John McLaughlin: On The Path To The One
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: ON THE PATH TO THE ONE
One night during the 2009 Five Peace Band tour, John McLaughlin is in the midst of his first solo of the evening. At a peak of inspiration, he starts quoting on his guitar the chant John Coltrane vocalizes on his seminal “A Love Supreme”. However, he does this at the same time the band has started slowing down to end his solo. Rhythmically, McLaughlin’s phrasing is still at a faster tempo and not slowing: there is no way he will play the theme four complete times and finish his solo at the same time as the rapidly decelerating band. No way.
Through some level of intuitiveness and command that most of us will never reach, McLaughlin [somehow] shortens the length of each phrase – keeping pitch and maintaining the fast tempo – and concludes his solo at the same time that the band plays its last chord of the chorus. My jaw dropped open in stunned amazement. And from witnessing other jaws in the audience, I wasn’t the only one.
After the post-concert hoopla had died down and I had a moment alone with him, I asked John, “How did you do that? How did you make that “A Love Supreme” quote work?” After assuring me that he remembered this particular piece of magic he had performed, he said whimsically, “I don’t know. And I don’t want to know.”
This conviction is fairly typical of John McLaughlin. He doesn’t wonder if, or when, or how inspiration will come. He just knows that it can, it will, and does come at any moment. Such a moment of inspiration came in July and August of 2009 when, as John recalls, “Music started to come to me without any call from my part.” Recording the music in late-2009 with The 4th Dimension – Gary Husband, Mark Mondesir, and Etienne M’Bappe – the result is John McLaughlin’s latest release on Mediastarz and Abstract Logix Records, “To The One”.
“To The One” is a musical expression of John McLaughlin’s journey to finding self-awareness. The titles of the songs tell the story of his finding the mysteries of life; seeking their answers; and the difficulties of staying on the spiritual path. The journey starts in 1965 around the time McLaughlin heard John Coltrane’s majestic “A Love Supreme” – a pivotal time in his life – and continues to this very day.
Although very busy preparing for the spring tour of Europe supporting “To The One” with The 4th Dimension, John generously took time out to answer a few questions via email.
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RS: Does “To The One” reflect a particular time in your life regarding specific events, or is it a life story in general terms?
JM: It does not reflect particular events, rather the chronology of my life’s endeavours to self-discovery using the recording “A Love Supreme” as a starting point.
RS: “To The One” draws inspiration from “A Love Supreme”. But in almost every print interview where you mention “A Love Supreme” you always say that you didn’t understand it when you first heard it, and it took months before it sunk in. Do you remember what it was about “A Love Supreme” that you finally GOT when you had that epiphany?
JM: I had been a fan of Coltrane for quite some time prior to hearing “A Love Supreme”. When you hear music from someone you love and admire, and have no idea what they are “saying”, it is really frustrating. From the beginning I knew that it was my ignorance that prevented me from comprehending/enjoying the music from “A Love Supreme”, so it was up to me to work on myself in order to appreciate what Coltrane was actually articulating/expressing in the LP. Eventually, and probably due in no way to my own efforts, I “heard” Trane’s music. It was clear to me that his “spiritual” awakening had affected his life, and as a consequence, his music. This was such an encouragement to me at that time.
Remember that I had no religious upbringing or education whatsoever. All I had during my childhood was the presence of my elder brothers who discussed religion and its ramifications on humanity as a whole. And so I was pretty much floundering around at that time with only books and music to go on.
It’s quite difficult to describe in words what I finally “GOT” from “A Love Supreme”. It was like hearing a voice from Infinity, with such a passion and tenderness at the same time, and he spoke directly to my heart. I should also mention that I discovered that Coltrane’s music was so far ahead it was just unbelievable. Or maybe us lesser humans are just so far behind.
RS: The phrase “God-given talent” is used to describe extraordinary ability. You believe in hard work and applying yourself for one’s personal development. Do you consider your guitar playing a gift from the Infinite One, or the result of years of hard work? Is there such a thing as God-given talent?
JM: I do believe that there are “god given talents”. Just the other day I saw an 11-year-old Indian girl playing a bass guitar that was almost bigger than her. (Interviewers Note: Her name in Mohini Dey from Mumbai, check her on you tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buVmIG5YnZ4) She is amazing!!! She is just one instance of many. Regarding work: there is a musician’s proverb: Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. In my case that’s pretty close.
