John McLaughlin Interview
BP: John McLaughlin, how are you?
JM: Very well, good morning Bob.
BP: It’s an honor and a pleasure to have you here.
JM: Thank you for the opportunity.
BP: You keep yourself healthy, and you sound great.
JM: You’re very kind. I’m a lucky guy as I’ve lost friends over the years for various reasons. But here I am trucking along at 71 musically I’ve never felt better.
BP: It really sounds that way.
JM: But of course the body doesn’t always agree with my mind but inside I’m still 29. As long as I can continue to play than I will keep playing that’s what I love to do.
BP: I haven’t seen you perform live in a while but some of the recent YouTube’s I’ve seen sound great, wow!
JM: The current band I have is one of the greatest I’ve ever had. They’re not just dedicated players, but they also have a great spirit which is critical with making good music.
BP: Having that spirit has always been important to you?
JM: Yes and no, it’s not like they sit down and meditate. But as human beings they are aware of the spiritual dimension, this is important. We could use more of this in the world today.
BP: No question. How long has this band been together?
JM: We’ve had a couple of personnel changes over the years but for the most part we’ve been together for eight or nine years. It all began with an invitation to an island named Larry Union which is a French island near Madagascar. And the festival people there told me to bring any band I wanted. I’d been thinking about a quartet and naming it the Fourth Dimension for some time. So we did a couple of concerts and it had such a great and fulfilling feeling musically. So I wanted to keep this band together even though I had other commitments at this time. I actually used two of the musicians on my “Industrial Zen” album. That would be Gary Husbands and Marc Montizere. The drummer Monitzere left us a little while ago, so Ranchard Barrell joined us on drums, he’s from India and I think he’s one of the greatest drummers ever. We hooked up when I recorded “Floating Point,” and not long after that recording he became a regular in my band. On bass is Itian Umbate who I met 12- to 13-years ago when he was with the Joe Zawinul Syndicate, we became good friends at that point.
BP: Another somewhat recently departed soul.
JM: Oh Joe, what a contribution he made to modern music, fantastic and wonderful. I met Joe the second day I arrived in the USA in 1969. “In a Silent Way” was Joe’s tune which became the title track to Miles Davis’ great album, which was another revolution in my life.
BP: I loved that recording and from around the same time I equally enjoyed “Tribute to Jack Johnson” too.
JM: From 1970, but 15 or so years later Miles and I were hanging out together and he says (in a gruff like Miles voice) Jack Johnson was my favorite album. Coming from Miles that really hit me because it was so spontaneous, that “Right Off” tune just came off with no preparation, usually Miles would bring in some pieces of paper with some chords on it, but on that particular session he hadn’t brought anything in. So here we are sitting in the studio with bassist Michael Henderson, and drummer Billy Cobham, which was the first time I met Cobham. Herbie Hancock was there, Steve Grossman on sax, but Miles was just talking to Teo Macero but we weren’t playing. So I set off this thing with these funny kinds of rhythm and blues chords that I’ve been thinking about for a long time as that’s how I survived in the UK playing R&B, so these chords ended up in Jack Johnson. I was playing these chords in the studio and Michael chimed in and Billy hit it, Miles heard it and ran into the studio and started playing his trumpet, Miles played at least seven minutes straight the most unbelievable solo. We hit that grove and that was what he loved about it, he really liked it, fresh, spontaneous and out of the box. It was really something especially when you think of the albums Miles had already made. Funny thing is that Jack Johnson (a soundtrack album) was never a commercial success at least that’s my recollection, but as a musical album it’s beautiful. It’s rhythm and blues Bob, with strange chords.
BP: Indeed. I recall some of your work with Graham Bond.
JM: That’s really going back! Graham’s band was a great band too with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, which was about two years before they became two-thirds of Cream. At the same time Clapton was with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers that was a long time ago. You know considering my age and all my memory still pretty clear! (Laughs)
BP: Pretty much the same with me.
Do you still keep in contact with many of the musicians from the sixties and seventies?
JM: To some degree, I see Cobham more often than others; we actually jammed a couple of years ago, another somewhat spontaneous thing. I was in Monteux for their festival, I go there every year because I like the hike the mountains with my family and check out some shows. There’s always a jam session there and got a call from the promoter asking me if I wanted to play at the session and I said yeah. I didn’t have a guitar with me, but they got one for me, and Billy Cobham was there too, the band that was scheduled had to cancel so Billy and I played old tunes from memory as I duo just me and drums. I know they tapped it, they tape everything there.
BP: How long ago was this?
JM: That would be two years ago. I saw Rick Laird two, three years ago, and Jerry Goodman and I exchange emails from time to time. I don’t hear much from Jan Hammer though. One of the regrets of my life was that band ended kind of acrimoniously which was disappointing for me. Usually musicians become like family when they play together, I loved them all and still care for them, but you know.
BP: Plus there’s the being younger factor.
JM: Oh yes, I was a brunette back then too (laughs).
BP: I’m happy that I like you still have a pretty good head of hair.
BP: Are you still in touch with Santana?
JM: About 18 months ago we had a 40 year reunion in Montreux the festival is wonderful it goes on for about three weeks and its beautiful country too. Carlos and I have some good history together and we performed songs from “Love, Devotion and Surrender,” some new songs too. You know he’s married to the drummer Cindy Blackman who I love dearly and she’s such a Tony Williams fan. She’s the only drummer I know that has that Tony Williams thing going on. I’ve always loved Tony too, I really miss him like Jaco, you know the trio of doom. So during our reunion show we also did a trio of Tony Williams Lifetime tunes as a quartet. Cindy, me and two others, I was just thrilled. So here we are playing tunes from the sixties from when I was with Tony Williams Lifetime. And it’s all on DVD including the three Lifetime’s songs is coming out next month. We just finished mixing; it was such a joyful occasion. And Carlos of course was just soaring away on his guitar, we had a wonderful time. Of course my old drummer Dennis Chambers is now with Carlos for some time now, so we all go back together for many years.
