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Bright Moments With John McLaughlin

The jazz-rock pioneer reflects on a handful of his finest recordings

Photo of John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
On the South Lawn of the White House in April, McLaughlin and a jaw-dropping band pay tribute to Miles with a fiery "Spanish Key."
Photo of John McLaughlin w/the Mahavishnu Orchestra
"Mahavishnu Orchestra was from the beginning a phenomenon," says John McLaughlin, seen here in the early 1970s.
John McLaughlin, flanked by drummer Dennis Chambers (left) and organist Joey DeFrancesco, in the mid-'90s
John McLaughlin embraces Dennis Chambers in Baltimore in 2015
John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension, from left: Gary Husband, the guitarist, Ranjit Barot and Etienne Mbappe

A lot of earnest applause happened on the South Lawn of the White House in late April, when the International Jazz Day Global Concert was filmed there for TV broadcast. Aretha Franklin singing Prince’s “Purple Rain” in tribute; an astonishingly precocious take on “Footprints” from piano prodigy Joey Alexander, in a trio with Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding; sharply crafted opening remarks from President Barack Obama: These are things you feel compelled to clap for. More unforced hurrahs occurred not far into an inspired rendition of Miles Davis’ “Spanish Key,” understandably concise for the occasion. The guitarist John McLaughlin, playing among other revered Davis alumni including Shorter, Chick Corea and Marcus Miller, delivered one of his patented hellfire-bebop solos over the heavyweight modal groove—fingers dancing up and down the fretboard, tone snarling, a brief but potent celebration of the possibilities of the electric guitar. The politicos hooted and hollered, mid-performance. They couldn’t help themselves.

McLaughlin, regal and youthful at 74, has spent most of his life dazzling audiences with his ruggedly virtuosic musicianship. The morning after the White House performance, I met up with him at his hotel suite in Washington, where he inaugurated a regular feature called Bright Moments, in which a veteran artist tours his or her discography, remembering definitive sessions and detailing a legacy in the process. For McLaughlin that meant desert-island recordings with Davis, Tony Williams, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and his current band, the explosive, empathic 4th Dimension. Throughout the conversation, he spoke lovingly and longingly of his comrades who are no longer with us—like Paco de Lucía, his collaborator on a newly released two-CD/DVD program captured in Montreux in 1987—while also revealing unflagging enthusiasm for his recent music and for the instrument that ignited his storied career. “I fell in love with [the guitar] when I was 11 years old,” he said. “It’s still a love affair.”

Miles Davis
In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969)

Miles wasn’t happy with Joe Zawinul’s tune “In a Silent Way,” which was very strongly harmonic. He didn’t like it. Miles said to me, “You play it.” All I had was a piano score, and I said, “I don’t read a piano score.” I only got invited [to the session] the night before! So this is when he said, “Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar.” But what he did, actually, which was very daring of him, which I didn’t realize until later, was that he asked me to give the direction for this tune. And what I did, since I couldn’t read the piano score—I could read the top chords, but he wanted everything—I just threw it all out. I said, OK, I know E. Everybody can play an E chord. And I played it in E, no tempo, no nothing. And Miles loved it.

I passed the test, and from that point on I would see Miles frequently. Every time I saw him he’d stuff a $100 bill down my shirt pocket: “Make sure you eat; pay your rent.” Every time he saw me he’d give me money. Amazing. He was a great human being. He was a real mentor to me, musically and humanly. He played up to [the darker elements of his persona and reputation]; he saw through all that. Miles was an extremely perceptive human being. He was a great artist; he wasn’t just a great musician. I consider him alongside people like Picasso and the great artists of any era. Look at the forms he created, look at the concepts. … To come up with a new concept in music is radical, and he was doing that as early as the ’50s. He was a totally intuitive, instinctive man-he didn’t see the future ramifications of what [he was innovating].

We owe people [like Miles] a tremendous debt. I’ve got a debt to Miles I’ll never be able to repay. And Miles has a debt to Charlie Parker, and to Fats Navarro. He brought up in conversation once how much he admired Fats Navarro. We’ve all got our heroes. He’s no exception.

The Tony Williams Lifetime
Emergency! (Polydor/Verve, 1969)

I came to [the States] to play with Tony Williams and Khalid Yasin [Larry Young]. Miles was not happy Tony was leaving his band; he loved Tony, but so did I. I discovered Tony on the Miles Davis in Europe album [from 1964], and he must have been 17 at that time. Amazing. Miles knew that Tony was going to form his own band with this guitar player from Britain.

We were really experimenting in Lifetime, and I remember quite vividly, the reaction at that time from the audience was bafflement. They really didn’t know what we were going for. That said, we didn’t really know what we were going for. We didn’t have a particular objective in mind. Tony and Larry and myself were all more or less the same generation, and we’d grown up not just with jazz but with the influence of people like James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, the Beatles, even the Stones to a certain degree. And Jimi Hendrix, of course, and the great guitarists like Eric Clapton. It all had an impact, and these influences started to come out.

