John McLaughlin – lighting the way

On 14 and 15 March, John McLaughlin and 4th Dimension will be playing at Ronnie Scott's as part of the Jazzwise 20th Anniversary Special Festival. In this recent interview with JazzwiseMcLaughlin speaks to Stuart Nicholson about the origins of the band, his music and how Miles Davis taught him the greatest lesson of all is to be yourself

The one eternal truth about jazz is that its most vivid life studies are realised in the act of live performance since they provide audiences with their most profound memories of the music. In the early 1970s, the one band in jazz that was giving audiences something to think about was John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. For two years they lit up the night sky. With the volume at 11 and everything played at 500mph their concerts became the stuff of legend. Then suddenly, after just three albums, they were gone. Though there was another Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1970s, and another in the 1980s, you can only make a first impression once. Or so we’re told. Over the last couple of years, fans of electric jazz have been keeping a close eye on McLaughlin’s current band, the 4th Dimension with good reason. Since the band’s debut with Industrial Zen in 2006, McLaughlin has been weighing-in with some of his fiercest playing in years and, equally, the band itself has been getting better and better with each succeeding record. Now, with their latest release Black Light, the word is out. Fans and critics alike have been openly hailing 4th Dimension as the “Mahavishnu Orchestra of the 21st century”.

It’s a big call. Even pianist Chick Corea said the Mahavishnu Orchestra changed the direction of his band, Return to Forever, while Joe Zawinul of Weather Report said: “It was a helluva band, in John McLaughlin you had a master guitarist, no-one had ever played like that, you were into another music”. So how does McLaughlin himself feel about 4th Dimension being compared to his earlier, groundbreaking band? He smiles, “Well, I don’t know who said that, but if that’s what they’re saying, well, they’re part of my roots, aren’t they? In my experience, as I grow older, sometimes there’s two steps backwards for one step forward, I also think the musicians have a role in this, the way they play. With 4th Dimension now it’s wonderful really, they’ve got this marvellous passion which translates into energy – I see how deep they’re into what they’re doing and it’s very inspiring to me, because it’s right up my street. I know Mahavishnu was known as the loudest, fastest band in the world – not really what you might call a compliment! – but nevertheless it’s very much part of my history and as far as this particular band is concerned I would definitely see relations and analogies between the two bands, certainly.”

Those connections were not being made when Industrial Zen was first released nine years ago, but the evolution of the band into what it is today has been as steady as it has been inexorable, guided and inspired by McLaughlin’s creative energy. He may be 73, but his passion for playing seems to have grown over the years rather than receded. “Well, that may be true,” he laughs, “I know I get so much out of playing, from composing to performing. And the way the band has grown, that’s inspiring. I hear how the musicians are becoming themselves and how we relate to each other, because in the end we’re playing arrangements, we’re playing songs and whether it’s solo or as a collective what we’re really doing is relating to each other, and relating to the music and relating to ourselves, and, in a global sense – I know it sounds a bit hippie – relating to the universe itself. The fact that they feel so deeply about what they do is really wonderful – I want them to be able to say who they are and what they feel and how strongly they feel about it, and so in every record with a groove there evolves a certain complicity, or at least we should develop a complicity, and the relationship becomes unspoken because over time you get to know each other very well, and you get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. But nevertheless the whole point about music, as in life, for me, and I feel they agree with me, is we want to try and get to the unknown place rather than play what we know. Of course, the road to the unknown is through the known, so it’s already a contradiction in terms, but nevertheless, we try and get to that place.”

Black Light comprises eight tracks that are full of musical surprises, reflecting the sheer diversity of musical genres and influences McLaughlin has explored; from blues with Graham Bond in the 1960s to rock with Santana and Jeff Beck in the 1970s, jazz with Lifetime and Miles Davis, Indian music with Shakti, and Spanish music with Paco de Lucia. It has, as McLaughlin says, produced an album that is, “neither jazz nor rock, nor Indian nor blues, and yet all of these”. Opening with an attention getting ‘The Jiis’, part statement of intent and part prelude to what is about to come, it is clear the band have now developed a sharply defined musical personality. “‘The Jiis’ refers to the mandolin player in Shakti who we lost last year, U. Shrinivas, at the age of 45, of liver failure, devastating after 14 years of working together, and the other Jii – just to clear that up, in Shakti we basically refer to one another as Jiis. So U. Shrinivas and V. Selvaganesh are the Jiis, but when I think about it, this track is really about Shrinivas, who died, but I didn’t want to eliminate Selvaganesh. Even though this is a personal homage, at the same time I don’t want to be sad about it because he was such a joyful soul.”

