To these 50-year-old ears that have experienced a lifetime of total immersion in all possible facets of guitar playing, John McLaughlin stands as the peerless Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of plectorists. His groundbreaking work with Miles Davis alone (on such important recordings as 1969’s “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” or 1970’s “Jack Johnson and Live / Evil”) would qualify him for mythic status in the six-string pantheon. Add to that his over-the-top jazzbo skronking in Tony Williams Lifetime (1969’s “Emergency!” and 1970’s “Turn It Over”) and his pyrotechnic fretboard abandon in that seething fusion juggernaut known as the Mahavishnu Orchestra (notably on 1971’s landmark “The Inner Mounting Flame” and 1972’s “Birds of Fire”), and you’ve got a bona fide guitar god. But he didn’t stop there.
Over the past 30 years, John McLaughlin has never stopped growing and changing, exploring different modes of expression, interacting with new artists or searching for the elusive sound of surprise. Today the 62-year-old guitar virtuoso still thrives on that exhilarating give-and-take between musicians that fuels the music and stirs our souls. In continuing to challenge himself as well as his listeners, McLaughlin has reinvented himself at least a dozen times in his illustrious, chameleonic career — from the acoustic purity of his intimate 1971 outing “My Goals Beyond” to the orchestral grandeur of Mahavishnu’s 1974 magnum opus “Visions of the Emerald Beyond”; from the intensely cathartic, Hendrix-inspired wailing of 1970’s “Devotion” to the refined elegance of his European classical-influenced outing from 1982, “Music Spoken Here”; from the fleet-fingered flamenco bravura of The Trio featuring fellow guitar virtuosos Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia to his kinetic excursions into South Indian karnatic music with Shakti and a more recent incarnation of the band known as Remember Shakti; from his many slamming forays into edgy, proto-punk-funk and earthy blues to his far-reaching symphonic ambitions played out in “The Mediterranean Concerto” (recorded in 1988 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra) and in “Thieves and Poets” (recorded in 2002 with the orchestra I Pommeriggi Musicali di Milano). The list goes on and on, and there’s always more on the horizon with John….more ideas to document, more paths to explore, more great musicians to collaborate with, more ways to provoke himself into creating new art.
I need provocation in music, I need to be provoked, McLaughlin says on the phone from Germany, where he’s spending Christmas with his wife Ina Behrend and his six-year-old son Luke. And I want to provoke too. Hopefully, I do. And I think deep inside we all need this, to get out of our lethargy and indolence.
Over the course of a two-hour phone chat, we compare notes about our kids and the climate of the times, about the state of jazz and the prospects for his next underground studio recording as well as his upcoming instructional DVD (“How to Master Guitar”, due out in the Spring) and the 17-cd boxed set retrospective culled from his various performances from 1974 to 1999 at the Montreux Jazz Festival [a mammoth WEA-Switzerland undertaking done in conjunction with festival founder Claude Nobs, The Montreux Concerts is being released only in Europe but is being made available to McLaughlin fans Stateside via www.abstractlogix.com]. Along the way, John reflects on myriad of topics, including the sobering reality of turning 62 on January 4th.
Bill Milkowski: Last night I saw Gary Thomas. He was playing up at Smoke, a very hip nightclub on the Upper West Side.
John McLaughlin: Oh man! Gary…I haven’t seen him for a while now.
BM: He’s been touring with Herbie Hancock’s acoustic quartet.
JM: Oh, he’s touring with Herbie’ Yeah, isn’t that nice. I’m really happy for him. He’s one of my favorite musicians. Gary’s so original. He’s one of the most original players out there today. It’s like he’s taken the Sonny Rollins school to the nth degree.
BM: He’s really got those angular lines going on in his playing.
JM: Yeah, you can hear a lot of Sonny in his playing but also Eric Dolphy. The first time I heard Gary it was so refreshing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Coltrane freak. Anybody who plays like Trane, as a lot of the tenor players do, I think it’s great. Like Michael (Brecker) for example. But Gary is something else.
BM: Hey, did you know it was Paco’s (De Lucia) birthday this Sunday’
JM: This Sunday’ Man, I forgot. I always forget birthdays. But Bill, when you get 61 of them you want to forget them, OK’
BM: Tell that to Elvin Jones, right’ He probably stopped counting birthdays 20 years ago. That’s an eternally youthful cat right there.
JM: He’s unbelievable. In fact, I was just talking to Joey (DeFrancesco). We exchanged emails recently. He wants me to do something on one of his records, and he wants to get Elvin on it too…kind of like the trio revisited [McLaughlin recorded with Jones and DeFrancesco on 1995’s “After The Rain” for Verve]. Anyway, we’ll see what happens. Nothing’s fixed yet. I mean, talk about two generations and talent…both of them unbelievable!
BM: Last night I went out and saw the Jaco Pastorius Big Band with Victor Wooten playing bass.
JM: No kidding’ He can play too!
BM: Yeah, and I got a chance to meet Jaco’s daughter Mary. I hadn’t seen her since she was a kid. She’s 33 now and has her own kids.
JM: Oh god! Unbelievable! And what’s very nice is that she was there in remembrance of her father. Good for her too.
BM: Yeah, Jaco’s father Jack was there too.
