guy I called. Then I thought, “I have to get a violin player.” But I didn’t want a jazz player. I wanted an R&B violin player, which is a tall order. It took some looking around, but I finally found Jerry [Goodman] in this band the Flock in Chicago. I called him and he said yes right away. I first had him play on my album [My Goal’s Beyond, 1971], which was an acoustic album that also had Billy. My original choice for bass was Tony Levin. But he told me, “Oh man, I just took a gig with Gary Burton.” Then I remembered Rick Laird, because we played together in Brian Auger’s band in London and he was the house bass player at Ronnie Scott’s place. At the same time, I had gotten close with Miroslav Vitous. I asked him to join the band but he said, “We’re making our own group with Wayne [Shorter] and Joe [Zawinul]”—which of course became Weather Report, one of the best bands ever! Miroslav said, “We want you in our band, John.” But I was under orders from Miles to form my own band! So I asked him about other keyboardists and he said, “Jan Hammer. He’s a great pianist.” I said, “I never heard of him.” Miroslav said, “He’s out playing with Sarah Vaughan.” I thought, “If he’s playing with her, he’s no slouch. He’s got to be swinging!”

By that point, did you know what sound you wanted for the band?

I knew I wanted more rock, more funk, more R&B, more meat in the music. It had to be more raw. There were so many elements that went into it, from my jazz roots with Miles and Coltrane in the ’60s to James Brown. James had this pure concept of funk that struck me as glorious and I wanted to take that concept to the guitar, then match it to the funk drums. Billy felt that funk, so I knew we were made for each other. Billy and I had been rehearsing together material that I had written when I was still with Tony Williams. I had much more music than I could use. So by the time the other guys [in Mahavishnu] came in, they saw that Billy and I were tighter than anything. They were thinking, “Wow, let me get on this train.” They knew it was going somewhere.

“Before my morning meditation I began to talk to my hands. I told them how beautiful they are and how grateful I am to have them.”

You called that band an “orchestra,” which took some hubris since there were only five of you.

Why not an orchestra? We were definitely as loud as an orchestra! [Laughs] And an orchestra is full of dynamics and different sounds, which was just what this band was. It had so many elements, and the dynamics we had would go from pianissimo to fortissimo in five-tenths of a second.

The dynamics in Mahavishnu weren’t confined to the music. There was also a striking contrast between the visual image of the band—with your monk-like white outfits and serene song titles like “Dawn” and “Resolution”—and the incredible violence of the music.

I got some baffled looks over that! I remember doing a TV show in Germany and I had to do an interview and this lady said, “You’ve got this spiritual vibe, yet what you’re playing is so loud and violent.” I said, “Who said spiritual music should be quiet? That’s just a preconceived notion.”

Do you think that the bracing speed and tumult of the music is what made it appeal to so many rock fans?

Yes. Rock bands need intensity. They have to be bold and we were all about that. We had that fire in the music.

One inspiration for you on the rock side was Hendrix, correct?

To me, Jimi was a one-man revolution. When I heard him play, I had to find a way to build a bigger amp because I didn’t want this kind of cool jazz tone anymore. What Jimi did with just an amp, a guitar, and a wah-wah pedal was incredible. I’ll never forget talking to Miles about Jimi. He had never seen him, so I said, “There’s an art film theater downtown that’s playing the Monterey Pop Festival [movie] and Jimi is in it.” I took Miles to the movie and when Jimi came on, Miles was like, “Damn!” He was floored because Jimi was daring. And that’s what we wanted to do.

In the same vein, Jan Hammer was finding new ways to push his instrument in Mahavishnu, wasn’t he?

When Jan started playing the Mini-Moog, that was revolutionary. People didn’t know what that sound was. I remember Chick [Corea] coming to see us at the Felt Forum [in New York] where we were opening for this English rock band Gentle Giant. Afterwards, Chick came backstage and said, “Man, that was amazing. I’m going to form a band just like that.” Stanley Clarke was there at the time too. Then they made Return to Forever. Chick always said that Return to Forever were Son of Mahavishnu. I was immensely proud that he would say such a thing. I miss him so much. 52 years of friendship! Such a long time.

If rock bands responded really well to both Mahavishnu and Return to Forever, did that piss off some jazz folks?

Very much so. But are you going to listen to them or to your heart? Purists think they know what the real thing is, but it’s just their particular preferences, isn’t it?

“I need structure. In fact, the more restraints I put on myself, the happier I felt.”

When Mahavishnu first started, did people get what you were doing right away or was there a certain learning curve for the audience?