RS: Not asking you to compare yourself to Trane: but do you see any parallels between your life as a Seeker and Trane’s? Are there any parallels in the music?
JM: Someone once said “comparisons are odious”, but we do it constantly… I have never compared myself to Trane. Probably because he doesn’t play guitar! From the human point of view we are both men seeking for light and answers if possible, to life’s most profound questions. He was an extraordinary musician, and since he was my senior not only in years, but also in experience and wisdom of The Way, he is someone I revere. One could also say that there are parallels in music, but again, I am in the position of a student with regard to Coltrane and his music.
Trane had an effect on me that will be with me till the end of my days, but there are a number of musicians who’ve had a lasting effect on me: e.g. Miles – of course – but also pianists such as Herbie, Chick, Gonzalo and Bill Evans. Don’t forget I started leaning music as a pianist. There are several Indian musicians such as Mahalingam, Balachander, Hari Shankar, the list is long; plus composers! In the end though, my greatest inspirations come from human beings and not just musicians, as you know. Writers, philosophers, painters and just regular people who do amazing things for other people simply because they are themselves a power for good.
RS: You have played with Elvin Jones, Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison: an original member and two sons of members of Trane’s classic quartet. Was this a conscious (or subconscious) intent or just a coincidence?
JM: With Elvin it was definitely intentional. He was the “powerhouse” behind the marvelous flights of Trane’s improvisations, and to play with him was an honor and a delight. Matt Garrison is a very close friend whom I love and admire, but for himself; not because of his father. I knew Jimmy Garrison a little, and he was someone I also revered. Ravi Coltrane had been invited by Santana for the big jam we made some years back in Montreux. There again, Ravi is a lovely person, but he is his own man also. I think it must be quite tough to have had a father like his.
RS: Have you ever played with McCoy Tyner?
JM: Never. I know McCoy quite well and like the members of that illustrious quartet, I’m a huge fan. But we’ve never had the opportunity to play together.
RS: You’ve always said that you were a musician first, and that was all you want to be. But you’re also a bit of a public figure, and with that comes some degree of celebrity. Is it a struggle to keep the private/personal side of John McLaughlin out of public view?
JM: I truly do not see myself as a “celebrity”! A celebrity is a movie star, something like that. It’s no struggle at all for me to have a private and personal life. The music that my life is dedicated to is still quite marginal in a sense, consequently I am myself somewhat “marginal”.
RS: With “To The One” being such a personal statement about discovering ones true identity, at this point in your life what have you discovered about yourself? What are you trying to be? Or, what do you want to be?
JM: To me, everything I do is to that one ideal. I also believe that all people’s actions are to The One – whether conscious or unconscious. Since I am convinced that we are all inseparable from THE ONE, how can we do anything at all outside of that?
After a lifetime of work, prayer, meditation, drifting off the path, re-discovering the path etc., etc., I have come to the conclusion that I know almost nothing about very little. At this point in my life I am happy just be to alive, to be me, and to continue the process of self-discovery. It is endless. Hopefully it will continue after I disappear…
RS: What is it like to be John McLaughlin?
JM: It must be pretty much how it is to be any other human being. We all have our joys and sorrows. One of the pieces on “To The One” is called ‘Lost And Found’. This could be translated as “pain and beauty” since these are the two dominating aspects of anyone’s life. Fortunately there is humor. And in a certain sense, if we can laugh at everything, we’re saved.
RS: You’ve talked before about what inspires you. But what do you do when inspiration doesn’t come ?
JM: I don’t think about it since it always comes back at some point.
RS: On the new recording, ‘Discovery’ sounds like it is inspired by ‘Pursuance’. ‘The Fine Line’ has some relation to ‘Resolution’ to my ears. You could compare the chant on ‘To The One’ to Trane’s chant on ‘Acknowledgement’. From one Trane fan to another: are these possible allusions close, or am I stretching things?
JM: There are allusions both apparent and hidden. The chant is of course a direct reference to the chant on “A Love Supreme”. However since I chant every day, this is not something just done on the spur of the moment for effect. Chanting is part of my daily life. Also, I’m a guitarist, but in a way there is nothing so beautiful as the human voice.
