Q&A: John McLaughlin Talks Miles Davis, Indian Philosophy and Frank Zappa's Jealousy
At 68, legendary guitarist John McLaughlin has nothing left to prove.
He's played with everyone from Miles Davis to Jimi Hendrix. And, as leader of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the '70s, McLaughlin created a bold new fusion of jazz, rock and Indian influences that remains some of the most challenging music ever recorded.
Currently on tour with a new ensemble that makes a stop tonight at the Granada Theater, McLaughlin was kind enough to take some time and talk about his illustrious career. Read our Q&A with the virtuosic composer in full after the jump.
What do you think of the term "jazz fusion"?
It doesn't bother me. Jazz has been "fusing" for a long time. The first major fusion in my opinion was the work Miles Davis did with Gil Evans in the late 1950s with LPs like Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain.
What was it like working with Miles Davis? What is your favorite Davis album you played on?
A dream come true! I'll be forever indebted to him for what he gave me. Inspiration and encouragement since 1958. The first, In a Silent Way, for obvious reasons. Another real favorite is Jack Johnson.
You might be the only person to play with Miles Davis and Jimi
Hendrix. What is it about your playing that lends it to both the jazz
and rock genres?
I like great jazz and great rock. Don't forget: My growing up decade was the 1960s, and so much music of so many different kinds came out during those years. Miles, of course, but the amazing recording of Coltrane's A Love Supreme in 1965. By 1967, I'd become a fan of the Beatles, and hearing players like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix who did such a great work with the electric guitar.
When did you play with the Rolling Stones? Did you enjoy working with them?
Only on a session with Mick, who was a nice person. No pretentions, but the recording was just another session for me at that time.
Are sessions with rock acts as rewarding for you as playing with jazz musicians?
Today's jazz musicians have grown up with rock just like me. Plus, rock has also evolved considerably. However, rock musicians will not be able to provoke me musically in the way I like to be. This is still the domain of the accomplished jazz musician.
Did the infamous personality clashes of The Mahavishnu Orchestra add or detract from the band's music?
The band was great. The musicians were great also. In the end, I think that the band had too much success too quickly. The music stayed great right to the end.
What first attracted you to music and philosophy from India?
I've been attracted to music since I was five years old. My mother was an amateur violinist, so there was lots of music in the house. I don't have an answer as to why I'm attracted to India other that, in the 1960s, people like me were finding answers to the great questions of life in Indian philosophy. The music was just a matter of time. Jazz and Indian music share a lot of common ground. There are marvelous improvisers in India, rhythmic improvisers, and this gives us a lot in common.
Greg Ginn of the punk band Black Flag claims your guitar playing was
an influence on him. What is it about your style that influences
guitarists across genres?
Wow, I really don't know.
Jeff Beck and Pat Metheny have said you are the world's greatest guitarist. What do you think of such accolades?
Very humbling, since I consider them to be among the world's greatest. When I was a young man, I was definitely ambitious. However, to have had a life in music is such a blessing. I don't think like that anymore. There is no greatest in music; it's not the same as in boxing. In music everybody wins.
What do you think about the late Frank Zappa's criticism of your work
as simply "operating a guitar like a machine gun?" Do you think that
Zappa was right when he said that the whole trend in the music business was that faster is better?
I think he was just jealous! I toured with Frank, and while I've always enjoyed his recordings, on tour he would take very, very long guitar solos, and he just didn't have what it takes to play long guitar solos. That said, he has every right to his opinions, and in earlier days, I'm sure he had some validity in his criticisms of my playing.
Who would you like to collaborate with in the future?
Basically, I have a permanent electric band in the form of the 4th Dimension. It's a great band. I continue to organize tours with Shakti group, and just a few years back I recorded another piece for acoustic guitar and symphony orchestra. So you can see that I'm in a very fortunate position with regard to playing. Next year, I'll do a concert with Santana, and in the fall I'll be in New York for a few days with one of my oldest friends, Chick Corea.
Who do you listen to these days?
On my iPod, you'll find music from Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Sly and the Family Stone, Hendrix, Jeff Beck, The Eagles, Take 6. Chick Corea, Gozaalo Rubalcaba, Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, Vilayapatti Subramaniam, Bach, Mozart, Scriabin and assorted Asian underground bands. The list grows.