JM: Oh my. Ah, well…Jaco. What can you say, huh’ Jaco had that thing. He had those healing hands. Too bad he couldn’t have healed himself. But it’s very sweet that his daughter came to the big band thing. That must’ve been really nice. Yeah, Jaco and I went back a long time. The first time I met him I was rehearsing with the last edition of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which was with Narada Michael Walden, Ralphe Armstrong and Stu Goldberg on keyboards. We were at S.I.R. studios in New York and at some point the rehearsal room door swings open and in walks Jaco. Now, I didn’t know Jaco from Adam and he said, Hey man, let’s jam! You know Jaco…walk right in, move in, take over. And I said, Oh yeah’ What do you play’ And he said, I play bass. So I said, Oh, OK, let’s jam. And he was unbelievable. But before we started jamming he said, Hey man, can you lend me $20. I got a flat tire driving in from Florida. My car’s parked outside… I got a flat. And it took him like 17 years to pay back the $20, not that I wanted it back. But it was very sweet. I used to tease him about it all the time. But he came in that day and he was playing unbelievable. I mean, if I didn’t have Ralphe at the time…Ralphe was and still is a great bass player. So I told Jaco, I got a great bass player, man. But I called Tony Williams that night and said, Tony, you gotta hear this kid play. He’s unbelievable. Next thing I knew…it must’ve been a couple of months later, I know he did some gigs with Tony. Tony did call him to play but nothing much came of it because shortly after that Jaco got hooked up with Wayne (Shorter) and Joe (Zawinul). So he moved in and took over Weather Report, as you remember. But actually, he did a good job because he did a lot of renewal feelings in that he brought this modern kind of sound and tone into the band. I mean, he brought the Jaco sound, and that was wonderful. And that was great what happened to Weather Report. At that time too, the edition of Weather Report with Jaco and Alex Acuna and Manolo Badrena toured with Shakti. And it was a great combination for a tour. We did a lot of tours together but what was amazing was every night we’d be playing and the Weather Report guys would be at the side of the stage digging it, and then on their set we’d be at the side of the stage, because they were killing! This must’ve been ’76-’77. That was amazing. And then we’d jam too, every now and then. I remember one great jam we had in London at the Hammersmith Odeon. I have some great memories of Jaco and I have a great picture at home too of Joe, Jaco and me on the beach of Havana. Remember the Bay of Gigs’ (laughter). Do you know that story about him and Tony and me’
BM: The fabled Trio of Doom?
JM: (laughs) Yes indeed, the Trio of Doom. That trio was unbelievable. It was amazing. When they were on it was unbelievable to play with those guys. Anyway, rehearsals were phenomenal. We had only three tunes that we were going to play (at the historic Havana Jam in Cuba). So we went down to Havana and we had a tune each. We started off with my tune, The Dark Prince, which was a kind of blues in Cminor with some altered changes. But the thing is, Jaco altered everything. He turned his amp up to 11 and started to play A major, which is like a little far away from C minor…and unbelievably loud! So we start to play the tune, Tony’s looking at me, I’m looking at Tony and it’s like, What the fuck’ And in the meantime Jaco’s upfront with the bass between his legs, doing his thing…it was almost like Jimi Hendrix. And the whole set went like that. When we finished the set, I was so angry at Jaco. Tony too. And we walked off stage and Tony was already up and running to the bathroom…he was about to throw up. Anyway, Jaco came down and said, Oh, man, you bad mother! And I said, What’ You have the nerve to speak to me after this travesty on stage. I don’t even want to see your face, I don’t want to hear you, I don’t want to see you. And it all came out, and in about 15 minutes later it was fine. But Tony couldn’t get it out, right’ And it was such a farce. Anyway, CBS called me about two weeks later and said, So, we’re going to put it out. And I said, You’re going to put what out’ You’re not going to put that out. You put it out over my dead body. That’s terrible. So they asked if we wanted to re-record it over at Columbia Studios on 52nd Street. So we all went into the great CBS Studio on 52nd Street where we did all those great things with Miles — “In A Silent Way”, “Bitches Brew” and all of that. So we start re-recording the tunes and in the meantime, Tony’s not looking at Jaco. I mean, forget about speaking, he’s not even looking at him. And Jaco’s already very nervous. So we start playing and we did my tune again. So we do one take and we go in the control room to listen back and Jaco says, Well, I think we can do it better. And all of a sudden Tony jumps in front of Jaco and says, Better’ Better, motherfucker’!! He pushed Jaco up against the wall. I had never seen Tony angry but that was like a little volcano action, man, I tell you. And Jaco’s like…Hey man, I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry. Tony didn’t hit ’em or anything, but when Tony got mad you just get out of the way. He had Jaco up against the wall and Jaco was like apologizing profusely. He knew he fucked up bigtime. So after 10 minutes of Tony blasting him with both barrels, Tony went into the studio and destroyed his drumkit. (laughter). And I said, You gotta record with this! He destroyed his kit and walked out of the studio and that was it. What a shame. But hey, who’s perfect in this world’ But I told Jaco off right away back in Havana. I got rid of all the rats and snakes right off the stage, but Tony had it balling up, stewing around there for a while for he finally exploded. He always had difficulty with getting it right out. So yeah…Jaco was crazy, but what a player! He was too much. Boy I miss him. I miss Tony too. What a tragedy.
BM: You know, speaking of Tony…Jack DeJohnette is doing a Lifetime tribute with Larry Goldings on organ and John Scofield on guitar.
JM: I know, John got a hold of me. Yeah, he wants to do Plectrum Spectrum, one tune that I used to do with Tony and Larry, and he was looking to get the chart on that. Anyway, I didn’t have the chart. But I’m very happy about that tribute because Jack took a lot from Tony. And I mean, Tony anyway had so much to give. But Jack took a lot from Tony and made it his own way. So I’m glad he’s doing this thing for Tony. That’s very nice. I like to see that happen because, especially with people like Tony because…you know, that guy revolutionized drums for everybody. He was amazing. Did you ever see the trio we had with Larry (Young). Or maybe…no, that would be before your time. You were a punk kid, right’
BM: In 1970′ I was 16.