Organ trio was my format in the ’60s. The Hammond organ trio was a classic formation, and it was perfect for guitar players. And in [the mid-’60s], Larry burst onto the scene with his recordings with Elvin [Jones] and Grant Green. This was the point of departure, because I’d been playing with these Hammond organ trios but I was very strongly under the influence of Miles and Coltrane, and people like McCoy Tyner. And Herbie Hancock, of course. There was a departure point from this classic R&B-jazz—which is beautiful, don’t get me wrong; that’s my heart and soul—to this other, liberating harmonic concept that McCoy brought to the fore. He really invented that, in a way. So to have that harmonic breakthrough with the Hammond organ was a revelation for me. The moment I heard Larry, he was my all-time favorite organ player. With Tony, who I adored and I miss terribly, even today, it was radical, and it was radical from the first point. And Tony didn’t want to play like he played with Miles. He wanted to kick.

[The extreme volume of the group] referred to the passions that were involved—which I’m an advocate for, to this day. This smooth-jazz is not jazz to me, because I grew up listening to men with really deep passions. Without the depth of the passion, you’re missing the blood and the guts in the music. Because it’s not just notes—it’s like, what are you saying when you play? What can anyone talk about when they improvise? The only thing they can talk about is their life and how strongly they feel about the people around them and themselves—their whole relationship with everything. Those days were sociologically in upheaval, and we all felt that a better world was coming.

Since [Tony, Larry and I were], not blind, but unseeing, it was all experiments. We had no idea about the future ramifications of what we were doing. We were following our noses and following our gut feeling. Since the gut feelings were strong, the volume went up. I had to get rid of an acoustic-electric guitar and buy a solidbody, because [Tony] was killing me. A Fender Mustang—that’s all I had the money for. I was playing for 20 bucks a night, just getting by. If I had to survive with Lifetime I wouldn’t have.

Mahavishnu Orchestra
Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973)

Mahavishnu Orchestra was from the beginning a phenomenon. The second record is always difficult when you have a successful first record, and our first record was very successful. The record company had expectations.

One thing you should take into account was that by the time of the Tony Williams Lifetime I had changed my lifestyle quite dramatically. Already by the end of the ’60s I was out of the psychedelic era and into yoga and meditation and asking myself the great questions of existence. By the time I got to New York I was going to Sufi meetings and doing three hours of yoga every day, and then I began meditating—I got a meditation guru. My life changed. I got my spiritual name, Mahavishnu. Once you start asking yourself these questions about who you are and what is this unbelievable universe we live in, you realize you don’t know too much about anything, including yourself. This brings an element of humility into your life, and you start to see things in a different way. I certainly did.

There’s no certainty in success because there are two kinds—one artistic, the other commercial—and it’s very difficult to get these two together. We were lucky because the band was amazing and [our debut], The Inner Mounting Flame, took off. I was writing music and I couldn’t stop it; there was no shortage of material. And we went in to do Birds of Fire, and fortunately it went up there again. But this was also luck; it had to do with unknown elements. It’s like [the Guitar Trio] with Paco de Lucía and Al Di Meola. That was an unprecedented success. I’d talked to CBS early on. I said, “This trio is going to be big,” because I’d seen how the audiences reacted [to early shows featuring Larry Coryell in Di Meola’s place]. And they said, “Are you out of your mind? … We want to hear electric guitar. We want to hear strong jazz-rock music.” But the sales for Friday Night in San Francisco were unthinkable.

I’m really only concerned with the musicality of a recording. Does it have the passion? Does it have that thing that doesn’t have a name but you know it, you feel it. People call it truth, or sincerity. … Birds of Fire had it because the band had it. It was after Birds of Fire when I believe we suffered from too much commercial success and personalities began to change in the band. Plus, I was on my trip. The guys were drinking, there were lots of girls, and I was doing my meditation and yoga, and maybe that irritated them. Because I wasn’t hanging out with the guys; I was hanging out with the roadies. They were more fun, in a way. That’s just the way it was. But I didn’t want them to start meditating; I didn’t care what they did. Why should they care what I do? There was a great deal of love in the band—it was just too much success, too much money.

John McLaughlin/Jaco Pastorius/Tony Williams
Trio of Doom (Columbia/Legacy; rec. 1979, rel. 2007)

The first person Jaco Pastorius came to see in New York was me, and we jammed together at SRI [Studio]. He found me and asked me for 20 bucks to fix a flat—money I never got back! [laughs] He walked in and said, “I’m Jaco Pastorius, the greatest bass player in the world.” I said, “Oh, I like the way you talk. Let’s play.” And we played and it was marvelous. I told him, “If I didn’t have a great bass player already I’d hire you.” But I called Tony Williams that night and said, “See if there’s something you can do with this guy Jaco, because he’s amazing.” Within six months Joe Zawinul had snatched him up, fired Alphonso Johnson and the rest is history.

