Indian rhythms have been an integral part of McLaughlin’s music since studying with Ravi Shankar in the 1970s. “All rhythm, in the end, is just mathematics with a beat and some sex in it,” laughs McLaughlin. Photo by Vikas Nambiar
Even six decades into a legendary career, John McLaughlin is as fierce and passionate about playing guitar as he was when he picked it up in 1953. Young McLaughlin had already been playing piano for three years before his parents got him an acoustic. “I didn’t even know what an electric guitar was,” he remembers. Luckily for music fans everywhere, McLaughlin not only discovered the electric guitar but also used it to influence generations of musicians and create a singularly identifiable style that blends high-energy rock with sophisticated harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements.
It wasn’t long before such jazz luminaries as Tony Williams and Miles Davis brought McLaughlin into their bands. Williams’ landmark 1969 album, Emergency! was an early demonstration of how McLaughlin’s jazz chops and rock ethos could transform an organ trio into a three-headed muscle car of improvisation. During the ’70s, Davis (who was notorious for disdaining the guitar) formed an electric band, brought on McLaughlin for the iconic Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson albums, and helped lay the foundation for the fusion movement that gained popularity during the decade. Even while staying busy as a sideman, McLaughlin released solo albums and projects that included the rich acoustic sounds of Belo Horizonte and the game-changing Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Now 73, McLaughlin recently released Black Light, a work that combines the virtuosity that has symbolized his style with electronic elements and other-worldly soundscapes. In short: it’s not your typical “fusion” album. The muscular opening track, “Here Comes the Jiis,” features McLaughlin’s smooth, amp-free tones and rapid-fire melodies skimming over a mix of drummer Ranjit Barot’s propulsive rhythms and electronic sounds that wouldn’t be frowned upon at a Skrillex show.
Throughout Black Light, McLaughlin creates harmonically complex compositions by seamlessly weaving elements of live performance with pre-recorded sounds. “The sounds have to mean something. You can get a sound, but you have to make it your own,” says McLaughlin about the work-intensive process. We recently caught up with McLaughlin to discuss how he approaches composition, his deep love of rhythm, and his touching tribute to famed flamenco guitarist, Paco de Lucia.
This album is full of energy. Even on multiple listens it holds up with some of the best work you’ve done.
Yeah, there’s a lot of energy. But I don’t really think of it as energy. I think of it more of how much passion is in the band. We’re old school, especially me. We’re not part of this “smooth” jazz movement, if you know what I mean. Basically, we feel if there’s no passion in the music, there’s no gas in the tank. Look at the passion Miles played with. The passion equals energy. It’s beautiful to feel that in the music. It’s very important to me.
It’s inspiring that you’re hitting at this level in your seventies.
I’m an old hippie [laughs]. Thank God, I’m still playing. It’s wonderful that I’m still able to continue, but the machine is getting older. I’m happy to have been a musician my whole life and to still be a musician. I don’t think there’s a better privilege, frankly.
Black Light can be viewed as the third album with your latest working band, the 4th Dimension. How did this specific group come together?
Actually, it came from an idea I had over 10 years ago. I was very lucky because I got this invitation from Réunion Island, which is near Madagascar. They said I could bring whatever band I want. This was the chance to put together this quartet that I had bubbling in my mind for a while. The only member remaining from that original lineup is Gary Husband, who plays everything—keyboards, drums, percussion. What an unbelievable musician he is. I knew him from his work with Allan Holdsworth. I also called the Mondesir brothers, [drummer] Mark and [bassist] Mike. Mark played in the group for a while, but Mike was only on that one gig.
Did you start recording and touring with that band right after those gigs?
Right after that gig I came back to finish Thieves & Poets, which was a huge job for me since it involved symphony and guitar. I got the group back together to do some tracks for Industrial Zen. So we’ve been a working band for about nine years, at least. There have been a few personnel changes, but the current band with Étienne M’Bappé on bass and Ranjit Barot on drums has been together for about three years.
Over the years you’ve brought a lot of traditional Indian influences to your music. Ranjit seems like such a natural bridge between several different genres.
Yeah, he was on Floating Point, which I recorded in India. I really like that recording and it features some young Indian players that are just killing. We’d been hanging for a while and I finally got him in the band because he’s very busy working with a famous Bollywood musician named A.R. Rahman. In a way, Ranjit was made for this band.
Watching a YouTube video of a recent concert you did, I was really impressed with Ranjit’s vocal abilities.
Oh yeah. You can hear a few places on this album where Ranjit sings in konokol, which is a way to vocally express rhythm. I studied that system with the late, great Ravi Shankar in the mid ’70s. He took me under his wing just like that. I wasn’t even playing sitar. I was in New York at the time and anytime he came to New York he’d call me and he would teach me. One day he said he was going to really show me some theory. And he taught me that system of vocal rhythm. If you can sing it, then you can play it. All rhythm, in the end, is just mathematics with a beat and some sex in it. [Laughs.] You’ve got to be rhythm crazy to like that stuff, and I am.
When you’re performing, how does rhythm affect your improvisations?
Rhythm is rhythm. Whether it’s Brazil or Africa or India or New York. The big thing is if it’s swinging, or is it funky, or does it move you. That’s the whole thing. And the great ones always do. They always swing, but I don’t even know what jazz music is anymore. The whole point of playing live is that everyone is playing with the drummer. You have to be with the drummer. To play with a drummer you have to know what the drummer is doing and understand and feel the way he feels rhythms. He’s waiting to be provoked just like I’m waiting to be provoked. When I go onstage, I want the drummer to provoke me and stimulate me. But at the same time he needs stimulation. I have to understand the rhythm so I can kick his butt too. We all need this kind of stimulation to get out of the ordinary “what you know.” In improvisation, which is the real key to playing collective music, there’s spontaneity, and without the knowledge of each other and the knowledge of the rhythm, it’s very difficult to develop the kind of complicity to be able to improvise together. Even if there’s only one chord, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to have that thing together. That’s all that counts. Being together.
Did you record this album in your home studio?
Actually, we did it in a couple of different places. Part of it was done at home. I live in Monte Carlo and I have a studio in my home. Not a big one—it’s enough to record. Then we did some in London and Paris. Gary lives in London, so we went there to do some of his recording. Étienne lives in Paris, so we did some there.