JM: 16! Almost old enough to go to Ummgano’s.
BM: Well, unfortunately, I was living in Milwaukee at the time so…
JM: (he laughs) In Milwaukee! Hey! That’s Michael Moore country. Were you a member of the NRA already’
BM: (doing my best Jack Benny imitation): Now cut that out!
JM: (Laughs)…holy shit!
BM: Well, I came to New York in 1980 and then I done got hip.
JM: OK…(laughs). Oh my! Thank god there are people like Michael Moore around. A real Wisconsin man.
BM: Oh yes. And a very subversive man indeed. We need people like him.
JM: Oh yes, do we ever, and never more than now. Ah, what to do…
BM: So John, let’s get to it then. Looking at all the stuff you’ve done over the course of your career, it occurs to me that you are a real ‘band guy.’ The concept of having a band seems to appeal to you. And over time you’ve had these great bands. It’s never been The John McLaughlin Show with anonymous backup musicians. You’ve already cultivated great bands that depended on a high degree of interaction.
JM: Yeah, I don’t know why it is. But you know, I was a sideman for along time too. But that’s the best school anyway. No doubt about it. I don’t know why, I think it has to do with this collective thing and intercommunication…because you know, whenever I start speaking about it, it’s like, Well, what are you guys doing on the stage’ You’re playing music, you’re playing notes. And that’s great but it’s not enough, is it’ You know, it’s what’s behind the notes, what’s inside the notes, and that’s to do with what’s going on between the musicians. OK, it’s also about you and your relationship with the universe, tra-la-li- tra-la-la, etc. you know, but at the same time unless you’ve got some kind of direct line to the guys you’re playing with, there’s something missing. That’s just the way I always seem to see it and I haven’t changed. I still feel that way very strongly. I feel very strongly about playing more than notes with the people, particularly in jazz music or Indian music or any music that deals with improvisation. I have always felt that improvisation is like the most honest kind of music in the sense that if you’re spontaneous then you’re being yourself. Because you can only be yourself spontaneously, and you can only be spontaneous with other people. I mean, I used to run into Paul Motian in the Sufi center in the late ’60s and early ’70s and we’d see Hazrat Inyat Khan speaking and this guy is a very, very high person. And he would stand up in front of the 40 or 50 people there who were into him and he’d just be looking out at people in the audience without saying anything for about three or four minutes, which is a long time if you’re waiting for somebody to speak. But he’d be like in the ozone but in a very special way, waiting for the words to come and being totally real and totally spontaneous with the people. And this is really beautiful to see. In fact, it’s the most natural state of human beings. Anyway, that’s kind of an analogy to what I feel about music, which is to say we’re really ourselves most naturally when we’re being spontaneous with each other, which is the best way to be in life anyways. You know, when you have a family, everybody is spontaneous with each other and sometimes a little brutally honest, but nevertheless it’s spontaneous so it cannot really be bad. And that is really my philosophical foundation, if you like, about how groups should be. And maybe this is why I always want great players. I need stimulation, I need them to kick my ass, as it were, and provoke me in some way that will push me to a place that I don’t know, that I’ve never been before.
BM: Well that really defines all the bands that you’ve had over time whether it’s the Mahavishnu Orchestra, One Truth Band, Shakti, The Heart of Things, Remember Shakti…it’s all in that realm.
JM: Oh yeah…but you know, they’re all experiments, Bill. I think that’s all we can do, really. And some experiments are more successful than others. Certainly some experiments have a longer life than others. For example, take this relationship I have with Zakir (Hussain), which has been ongoing for over 25 years now. And it’s one of my eternal regrets that I was never able to get the original guys from the first Mahavishnu together because I loved that band, I really did. And when I think we were only together for two years, it makes quite an impact. I always hoped that the music would be stronger than the bullshit, but some bullshit is very strong, as you know. And no matter how you try, it’s hard to get through it. Anyway, I gave up trying after a few years. But, you know…what to do.
BM: Your relationship with Zakir is quite strong and continues to grow.
JM: Oh yeah…not that we don’t fight. We have terrible fights sometimes, just like a family. He’s like a brother, he’s like family. And who doesn’t fight with their family’ I don’t know anyone who doesn’t fight with their family. But at the same time, you know, you get over that and you end up in a better place. But I also understand that sometimes it hard for people to get over their bad memories. I just got the Eagles DVD, because I love the Eagles. They had such great songs, great lyrics too. And when they broke up they couldn’t stand the sight of each other anymore. But here it is 14 years later and they got back together for this performance. And that’s nice to see because behind all of that conflict within the band there is still a very strong spiritual, in a way, feeling and certainly affection that these guys have for each other. You know, it’s kind of a family feel. I was really happy to see it. It gave me a thrill just to see them on stage together again on this DVD. We (Mahavishnu Orchestra) toured with them once at the end of 1971. We opened up the first night and then they came to us and said, Guys, we’re gonna open up tomorrow night. And for the rest of the tour they opened up the show. The Eagles…they were great. That goes back a long time. But anyway, just to come back to your observation…I need provocation in music. I need to be provoked. And I want to provoke too…hopefully I do. And I think deep inside we all need this, to get out of our lethargy and indolence.
BM: Speaking about opening for the Eagles, the first time I saw the Mahavishnu Orchestra was when you opened for Frank Zappa in 1971 or 1972. .I was living in Milwaukee and you came to town. You were playing your Rex Bogue double neck at the time.
