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Be specific: John McLaughlin on jazz greats and technology

By Aaron Leitko

john mclaughlinJohn McLaughlin has jammed with many of the greats. (Thomas Dorn)

Guitarist John McLaughlin has been shredding for 47 years. He's a bonafide jazz great that has met, and performed with, most of the greats. McLaughlin played with Tony Williams's Lifetime, backed up Miles Davis, and founded spiritual-prog-jazz behemoth, Mahavishnu Orchestra. He even jammed with Jimi Hendrix. And he doesn't regret any of it. At least, not from a musical standpoint. McLaughlin -- in town Sunday performing at the Birchmere with his quartet, The Fourth Dimension -- spoke to Click Track about guitar gadgets, his enduring connection to John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," and why Miles Davis named a song after him.

In the liner notes for your latest record, “To the One,” you talk about the profound influence that John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” had on you. Can you talk about what this record has meant to you and how it has influenced your music? What were you into before you heard it? Where did you feel your music going afterward?

This recording changed my life forever. I'd been listening to Coltrane since "Milestones," which came out in '58. "A Love Supreme," though, was light years ahead of me and my understanding. Fortunately, Coltrane had written a beautiful poem/prayer on the back of the LP which helped and encouraged me beyond any words. I'd already begun my own personal search for answers to the eternal questions of life and death, but the fact that in one stroke Coltrane integrated in such a lovely way the dimension of spiritual awareness into jazz was a gigantic accomplishment.

I didn't consider where my music was going, I've never really considered that. What was important was where my life is going. It's my conviction that how we are outside is dependent on how we are inside. This was Coltrane's great lesson to me. Musically, of course, he is today still a guru to me. That said, my recording "To the One" was not a conscious homage to Coltrane.

Miles Davis’ record "Bitches Brew” was recently reissued. You played on this record. How did you wind up with a song named in your honor?

This is still a mystery to me. Miles has been another guru to me since 1958, and when I met him for the first time in January 1969, he must have felt how much I revered him. The fact that he continued to hire me for records and concerts is one of the greatest blessings of my life. Since Miles really cared about his musicians, it's clear he cared about me too. I still find it humbling that he would name a piece after me.

As a guitarist, you’ve always been willing to embrace new technology -- guitar synthesizers, MIDI. What draws you to new gadgets?

I think I share some parallels with painters. Frequently they use different materials -- wood, metal, oil, whatever, depending on the inspiration of that day. For me to have access to sounds from sound designing, to the pure sound of an acoustic guitar gives me a much wider palette of sounds. Only recently I wrote a piece for a ballet with no notes, only sound design.

Also, technology goes in and out of fashion very quickly. Looking back on your recorded works, are there any times you’ve regretted using a new and weird guitar setup instead of something more traditional?

Not really. I actually don't regret anything I've done. I've just tried to do my best, and while retrospectively I can see lots of faults, it was the best I could do at that time, and I just have to accept it with equanimity.

I read that you once jammed with Jimi Hendrix. What was that like? Was it difficult to find a middle ground between your playing styles?

It would be sometime in 1969 and I was playing with Tony Williams at the Village Vanguard in New York. Jimi was in town with the Experience and playing drums with him was an old friend of mine from Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, Mitch Mitchell. MItch was crazy about Tony -- we all were -- and after the gig Larry Young and I went with him to the Electric Ladyland studios. There was a jam happening with Jimi and we joined in. Jimi was a revolutionary with the electric guitar, and a very gracious person. He changed the electric guitar forever.

At 68, you’re still a very active musician, but are you an active listener? How much do you pay attention to new artists and musicians?

You may be surprised at the variety I have on my iPod. It all depends on what mood I'm in. I can go from Asian underground to Mozart or Bach, or the French Impressionist composers, to Sly and the Family Stone or Balachander, Mali and Vilayapatti Subramanyam. The last 3 being from my Indian heroes...

Throughout your career, you’ve worked hard to achieve a certain level technical proficiency. Clearly, chops are important to you. Do you think there’s still a place for virtuosity in today’s music? Are contemporary popular musicians lacking in that drive?

I don't believe so. The level of musicianship among the young musicians of today is phenomenal. Also the attitude to have "chops" doesn't apply to the musicians of today. It is as demanding for a musician to play jazz as it is for a musician to play classical music. Like in any other art form, it's essential to master the techniques of your instrument. Over the years I've been "accused" of having too much technique. It doesn't really bother me since my technique is only one part of my musical development. You need a really good grounding in harmony and rhythm to play jazz, and all of these aspects are required.

By Aaron Leitko  | November 12, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Be specific  | Tags:  John McLaughlin  
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Next: In concert: Chatham County Line at Jammin' Java


Great show at the Birchmere on Sunday. It's wonderful that we've been able to see John so many times in the past 10 or 12 years.

Posted by: omark | November 15, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

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