BP: Nice. Before we wrap this up I have a few more questions specifically from when you first came to the States. You made two records in your name with Alan Douglas, and have heard from others that these were not good deals for musicians especially when it came to getting paid?
JM: Douglas was a bit of a control freak. He wanted to direct the music, that album “Devotion” that I did for Douglas was done around the time when I went on tour with Tony Williams and Alan had gone into the studio and mixed and cut up what we recorded and I wasn’t really happy at all with what he did with it. You know the album with Buddy Miles, I met Buddy at a jam we did with Jimi Hendrix. Well Buddy had some boogaloo he was unbelievable. I first knew Jimi because I knew Mitch Mitchell and Mitch played with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames in the sixties so we all had old connections. I was also happy to meet Jimi and that his career really took off in the UK. By the way I think Eric Clapton had a hand in making Jimi’s career take off because Eric was doing some fantastic work with Mayall and of course Cream. That was amazing music! I also knew that Douglas was hounding Hendrix but I also knew subsequently that he wasn’t handling Jimi in the very best way. You know what I mean… So right around this time and after “Devotion” I wanted to make an acoustic recording “My Goals Beyond,” because I always loved the acoustic guitar too. So I told Douglas that if he came near the studio while we were recording that I would walk away. I was still upset with what Douglas had done to “Devotion.” So he stayed away. Douglas must have sold those albums 25 times over and over, but I would really like to be paid! The money disappeared.
BP: I’ve heard the horror stories.
You made that album “Spaces” with Larry Coryell.
JM: I was just a guest on that album. I knew Larry who is just a lovely guitar player too. In fact Larry was my first choice when for the guitar trio with Paco. Paco and I were talking about who we wanted as a third guitarist and I said let’s get Coryell.
BP: During the late sixties and seventies you came up when so much creative music was being shaped.
JM: The later part of the sixties and early seventies were amazing! So much great music came out of the sixties Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Miles’ recordings, then the psychedelic thing started that I was a part of. And of course the Beatles who I originally thought were a crummy pop band, but by “Revolver” I became a hardcore fan all the way through. We were all trying to find a way to express what we felt so deeply about. The Beatles did it in a beautiful and lyrical way. Then James Brown came out, so by the time I came along during the fall of 1970 I had just finished a gig with Miles, and Miles looked at me one night and said it’s time you formed your own band. That really blew my mind because that was the last thing I expected to hear to come out of Miles’ mouth. But I took him very seriously mainly because he was very sincere. So all of the music I grew up with from the sixties and for that matter the fifties especially “Miles Ahead,” and especially “Kind of Blue,” the perennial the eternal jazz recording, all made me feel for what I wanted to do with my own music. By the way I ended up playing with Miles to one of his last concerts in 1991. Yeah I know I dream about Miles from time to time too.
BP: I bet you do.
I see you are playing Bonnaroo again this year.
JM: They’ve been inviting me for quite a few years now, and I feel very honored. I’m really happy to be part of that festival because it’s got so much celebrity associated with it. Plus they get 80,000 people there those are big numbers Bob.
BP: I’m sure you got to bump into and hang with Derek Trucks, or I am certain he bumped into you.
JM: Yeah I know Derek for quite a while, first time I saw him he was with Clapton’s band. Eric invited me to the gig and when I saw Derek perform and I said; who is this kid playing guitar! I wanted to break his hands (laughs.) Seriously he’s a great player and a lovely guy. He also has a very strong affection for music from India too, so we have a lot in common and he’s such a fine guitarist.
BP: I’m amazed with his depth and knowledge of all kinds of music; he’s such a good student.
JM: No question I also love the way he interprets “My Favorite Things” in a Coltrane way.
BP: Me too, when he performs that tune my hair stands up on end.
JM: Derek’s really going for it!
BP: And what about you?
JM: I’m still working it out.
BP: Oh come on!
JM: Are you kidding? I’m getting up there now but I have to say that I still learn every day. It’s just endless for me.
BP: And thank God for that!
JM: Can you imagine what it would be like when you reach the end?
BP: No we don’t want that to happen.
I think I saw one of your first Mahavishnu gigs at My Fathers Place in Long Island.
JM: I remember My Fathers Place well, but I think our first gig was at the Bitter End on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village and we were on the same bill as John Lee Hooker. What a nice combination, those were the days when they booked shows with different styles of music. Anyway I will see you at the Blue Note next week.
BP: That you will, looking forward to it!
My buddy Bob Ruvolo has a picture of you that a professional photographer took of you from the early seventies that he’d like you to sign.
JM: I don’t want to see it (laughs)
BP: Last item, please pick a tune from your latest recording “Now Here This” for us to wrap-up this interview.
JM: Okay for those old hippies in your audience there’s tune called “Echoes from Then” which is a direct reference from the Mahavishnu Orchestra. When I wrote that tune I said to myself this is right out of the Mahavishnu book, which of course is part of my history. I like this piece a lot, and the performance on the record came out really well too.
BP: That’s the tune, thanks so much John.
JM: It’s been a pleasure.
BP: All mine too John.
Bob Putignano www.SoundsofBlue.com
Bob Putignano: www.SoundsofBlue.com
Weekly Music Editor at: http://www.WestchesterGuardian.com – NYC area Newspaper Now celebrating 15 + years on the air at WFDU http://wfdu.fm