JM: Yes, I was. And Frank had a nice band. He must’ve had Jean-Luc (Ponty) in the band. He probably had Terry Bozzio playing drums. I just played Jeff Beck’s 60th birthday last year…we had a big jam in London and Terry was there. We had a good time together and we were talking about the old Zappa days.
BM: Didn’t you and Jeff Beck play together in your early days in London before coming over to the States and joining Lifetime’
JM: No, never..
BM: You weren’t session guys together.
JM: No, but you know who was’ Somebody who I gave lessons to…what was his name’ He played with Led Zeppelin…ah, Jimmy Page. Yeah, we used to do sessions together. And the bass player from Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones…we were with Herbie Goins and the Nightimers, an r&b band doing James Brown and Bobby Blue Bland covers. That was a nice band.
BM: That’s a period that I’m not really familiar with and some fans of yours probably don’t know much about either. We know about you playing with Alexis Korner, Graham Bond and Georgie Fame. What else were you doing before you came over to the States for the first time in 1969′
JM: I was struggling like everybody else. I was in a few bands. I had my own band, the one that I did Extrapolation with (Brian Odgers on bass, Tony Oxley on drums, John Surman on soprano and tenor saxes). Other than that I was in Gordon Beck’s quartet. That was a nice band, he’s a great pianist. And I was also in a trio with Danny Thompson, who was the bass player with Bert Jansch and John Renbourn…what was that band’ They had a folk band. [Pentangle] Anyway, Danny was the bass player and we were in a trio with a guy called Tony Roberts, a great tenor sax player…wonderful player, very inspirational. And what else was I doing’ I spent 18 months as a shark in the studio until I couldn’t stand it anymore and started flipping out.
BM: You played a lot of pop sessions’
JM: Yeah, you know…Winchester Cathedral, stuff with Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Petula Clark. I rememeber Dionne Warwick coming over and doing some recordings in London with Burt Bacharach and I was one of the guitar players on that session. That was nice. And in fact, I did a movie with Burt around that time…I forget which one it was. But then I met him later, much later, when Miles invited me to his house in Malibu. He was a neighbor of Burt Bacharach at the time. And I remember Burt coming over once and I said to him, Burt, I don’t know if you remember me but I played a session with you in London several years ago. He didn’t remember me, of course. I was just like some guy in the band. But it was nice because both he and Miles came to the first ever performance of “The Mediterranean”, which was done in Los Angeles with the L.A. Philharmonic. I remember Miles liking the second movement a lot. You know, it had this kind of Spanish mood. Finally, about two or three years later when I saw him at a festival I gave him a cassette of that particular recording (The Mediterranean: Concerto for Guitar And Orchestra, released in 1990 on CBS). We were hanging out in his hotel room and I said, Miles, I got a present for you, and I gave him this cassette. And he as like (doing a raspy Miles imitation), Foley, bring the ghetto blastah. So he put the cassette in the ghetto blaster while he was eating a salad. He didn’t say a word and he listened to the whole thing, all three movements. And then at the end he says, John, now you can die! (Laughter) He’s was too much! What a sweety. Oh man, I miss him! But those early days…you know, struggling, fighting, trying to find a way. You know, it’s hard. It’s hard to be a musician. It’s hard to know your way in life anyway. Before I left Britain…if you want to go back even further to when I was dropping all that acid…
BM: When was that’
JM: In the ’60s. It was part of the times, Bill (laughs).
BM: Was this during the same period of time that you were doing sessions with Petula Clark ?
JM: Yes, but I wouldn’t drop acid and then do a recording with Petula Clark…I wouldn’t recommend that to my worst enemy. (laughter) Oh god, that’s a terrible thought!
BM: Well, I understand what that’s about. I did that myself. It’s a whole period of experimentation and checking things out…seeing potentials and possibilities. And in your case it probably manifested in some interesting music.
JM: Yeah, but you know…I was struggling in my 20s. I was really struggling because I couldn’t find any guitar player that really spoke to me. The only people that really spoke to me were people like Miles and Trane and Bill Evans and their drummers. And by this time, of course, it was like late ’64-65…this was some period, man. I mean, don’t forget when “Kind of Blue” came out…that was ’59 and that swept me away. Of course, “Milestones” was before that. And then Trane came out with his thing and Miles kept doing his thing. Cannonball and Trane were both in Miles’ band, then Cannonball got his band together with his brother Nat. And these guys were all killing! For me, at that time, it was just normal. It was the music that was happening at that time. But when I look back at it now I see it was like a phenomenal period for jazz and for music in general. Man, just think of all that was going on in the early ’60s, and I was caught up right in the middle of it. I mean, I loved to listen to Wes Montgomery and Tal Farlow, but that was the old school. What can I tell you’ And I always used to wonder why Miles and Trane didn’t have guitar players. Why not, you know’ I used to wonder, Why isn’t there somebody out there doing it on guitar like these guys are doing it on saxophones and trumpets’ So I was trapped in this frustrating place. And you know, when you’re a guitar player and you listen to Coltrane all the time and you’re hearing him ripping up and down his instrument, playing those sheets of sound…and you’re hearing Miles, of course, playing gorgeous melodies like always…just trying to get a conception for my own instrument that was anywhere near that level was tough. And in the meantime, I’m dropping acid and I finally figured out, Well, I’ve got to find a way to alter my state of consciousness without chemicals. And that’s another trip…trying to get your life together and be strong in a natural way. It was rough, it was very rough. You know, I tried lot of different things. I joined some meditation group and even before that it was the Theosophical Society in London. But you know, the only good thing about that was they had a good library and I found some good books in there that opened me up to some new ideas. Then I started doing yoga and started doing meditation and became a member of some group in London, but it just wasn’t happening for me. So I just quit that right away and continued (my search). And I just kept doing yoga until I became a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. I was already in New York by that time. But by early ’68, before I came over, I’d finished the whole studio scene. I just couldn’t deal with it anymore and I was just back to my poverty-stricken days but at least happy about not having to go and deal with Tom Jones and Petula Clark…not that I don’t like them pesonally, but it’s different when you’re in a session doing their music.