The chant is “Infinite One the Supreme Infinite One” and repeats. I should thank Mark, Gary and Etienne for participating in the chant on the recording. They really know where I’m coming from.
RS: You have reworked and renamed songs before; e.g. ‘Arjen’s Bag’ from “Extrapolation” became ‘Follow Your Heart’ on “My Goal’s Beyond”. Given the personal themes on “To The One”, is there any significance why ‘Bridge Of Sighs’ from Shakti’s “Natural Elements” is reworked as “Lost And Found”?
JM: In some respects, to advance means going backwards a few paces also. It’s a kind of recapitulation of personal history. I find it very useful sometimes. There are certain pieces I return to over the years, and the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ melody is a case in question. This is a melody that I’ve never ever played since the recording, and I missed it. It speaks to me. In the original Shakti version, this is the part that I wrote; and the fast part in the recording was written by violinist L.Shankar. Over the years I’ve been trying to rework this melody into something coherent, and finally it happened.
RS: Additionally, is there a reason why the arpeggio from ‘Lila’s Dance’ on “Visions of the Emerald Beyond” is used in ‘To The One’? Or was that just a teaser for Mahavishnu Orchestra fans?
JM: The 10/8 arpeggio from Mahavishnu is also something that comes to me on the spur of the moment on stage, and this time in the piece itself. I’m very fond of this arpeggio, especially with the new bass line behind it!
RS: Some artists prefer to road test new material before recording it. Most of your new material is recorded by the band after a few rehearsals. Are you purposefully trying to capture the “freshness” of the band playing new material; rather than their taking more chances and stretching out on tunes they were more familiar with? Or is it simply a matter of timing, musician’s schedules, cost of studio time, etc.
JM: I never know when the music is gonna come. It just so happened that everyone was available to make the new CD. I can tell you categorically, I never intended to record a CD late last year. I was planning rather to record “Live”. With musicians like I have in The 4th Dimension, I don’t ever have to worry about “freshness”. These men are always fresh!
RS: In the YouTube videos for ‘The Fine Line’, you’re playing a modified Godin. What’s the story behind this guitar?
JM: There is a friend named Cherian Jubilee who lives in New Jersey whose “mission in life” is to make me a guitar that satisfies every demand that I might make on the instrument. He has already made me several which were “experimental”. One day I told him, “Cherian, I play the Godin because I love that guitar!” He is so devoted that he bought a new Godin, sent it to True Temperament Frets in Sweden for the frets, and had another luthier half scallop the fingerboard. All this only in the hope that I like the guitar. This kind of affection and dedication is humbling for me. I really didn’t ask him to do anything!!!!!
RS: How did Etienne join the 4th Dimension…or why didn’t Dominique DiPiazza join?
JM: I’ve known Etienne for about eight years now. I first saw him with Zawinul’s Syndicate in Nice, and we became friends at that moment. He’s a wonderful musician and human being. About two years ago we were beginning a European tour, and the day before the first gig Hadrien Feraud arrived with a broken hand. Only Dominique DiPiazza was capable of coming in on 24 hours notice, and he sweated!!! But he came through with flying colors.
Prior to this tour, I’d had words with Hadrien about his volume on stage, which was excessive. I’d actually had many words with him about his volume which unfortunately, he seemed unable to change.
Several months later we had a gig in Switzerland on the opening day of the Olympics in Beijing. The gig was a free concert for the Tibetan people with whom my wife and I are associated. Hadrien was healthy, and aware that this was a kind of “test” concert. Unfortunately the volume was way over the top, and shortly after I just had to let him go. Dominique has quite a career going for himself, and it was clear that I should find another bassist. I called Etienne and he was in. The rest is history, as they say.
RS: Trane and the classic quartet are at the Village Vanguard. Eric Dolphy was supposed to sit in, but couldn’t make it. So he calls you to take the gig. At the last set, Trane asks you to call the six tunes you’ll do with the band. What tunes would you call if you could have played with Trane, Jones, Tyner and Garrison?
JM: Sorry, Trane could never play six tunes for the last set. You’d be lucky to get two! That said, I would say ‘Pursuance’, ‘Crescent’, ‘Impressions’, ‘Naima’, ‘One Up One Down’ and ‘Up Against the Wall’. We could do an encore with ‘After the Rain’!!!