At the beginning, they didn’t get all of it but they got something. Even if they didn’t quite know what it was, they came back and bought the album and, at some point, they finally got it. I know exactly what that’s like. When I bought A Love Supreme in 1965 it took me a year of playing that just to comprehend what Trane was doing. But at that time, audiences were ready to make an effort more than they are now. Today, they want to be entertained pretty quick.

By the time Mahavishnu’s second album, Birds of Fire, came out in 1973, fans got it big-time. That album went gold, a rarity for an all-instrumental album at that time. How surprised were you by that?

Shocked! It was nothing I expected. But I also remember thinking, “I’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt.” If you get carried away with your own success, you’re in deep doo-doo.

One thing that struck me about Mahavishnu’s albums was that, despite all the solos you had, most of the music was very structured. No matter how far out you guys went, you always seemed connected to the core riffs and the central melodies of the songs.

That was vital. The discovery of that happened for me in the ’60s. Around ’66, I was living in Belgium playing in a free-form band, but it didn’t last long for me. It was self-indulgent. I realized then that I need structure. In fact, the more restraints I put on myself, the happier I felt. There’s a quote from Stravinsky that reads, “It’s through restraints that I will find my freedom.” That’s beautiful! I love to obey this rule with the time structure and that one with the harmonic structure, and then find a way through those things to be free.

At the same time, Mahavishnu had four soloists, and even Rick had an important bass solo in the song “One Word” on Birds of Fire. Was it hard to negotiate that ego-wise?

No. I tried to distribute the solos as democratically as possible. The whole philosophy and discipline of jazz allows that. Collectively, we have to be able to play together in order to help each other go beyond what we each know.

Mahavishnu Mark 2, 1974 (L to R): Carol Shive, Ralphe Armstrong, Steve Franckevich, John McLaughlin, Steven Kindler, Jean Luc Ponty, Narada Michael Walden, Bob Knapp, Marsha Westbrook, Phil Hirschi, and Gayle Moran (photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Entertainment)
Mahavishnu Mark 2, 1974 (L to R): Carol Shive, Ralphe Armstrong, Steve Franckevich, John McLaughlin, Steven Kindler, Jean Luc Ponty, Narada Michael Walden, Bob Knapp, Marsha Westbrook, Phil Hirschi, and Gayle Moran (photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Entertainment)

The original band recorded a third studio album, but it wasn’t released at the time. Instead, a live album came out [Between Nothingness and Eternity] that featured some of the same material. Why was that decision made?

We made the third album in our favorite London studio, Trident, and at the end of mixing everyone seemed happy. A couple of weeks went by, then they [Jan and Jerry] told me they didn’t want to release it. They never told me why. As a result, we recorded the Central Park show to replace it. 

Obviously, that demonstrates the internal tension in the band. You guys broke up shortly thereafter. What went wrong?

Jan and Jerry had become intransigent. Don’t ask me why, because to this day I don’t know. From the outset, I asked them both what was the problem. Even if I was the biggest asshole in the world, let’s fix it. But they wouldn’t tell me. It got the point where I told the band I was not interested in making music with people who refused to speak to me. Of course, this is my side of the story. Maybe they had good reason to behave as they did. I was into my own trip, meditating, vegetarian, no hanging out, no girls, no drugs. As far as they were concerned, I was pretty antisocial. For the record, I never asked them to meditate or anything. I didn’t care what they did.

Did you ever have a rapprochement?

Years later, Jerry and I became friends again, but Jan, never. I ran into him from time to time but he still wouldn’t speak to me. I have to give credit to Rick Laird and Billy. They never got involved in such stupidity, and a big thanks to Jerry, who let it go. It was a tragedy it ended in such a way. As bands go, it was one of the greatest ever.

You did go on to form other incarnations of Mahavishnu that included players like Jean Luc Ponty and Narada Michael Walden, and since then you’ve worked with so many other great bands, from Shakti to your most recent group, 4th Dimension. Do you have a core principle that has guided you through all of it?

I was talking about this recently with [drummer and wife of Carlos Santana] Cindy Blackman. She was telling me that she asked Wayne [Shorter], “What is the meaning of jazz?” And Wayne said, “I dare you.” [Laughs] I thought that was really cool. That means you’ve got to stand up and be yourself. It’s like when your trousers are down by your ankles. You’re naked in front of the world and you’re free. Now go and be inspired! 

Jim Farber

Jim Farber, who spent 25 years as the chief music critic of the New York Daily News, currently contributes to The New York Times, The Guardian, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, and many other outlets. He is an adjunct professor at NYU, as well as a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award, for pieces which appeared in the New York Daily News, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone: The ’70s.