BM: It seems like it’s part of your character that you’re constantly searching and always hungry for new ideas to incorporate into your own thing. Some people are complacent and they’re very content to do one thing and that’s it. They don’t seek the diversity.
JM: Yeah, and sometimes I’m very jealous of these people, Bill…I tell ya. They find their thing and they can just lay with it, you know’ It’s kind of nice too. I must seem very restless to these people. But at the same time I know that’s part of my nature and I’ve accepted that a long time ago. At the same time, it gave me headaches because I’m restless, because I’m looking for new forms, trying to find something new. And of course, we can go on forever looking for new forms. Fortunately in music you can go on forever. And I will die looking for new forms. But that’s the way I’m made, so I just accept it like that. Maybe growing up with the background that I had…you know I’m trying to be a jazzman, I’m into Trane and Miles, I’m hearing all this great music — A Love Supreme and Miles in Europe where he’s playing all these standards. And then, of course, in my early days when I was a teenager I was so crazy about flamenco music that I wanted to be a flamenco guitar player. Meanwhile, I’m playing r&b with Georgie Fame, and that’s cool because when you hear Charles Mingus that’s r&b too. You take the r&b out of jazz, you don’t have any jazz. And I’m also into Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whom I had the great fortune to play with in London. Rahsaan was totally jazz but he was so funky and had such a blues thing too. That’s why I love Mingus and Monk, because you could feel the blues so deeply in their music. So I’m a young guitarist in love with jazz but in the meantime I’m trying to survive by playing tunes by James Brown, who I love also, I gotta tellya. I love that music. But I was being pulled every which way by all these movements, all these different kinds of music — jazz, flamenco, r&b, blues — so in the end I was just a big melting pot where they all kind of mix up. And you know, that’s what I am. I’m just a big mix of all these cultural influences tied up with my own restlessness. Anyway, who can figure out what we are. I’m the biggest mystery of all…myself.
BM: Going back to that period of when you were a teenager and you were attracted to all these different music…there’s a difference between liking music and then jumping over the line and committing yourself to becoming a musician. Was there a significant moment where you realized that you were a musician and that this would be your life’s work’
JM: I remember the first time…it’s a very strange story. A little anecdote: My parents were divorced when I was seven. They split. And they tried to get together quite a few years later, and I was already 12 or 13 by this time and playing guitar. My mother allowed me the chance to study piano when I was about eight years old and that was really great. She was wonderful, my mother. She was just one of my greatest inspirations. What she did for me I will never be able to describe. Anyway, one day my father was back and they were trying to, like, get it together. I must’ve been 13. So it was just me and him in living room and one point he says to me, So what do you want to do when you grow up’ And I said, I’m gonna be a musician. And he said, No, a real job. I mean, what a moron this guy is, what an idiot! I mean, he doesn’t know anything. And that was a real clincher for me.
BM: So maybe you became a musician almost out of defiance of your father ‘
JM: Well, yeah, there was that. And then there was the other side of it too, the obvious benefits of being a musician. I must’ve been 14 or 15 and I had a little band…it was like a skiffle band, not really jazz…just school kids, right’ And we got a gig! And I tellya, I made more money in than one night than I did like in one year’s worth of pocket money. And I’m saying to myself, This is unbelievable. So there’s the thrill of playing music together and you’re getting paid on top of it. Plus, there’s a couple of little girls around, which also caught my attention. And I thought, What a life this is! You see some very nice aspects to the musical life.
BM: That’s right. It’s like what John Lee Hooker once said. Somebody asked him the secret to his longevity in music and he attributed it all to The Three Ms — music, money and mmmpussy.
JM: (Uproarious laughter). Oh man! He was great, huh’ Whew! What to say’
BM: But I know what you’re talking about. It’s an exciting thing for a young man living the musical life. You’re paid, you’re making music, there’s chicks around.
JM: I know, it’s like being a giggolo.
BM: How could you not go into that life?
JM: Yeah, plus I was just so into it I could not imagine myself doing anything else. And not only that, I don’t think I would’ve been good at anything else. Yeah, I wasn’t good at anything in school.
BM: So you were determined to become a musician but you didn’t get swept up into Beatlemania and wanting to join a pop band?
JM: Oh no, no…by the time the Beatles came out I was a jazz snob, are you kidding’ I’m listening to Coltrane and the Beatles come out with their first record and I said, What is this shit’ This is not art. I mean, I wanted to hear Giant Steps, not I Want To Hold Your Hand. No, I was already a snob by this time. It was only later when we were all dropping acid they did “Revolver” that they really grabbed my attention. I checked out that album and said, Wait a minute! because I knew they were doing the same thing I was doing…’cause it’s in the music. You can hear it, it’s beautiful. And then “Sgt. Pepper’s” came out and by that time I was a big fan. And I remained one of their greatest admirers. But I never had any desire to go that way myself. No, I was already swept away by jazz. But don’t forget, I must’ve been 15 when I heard all that music — Miles, Trane, Cannonball, Red Garland, Jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones. I mean, this was the big revolution for me. That was a whole big revolution in jazz too. A whole new school of jazz came out. And this was not neo bebop, this was the new thing, you know’ And I got swept away by that. So the idea of going Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean…no way, Bill. No way. It was impossible. But for good or for bad, there was only one idea I had. I wanted to be a jazz guitar player and be able to play with the great players. But I have to say thanks to Miles again because Miles always had killer players with him. And that always disturbed me when I would hear his bands later on and he’d have sidemen that weren’t up to his standards. It stills disturbs me to this day. That comes back to one of your original things that you said, the fact that I like to have strong players who provoke me. And I think it comes from Miles too…I really do. Because he always had the killingest players in his band, and that’s the best kind of bands that you could ever find.