The penultimate track on the album, ‘Gaza City’, is revealing of the charitable and educational work McLaughlin undertakes in the Middle East and in the continent of India, which he somehow manages to fit into a relentless touring and composing schedule – for example, in October/November he embarks on an exhausting Asian tour. “My wife and I, we’ve been actively involved with a particular NGO in Ramallah in Palestine for the last few years and I’ve done a couple of concerts there. You can’t do any benefit concerts, or whatever, because nobody has any money, so basically the most expensive seat is $5. So, ‘Gaza City’ – I had been invited to go there after the Ramallah concert last year, it was before the war, but it was so complicated for us to go from Ramallah to Gaza, and do the concert and get out, they gave us a rough estimate of about a week, which was physically impossible for us. The other thing is, of course, we don’t see through the media what really happens in Palestine. But the bombing of Gaza City was really behind this piece, it so upsets me to this day, it was just terrible. So I have a very direct relationship with that country and the people of that country, and to see that happening… OK, I can’t do anything, I can’t change the world, but I can just write music and try and express what I feel.”

McLaughlin fans will be particularly interested in ‘El Hombre que Sabiac’, since it is the first time in a long while he performs on acoustic guitar in what is a perfect marriage of electric and acoustic sounds which for many will be the album’s highlight. “The acoustic [guitar] piece is called ‘El Hombre que Sabiac’ which means ‘The man who knew’, which was for Paco [de Lucia], of course, [who died in February 2014]. This tune was one of a series of tunes that Paco and I planned to record last year, just two guitars, and he was particularly attached to this piece, so I really wanted to do it. I think the band did a fantastic job on it. Of course, I had to play acoustic guitar, there was no way I could play it on electric this particular tune. On another note, you’ll see there’s a tune ‘Panditji’, which is also a thank you to my old guru Ravi Shankar, with whom I studied in the mid-1970s. It was marvellous just to know him, and be with him, and he was extremely helpful to me in terms of Indian musical theory, just marvellous. So this album is full of personal affections!” This could well explain why McLaughlin’s playing on the album is so heartfelt and intense, which is the source of the album’s authenticity.

With 4th Dimension now established on the world’s touring circuits, with sell-out concerts wherever they play, it’s often overlooked that the band’s beginnings owed much to a bit of serendipity and the right people being in the right place at the right time. “Well, the story begins with Gary Husband, who plays keyboards, drums and percussion in my band, we go back many years,” reflects McLaughlin. “I would say I met him in the 1990s and we became friends at that point, and I made a point of following his career. He was playing drums with [guitarist] Allan Holdsworth at that point, I only knew him as a drummer, and I was touring with the Free Spirits in 1995-6 [a power trio McLaughlin led with Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond B-3 organ and Dennis Chambers on drums] when Dennis Chambers, the drummer who was with us at the time, who knew Gary – they had been in touch for a while – and Gary came down to the soundcheck, and Dennis said why don’t you jam with Gary? And it was wonderful, what a great drummer. I have known Allan, Allan Holdsworth, since 1971, something like that, and so whenever I had the opportunity I’d go and see him, so I already knew what a great drummer Gary was, but playing with him was great.

“Then, out of the blue, I get a CD of my music with Gary playing piano! I mean, what a dark horse! He was playing my music and he did Allan’s music too. And this really piqued my interest, very much so, which leads to the beginning of 4th Dimension, which must have been at least 10 or 11 years ago. Anyway, I got an invitation from La Réunion, a French island near Madagascar, to come over and do several concerts of anything that I wanted. And I thought what a great opportunity and, at the time, Gary had formed a little trio with Mark and Michael Mondesir. Mark was the first drummer in 4th Dimension and Michael the first bass player, but he was very busy, in any event I saw Gary and his little trio and I thought I’ll just take the whole lot! Take the package! I said ‘Are you interested in coming over to La Réunion to do some concerts together?’ And they said yes, and that really was the start of 4th Dimension, and Gary was there from the very beginning.

“Gary is one of the most modest people I have ever met, and with the most talent too. He is the most unassuming, self-effacing musician I’ve ever met – without doubt. He so impresses me with his musicality, his imagination, he’s wild, but this is what I want to hear, he just lets go, he doesn’t want to stay conventional, he just wants to be himself. That’s all I ever wanted, this is a great lesson I learned from Miles Davis. Miles, he didn’t want us to play what we thought he’d like to hear, he wanted us to be who we really are, and express that musically, and I got that great lesson from Miles and I just continue it to this day. I wanted the group to continue but Michael came out of it, and that was the point where shortly after I did the album Industrial Zen. You’ll hear Gary and Mark on several of those pieces, and Gary playing drums and keyboards, because that’s how much I dig his playing. Anyway, over the years we had Hadrien Feraud, the young French bass player, who is phenomenal, I think he moved to LA many years ago, and then Étienne [M’Bappé] came into the band. I had known Étienne from Zawinul’s days, about 11, 12 years ago, and it must be seven or eight years now he’s been with me, and Ranjit [Barot] on drums, who I knew because of my Indian adventures, playing at the festivals in Mumbai, and we got to play 10 years ago. Then, when I was over there again about eight or nine years ago, I wanted to make this record Floating Point, and since I’d played with Ranjit a couple of times I got him on the recording, and that was it. If you listen to that recording, how amazing he plays and then Mark left, so Ranjit came in. But Gary, he’s been there from the beginning and I’m his biggest fan, what more can I say? I think the whole point of making a record is that they all – the whole band – get integrated into the music and this has always been my goal and I think it was really important for me to let them shine on Black Light.”

This interview originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing to Jazzwise, visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

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