In 1979 we were booked for the Havana Jam, and Jaco had already started his descent. So sad. But we went to rehearsals, and the rehearsals were just amazing. I’m so sad those rehearsals weren’t recorded, because they were outstanding. So we played the Bay of Gigs [chuckles], but the performance was not good at all. Jaco went on a star trip, and musically it was a bit of a disaster. The three of us are onstage, and all of the sudden Jaco, in the middle of a C-minor blues, starts playing in A-major, real loud, and going up front [mimes rock-star showboating]. [Tony and I] did what we could, as best as possible, and when we get offstage, Jaco says, “You know, you’re a bad motherfucker.” And I said, “I have never felt so ashamed to be onstage … If I never see you again it’s too soon.” And all the rats and snakes came out. I was so angry, because I felt he betrayed Tony and me. So I’m the kind of guy, I just let it all out, [speaks quietly] and I told him to fuck off. But Tony couldn’t handle that, and he kept [his anger] internalized. But CBS knew, and they could hear [the tapes], of course. So CBS calls two weeks later and says, “Will you go into the studio with Tony and Jaco?” And I said, “If Tony is ready to go, I’ll go.”

We went in, and Tony was very angry, still. He should have gotten it out, really, because it was boiling over. Anyway, in the studio he wouldn’t talk to Jaco, he wouldn’t even look at Jaco until finally Jaco said something and that was the trigger—Tony flipped. Jaco thought he was gonna die that day in the control room of CBS. [laughs] Tony was furious. He didn’t touch [Jaco], but Tony in anger was a volcano in activity. I thought it was funny by this time, because I’d let [all of my anger] out. But he let it all out, and Jaco was afraid. Tony went in and destroyed his drums in the studio. [laughs] And walked out.

But we’d gotten through a few tunes, so when Sony called me and said, “We’d really like [to put this out],” I said, “Give me all the tapes. Because I love them both, I miss them both, and only I know how this should be mixed.” And so I did. But it was very tricky, because you’ve got two versions of things. I wanted to get the Havana part in as well, as part of the story, because it’s interesting. Trio of Doom is a document; it’s not just a record. These two giants, they’re gone. And I [told Sony they had] to give the money to their widows. I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years. More than friends—people I loved.

John McLaughlin
The Heart of Things (Verve, 1997)
The Heart of Things: Live in Paris (Verve, 2000)

Dennis Chambers is marvelous. We were just emailing a week ago. He’s very dear to me. He went through this hemorrhaging in a hotel room in Spain … but he pulled out. To play with him [last year in Baltimore] was wonderful. I do [consider the Heart of Things one of my great working bands]. I love Matt Garrison—son of the great Jimmy! But Matt’s got his own thing; he’s special.

[Keyboardist] Jim Beard really made the big difference between these two albums, and Jim is such a great musician. The first recording I really like. Studio recording is a lot of fun because you can record until you get a performance that everybody’s happy with. There’s no overdubbing, you play live—that’s the way we do it. But then, a week before we went on tour, and it was the second time Jim had done this to me, he called to say, “Sorry, I’m not going to be able to make this tour. Wayne Shorter has asked me to produce his new record and I really want to do that.” And I said, “Jim, this is the second time you’ve done this to me.” He said, “Yeah, I know, man. I’m sorry.” But he left me in the lurch. I got lucky, because I found Otmaro Ruiz who came in on keyboards. I’ll never forget: We were rehearsing in Nice, France, and after we ran down the very first tune, Dennis walked over and said, “Jim who?” Otmaro Ruiz—killer, wonderful.

It’s hard for me to say which album I prefer, because they’re two paintings from the same epoch. They both are meaningful to me. In a sense, the fact that this event happened and Otmaro came in almost makes the second more attractive to me. It’s live, and it’s very spontaneous. It was a very special night. And people like Gary Thomas and Victor Williams—what players.

John McLaughlin
Black Light (Abstract Logix/Mediastarz, 2015)

The 4th Dimension, I find we have a strong collective view of the spirit—the great spirit that we’re all a part of. And this enhances the musical complicity. I revere these guys; it’s a wonderful, affecting feeling. … If you don’t have that, then the lack of that is going to come through in the music. Because music’s all about love, isn’t it?

The composition “El Hombre Que Sabia” was one out of a number of pieces that Paco de Lucía and I already had [been working on]. We’d been exchanging music because we planned to record in 2014—a new album, just acoustic. This was one of the pieces I’d sent to him. We had about four pieces ready. He was traveling to Cuba first, then to Mexico, which was where he died, playing football with his kids on the beach. He had a heart attack; too many cigarettes. The day before he left for Cuba, he called me and said he’d just received the MP3 of this piece—it only had a working title at this point—and he said how much he loved it. … We were excited about recording new music together after all these years. Don’t forget, we were associated since ’78—that’s a long time ago! When he died on the 25th of February, 2014, that’s a pivotal day in my life. Certainly the rest of the music will never be recorded. I just don’t see it. With whom would I do it? It’s him and me.

But I took this particular tune and said I have to do something, just as a goodbye, and these musicians in the 4th Dimension, they can play anything. The passion and tenderness they bring to this piece is wonderful. I think Paco would be very happy with that.

Read Mac Randall’s interview with John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring in JazzTimes.

Read Bill Milkowski’s review of John McLaughlin & Chick Corea and the One Peace band. Originally Published