BM: And he always found ’em young too. Jackie McLean was 18 when he joined Miles, Tony Williams was 17, Michael Henderson was 19. Miles had a knack for finding these incredibly talented, young, hungry players.
JM: Oh yeah, throughout his whole career. Charles Lloyd was like that. I remember hearing Charles’ “Sunflower” record in 1968 and not only did he have Jack (DeJohnette) in his band at the time but he had Keith (Jarrett) as well, and Keith was killing on that record. Amazing. I always liked Charles because he had that hippie thing but he also had the sound and he was always soulful. I know he got a lot of criticism for hanging out with the Beach Boys and all that but I always admired Charles and I always loved his sound. He loves Trane as much as I do, this is clear, but he’s so soulful too. Just listen to him play ‘Georgia on Water Is Wide’. It’s beautiful. And what a great solo from Brad Mehldau! In a way, Brad plays very different with Charles than he does on his own records. But you know, Charles brought Keith onto the scene. And I also remember hearing Chick (Corea) back in 1967 when he was in Montego Joe’s band. I heard Chick and thought, Man, this guy is going to be with Miles. It has to be. He’s playing too good. And I found out about Chick from Dave (Holland). When he got picked up by Miles and he went to America to play with Miles, Dave would send tapes back to all his pals in England like myself and Tony Oxley and John Surman. So we’d all gather around and listen to this stuff because we were all so poor we couldn’t afford to go out and buy the albums for ourselves. You know, this was ’68, it was a different world then. The idea of people going from the U.K. to the States was rare. I mean, there were exceptions like Victor Feldman, a fantastic British pianist, and George Shearing, another Brit. But it was rare. So we were so proud when Dave went over to America to play with Miles. And who was on the first tape he sent back’ Chick Corea. That was great for me because I had a great feeling about Chick then…I always did. I just love his playing. There’s a duet we did together on this Montreux boxed set (the 17-cd Montreux Concerts) where Chick is playing beautifully, really wonderful. It’s from 1981, over 20 years ago. Yeah, my hair was long and black then (laughs).
BM: Did you work closely with (Montreux Jazz Festival founder) Claude Nobs on compiling the material for that boxed set or did he just present it to you for final approval?
JM: Well, Claude and I go back to 1971, the first time we played at Montreux. But he didn’t have video or audio equipment hooked up at the time, so that band is not represented on this boxed set. That was in the old casino, the one that burned down with Zappa’s instruments in it. What a tragedy that was.
BM: As documented in the Deep Purple song ‘Smoke on the Water’?
JM: Yeah! (laughter). Anyway, it must’ve been a year ago that we went up to see Claude. We drove up there to Montreux in the winter and we sat and talked about it. And I was very touched by it, to tell you the truth. Because Claude single-handedly put that festival together and that is some passion he’s got for music, especially jazz music. Yeah, he’s really something. And years back I’ve stayed at his house when I was going through a tricky time in life and, you know, he’s just always been so cool. You chill out at Claude’s chalet and you can watch all these fantastic videos that he’s got. I mean, he’s got the greatest collection in the world. It’s unbelievable…audio and video. Anyway, he did a similar boxed set with Miles a few years ago and he said, I want to do you next. And I felt so honored by that. I mean, he just did Mile, my all-time life hero, and he’s doing me next’ I mean, jeez…I felt a little nervous, you know what I’m saying’ But he sent me the cds eventually which I was able to control and I just gave him names of tunes and sidemen so he had all that information correct. And I tell you, when I started listening to that stuff and it blew my mind! Some of the concerts we had over the years were incredible. And Claude was always cool in the sense that he didn’t care that I would be playing with some Indian musicians in 1976, one year after I had been there with the Mahavishnu electric band, or that I go there with Paco (De Lucia) or whoever. He’s just into the music, he always was and he always will be. And this is one of his greatest qualities, apart from being a wonderful person too. But you know, Herbie and I did a thing together a couple of years back in Cannes for MIDEM. It was a special thing for Claude’s 65th birthday. Herbie and I did a couple of Bill Evans tunes and Josh Redman came on, then Richard Bona came on. So we played some tunes for his 65th birthday. And then Claude came on stage and presented us with these huge cowbells…one for me, one for Herbie. You know, these were huge cow bells that weighed 20 pounds each, made in a foundry with a huge leather thing that goes around the cow’s neck. Really beautiful and a sweet gesture. So Claude is basically a sweetheart. And when he proposed the boxed set as a historic document, it made me feel old. But I’m getting old, you know. And as I say, when I first listened back to some of the music, going back to 1974, it was so touching for me just to go through the years. It was like a time machine… all these images and memories came up in my mind that had been buried for years. So it was very moving to hear this stuff. And I just hope that people are interested in walking down memory lane. But we’ll see.
BM: Are there any bands not represented on that boxed set that you wish had been included?
