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John McLaughlin: Guitars and Poets

John McLaughlin

Sparks are flying off the Town Hall stage in Manhattan as John McLaughlin and Remember Shakti, his band of remarkable Indian virtuosi-U. Shrinivas on electric mandolin, Zakir Hussain on tablas and hand percussionist V. Selvaganesh on kanjira, ghatam and mridangam-dig into another raga with heightened intensity. At the peak of this heated jam, they engage in lightning-quick exchanges, tossing notes back and forth with such commanding precision and staggering speed that the concert hall erupts into a thunderous ovation. Caught up in the incendiary moment, the fantastic four seem to be levitating a foot above the stage as the most ardent fans in the house, from the balcony seats to the front row, leap to their feet in amazement, urging Remember Shakti on with a raucous wave of cheers.

In one of the front rows, McLaughlin’s six-year-old son Lucas takes it all in with awe. He’d probably rather be back home in Monte Carlo swimming or playing tennis or soccer, but right now his eyes are glued on Dad, who just happens to be one of the greatest guitarists on the planet. In previous incarnations of Remember Shakti, McLaughlin played a Johnny Smith fat-bodied jazz box and later an old Gibson ES-345 from his late ’70s One Truth Band days. These days he’s wielding a new ax-a Canadian Godin electric guitar equipped with a MIDI attachment that lets him trigger all manner of sonic washes and textures while simultaneously burning up the fingerboard.

A few days after the Town Hall concert, McLaughlin is talking about his latest symphonic recording, Thieves and Poets. But the rush of that Remember Shakti performance lingers. “How about this reaction of people to Shakti?” he enthuses. “It’s hard to figure out. Wherever we go, people are, like, crazy for this music. Maybe people’s ears are ready for it, or maybe they’ve never seen anything like it before. I don’t know. But sometimes it’s a little overwhelming for us. I mean, we’re thrilled by the response universally, but sometimes it looks to us a little over the top. Don’t get me wrong; it’s wonderful. But it’s a little baffling.”

The Stateside Remember Shakti tour started out on the West Coast and ended up in New York, where McLaughlin is now doing press for Thieves and Poets. It’s a monumental work, a crowning achievement in his illustrious career. The three-part suite that comprises a bulk of the material on the recording is an ambitious undertaking, with McLaughlin on nylon-string acoustic guitar in the company of the I Pommeriggi Musicali di Milano orchestra, conducted by Renato Rivolta and featuring soloist Viktoria Mullova on violin. And this time, McLaughlin’s guitar is prominent in the mix, rich and resonant from the opening notes, as opposed to his previous orchestral outing, 1990’s Mediterranean Concerto (Sony Classical), on which his ax was so badly buried that it sounded like a feeble ukulele struggling to be heard over the grandiose orchestra. The remainder of Thieves and Poets is a reunion of McLaughlin with the Aighetta Quartet, the fabulous guitar foursome he recorded with on 1993’s gorgeous Bill Evans tribute Time Remembered (Verve). On the new one, they perform four standards dedicated to four of McLaughlin’s favorite pianists: “My Foolish Heart” for Chick Corea, “The Dolphin” for Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Stella by Starlight” for Herbie Hancock and “My Romance” for Bill Evans.

In spite of the magnificent success of his latest symphonic project, McLaughlin insists that it’s his last. “I’m very happy with the recording, but it’s the last time I do anything with the orchestra. It’s just so much work. It’s about three years work, minimum two and a half years, to do an orchestral piece. And I had to fork over $28,000 of my own money just to finish the thing off. I was so over budget, but what are you gonna do? You know, music gives and music takes away, right [laughs]? But you have to do it right. That’s the way it is.”

Probably in reaction to the huge demands of his more “serious” orchestral outing, McLaughlin is planning to blow it all out on his next recording. “I think the critics will crucify me [for my new project], which is what I’m looking forward to. I’m going to destroy everything. I want to do something underground, unconventional. I’d like to get Eric Johnson and Steve Vai involved in this project. They’re guys that I’ve known for years, and great guitar players, but I’d like to put them in another environment, in a situation that they’ve never been in before. And I’d like to get some sax players-jazz players and other kinds. And I’ll definitely use Shankar Mahadevan, the amazing vocalist who appears on Remember Shakti’s Saturday Night in Bombay. I’ve been thinking about this underground thing for three years but I just haven’t had time to do it. I’m dying to get it out. It’s like giving birth.”

Meanwhile, McLaughlin is being confronted by his own past with a couple of recent reissues on Columbia/Legacy-a five-CD boxed set of Miles Davis’ 1970 rock-fueled Jack Johnson sessions, in which the guitarist played a pivotal role, and 1972’s Love Devotion Surrender, his Coltrane-inspired collaboration with fellow guitar hero Carlos Santana. “You know, I had a great jam with Santana last year,” McLaughlin says. “We were in Zurich for a weekend, and Santana was there too, so we got together on stage. I mean, he’s playing these football stadiums now, 45,000 people and up. I’m very happy for him that he’s got such great success now. He was going through a rough time but now he’s enjoying a phenomenal success. He’s such a sweety.”

Also, out in February, is an instructional DVD, How to Master Guitar. “Maybe it might be useful to somebody before I disappear into the void,” he demurs. “So, I’ve got a lot of things on my plate.”