JM: Well, I never played Montreux with the (Aighetta) guitar quartet. And I did an orchestral concert near Zurich but never at Montreux. That would’ve been nice to have that on there. I don’t think the Guitar Trio is on there. There’s me and Paco in a duet on there but I think there was a problem with Al not wanting to be on there. It’s just a shame. So the guitar Trio is not there. And you know what else is not there but should be is the trio with Trilok (Gurtu) and Dominique (DiPiazza). I’ve got that in video in a concert from Australia but we never played Montreux together. That was a great little trio. There’s another one that’s not on there, the band that made Belo Horizonte with Tommy Campbell on drums. Yeah, that’s not there either.
BM: What about the One Truth Band?
JM: Yeah, that’s up there. And not only is it up there, there’s two versions of the One Truth Band. There’s the second rhythm section with (bassist) Fernando Saunders and (drummer) Tony Smith. But the first group that we never recorded with is there also with Sonship playing drums and T.M. Stevens on bass guitar. Killing!
BM: I saw that band in Milwaukee.
JM: Oh, I’m glad. And Sonship…what a special person he is. I remember he was like deep into this mystical Christ religion and he’d be there yelling about Jesus and God on stage. I love that stuff. That’s totally real to me. We’d chant on stage and everything. I’m very happy we have that band included in this boxed set so people will have a chance to hear it also.
BM: We talked about your commitment to fielding strong bands over the course of your career, but there’s a couple of albums you did that weren’t really in that vein but were more all-star affairs — 1978’s “Electric Guitarist” and 1995’s “The Promise”.
JM: Let me explain by going back very briefly to 1970, because I think I owe my situation as a bandleader to Miles. I mean, maybe it would’ve been inevitable that I would’ve formed my own band at some point but I remember being on a gig with Miles at Lennie’s on the Turnpike outside of Boston in 1970. That was the back with Keith, Jack, Gary Bartz, Michael Henderson. Anyway, it was just me and Miles in the band room and all of a sudden he turns around and says to me, John, it’s time you form your own band. Right out of the blue! I tell you…it was like…because he was the most honest man I ever met. You always knew where you stood with Miles. Anyway, it was pretty mind-blowing to hear and the fact that he said it at that point was so kind of deep. I was like…I had to do it. you know what I’m saying’ If only to make what Miles said come true. It was really weird. I mean, it was wonderful because this guy had more faith in me than I had in myself. I didn’t think I was ready at the time. But I tell you, when somebody like Miles says something like that to you, it really hits you. And it hit me really deep. So I went home and I couldn’t stop thinking about what he told me and I figured, ‘Well, I gotta do it. And basically it really came from there. I have to tell you, that’s where it all started from. But to come back to your question about the all-star thing…I don’t know why…it’s not like I want to make a kind of walk down memory lane or an all-star band or anything, but there are so many great players around and it’s so nice to have a chance to play with them. Just the idea of having a lot of your dear friends that you don’t normally have a chance to play with because you know what the system is…it’s tied up with your touring, it’s tied up with your record company and it’s tied up with a kind of formation of record sales and tours go together. So you have a band, you make a record, the record comes out and you tour to sell the record. It’s a big commercial machine. And it still works that way kind of, for everybody, whether you’re pop, rock, r&b or whatever. So in the face of that system it’s a kind of a luxury item to be able to call a Dave Sanborn for a session. Dave and I go back to Electric Guitarist in ’78 and he also played on “The Promise” in ’95. And on “The Promise” it was also a chance to get together with Zakir, and I brought Al and Paco back together for one track on that recording, and that’s actually where we started up the idea of touring again…a big, big mistake. (laughter). But the piece we did on that album is nice and it was great to come together. And Michael Brecker is also on The Promise. I never recorded with him but we played in the loft scene together in ’69, and already he blew my mind. Michael’s unbelievable. So while I am a band guy, in the end I do these occasional all-star projects because I love these guys and the way they play. So it’s a luxury and if you can afford it every now and then, then you gotta go for it. And I’m gonna go for it again this coming year with this underground thing I’ve been thinking about. Yeah, my crazy record. I’m definitely going underground on this one. Yeah, I’m probably going to lose it completely, Bill.
BM: Well, now’s the time.
JM: Yeah, you know, when you get over 60 you’re allowed that kind of thing right’ (laughter) And if not, well, I’m gonna do it anyway. (laughter). But I’ve got a lot of ideas for this project. I’d like to have Dominique come and just do one piece. I’d like to get Eric Johnson and Steve Vai involved in this project. They are guys that I’ve known for years and are great guitar players, but I’d like to put them in another environment, you know, in a situation that they’ve never been in before. I’d also like to get some great sax players like David Sanborn, Michael Brecker and Chris Potter. And I’ll definitely use Shankar Mahadevan, the amazing vocalist who appears on 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’ve got a lot of ideas already and I’m dying to get it out. It’s like giving birth. And when it’s finally done I think the critics will crucify me on this one, which is kind of what I’m looking forward to. I’m going to destroy everything that I ever did with this one.
BM: Go ahead, John!
JM: (laughs) I’m going for it, man, I’m going for it! I’ve got stuff buzzing around in my brain and I definitely gotta blow it up. Yeah, I want everybody and their grandmother on this one…well, maybe not their grandmother, but you know…a lot of players. Like Vinnie Colaiuta, for example. I only got to play with him real briefly with Sting on this Jimi Hendrix symphony (1995’s “In From The Storm”) and also on a tune (English Jam) from “The Promise”. And Vinnie’s out of this world. He’s an unbelievable drummer. I also want to get Dennis (Chambers) on this project and I want to get Carlos (Santana) to come on. And there’s another guy I gotta get on my new project, Gonzalo (Rubalcaba). We jammed together once. I got it on mini-disc. He’s unbelievable, amazing. No worries about the future of music when there’s so much talent coming up like Gonzalo and Chris Potter. It’s very heart-warming, isn’t it’ So for this next project of mine there’ll be all these cameo appearances in musical situations that they might not be accustomed to. You know, that’s provocative, and I think we all need that a little bit. Hopefully, I can put it all together so that it’ll be an interesting provocation for them and not in a regular form. I just basically want to destroy every form I ever invented, and put it back together with a new slant on it. But I want the players there, you gotta have the playing to make it meaningful. You gotta have that thing happening between the musicians.
BM: That kick in the ass quality.
JM: Yeah, I need it, man. And this thing has been on the back burner for at least four years now. I feel very happy that I did the orchestral record (2003’s “Thieves And Poets”) but it should’ve been the other way around. I should’ve done the underground album first and the orchestral project second. That’s how I planned it…not that anybody imposed this order on me but that’s just how it came out. The orchestral project came up first and I just had to do it first and the other went on the back burner. But I’m going for it this year. There’s no holding back anymore. Maybe I’ll call it Modern Jazz and really screw up some critics when they hear all this industrial shit going on behind it. You gotta have some fun in life, right?
BM: I understand that you also have an upcoming instruction DVD that you’ve been working on’
JM: I’m very excited about this. It’s pretty important and totally different for me. It’s an instructional DVD in which I’m conveying ideas about improvisation. We just finished five months of filming. I think it’s going to be called “How To Master Guitar”. I’ve done a few master classes and I can see the problems that young guitar students are confronted with today. They basically don’t know how to work, how to apply what they know to discover what they don’t know. And it’s a really big work. Both Apple and EMagic were very excited about this project too so they were helping us out with it.
BM: So it’s kind of a workshop setting for guitarists’
JM: No, not really. It’s like a one-on-one. I mean, I’m talking to the camera. But you know, we deal with a particular mode or a particular group of modes or a particular scale or a particular rhythm…how to articulate odd time signatures or how to articulate rhythmical phrases for the right hand and left hand. And we deal with one thing per chapter. And then the exercises help them develop fluency on the fingerboard with the right hand and how to develop rhythmic articulation with the right hand. We look at the scales, how we construct chords from these modes and scales, which is how you really analyze harmony. And with all the exercises there are two demonstrations, one relatively easy and one advanced, in which the material from that chapter is applied in an improvisation sense. But the thing is, everything is transcribed, so whatever I play you see. So you’ve got three videos running in synch — left hand, right hand and the score. It’s really cool. There’s nothing around like this. It was a big work, but you know, hey…you might as well do it right. And my hope is that it might be useful to somebody. It’s my contribution before I disappear into the void.
BM: In 1990 you had a career-threatening injury. Can you talk about that’
JM: It was a freak accident. I fractured the index finger of my left hand. What happened was, I was moving a tv set…big mistake. It was on rollers and it rolled and my finger got caught in the rail and the tv swivelled and hit my finger and then popped the tip of my finger about a quarter of an inch to one side. It missed the joint by a millimeter but it popped the finger over like a quarter of an inch. And I heard it too…oh man! The sound of the bone breaking! It was like this icy hand was grabbing my spine. The doctor told me, If you smashed a joint, you might’ve been able to play again but you would’ve been out of action for a long time and you would not have the articulation that you do. Amazing, huh’
BM: And you’ve obviously recovered.
JM: Yeah, but I was out of action for a few months because it took a while to re-educate the finger. And not only was the index finger very stiff but I couldn’t move the other finger as well. The little finger and the third finger on my left hand were not so bad but the index and the middle, boy, they were so stiff. And I suffered through the re-education process. If you’re under a re-education program it’s just a question of time and pain, you know’ And eventually it all comes back and you forget about it. It was like going through a car crash and coming out unscathed. I mean, it could’ve been the end of my playing career. That hit me very deep. Yeah, it really messed me up for a while but I was saved and went on to play another day. I figure I must’ve burned a lot of bad karma off with that, at least I hope I have. But you never know. Karma and destiny…such weird things, man. We don’t know why we go through all kinds of things we do in life but sometimes we go through something that looks on its face like really bad but then something really good comes out of it. It’s very mysterious. Anyway, that’s what happened to my finger. And I’ve still got a big scar from that on the right side of that index finger, just coming down from where the nail ends, kind of like on an angle. And I’ll carry that scar to my grave.
BM: Speaking of re-education, I don’t know if you know about the Pat Martino story. (Martino suffered a brain aneurysm in 1980 which robbed him of his memory, forcing him to relearn the guitar from scratch).
BM: Well, he’s finally back on top of his game, but it’s taken him 10 years to get there.
JM: Yeah, I heard him play recently. He’s killing.
BM: Yeah, and there was a period of time when he was struggling and of course he had to relearn the instrument. He woke up from surgery and had no memory of guitar whatsoever.
BM: And then he very meticulously began relearning his instrument.
JM: I know, it’s phenomenal. It’s like a real victory of the spirit, that’s all I can say. I mean, it’s like Django, you know’ This is something else. I mean, I didn’t go through that. I mean, when you don’t have any recollection of playing an instrument and you know you played it, then you gotta start from the beginning again’ Unbelievable. But it’s fantastic that he’s back up there. He’s playing really good now. It’s so nice to hear him play again.
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