It was an honour to chat with John McLaughlin, one of the all-time greats…
Personally, I have a lot to thank John McLaughlin for: I took up the guitar aged 14 after listening to my dad’s Hendrix & Shakti records – and five years later, I was studying at a sitar academy in Varanasi. Five years on, I published my first music article – an analysis of Shakti’s curious ‘remainder bar‘ rhythms – and, to my surprise, McLaughlin gave my musings his stamp of approval (via a retweet), urging me to write more.
Back then, music was just a side fascination from the grey drudgery of office work. After one particularly dull training course in mid-2016, I skipped out early to see Zakir Hussain’s Peshkar tabla concerto at the Southbank Centre, and was lucky enough to meet McLaughlin afterwards. I got the chance to recite some sloppy konnakol rhythmic vocalisations, and thank him for helping to illuminate my own path. Again, his advice was simple: “keep on striving”.
Perhaps it’s a testament to McLaughlin’s music that a single article about it can set its author towards a full-time musical career: another five years on from publishing it, I now earn my keep exploring many of the same global sounds that fascinated him fifty-plus years ago – Coltrane, Carnatic raga, tabla theory, flamenco, etc. We’ve corresponded, and his insights are absolute gold. I highly doubt I’d be doing this if it wasn’t for him.
So maybe I have McLaughlin to thank for my escape from the corporate world. Either way, I’m an unashamedly biased interviewer here. This exchange happened via email earlier this year, not long after seeing his 4th Dimension show in London – but, heeding his forward-looking life philosophy, this interview focuses on his next project: Shakti’s 2020 reformation. (Edited to remove various half-baked raga musings and guitar nerd queries…which will be published separately):
(And a little sonic context from my Jazzwise review @ Barbican: “The crowd rose to their feet, perhaps more relieved than surprised that advancing age has not diminished their septugenarian hero’s technical fluency, reinventive drive, or talent to forge eclectic groups into a coherent whole. McLaughlin himself has rarely come across so relaxed: bounding to the stage, dancing with little hesitation, and chanting mystical refrains with closed eyes. The same sincere, searching intensity was there, but the old master might just have seemed more content with what he’d found than ever before.”)
—Shakti’s new album (Is That So?) arose from six years of collaboration between you and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan. But I know that since Shakti’s last tour in 2013 you’ve barely even been on the same continent. As improvisers, how did you overcome the physical separation?
I’ve been seeking to address these sorts of geographical problems since around 1975. Back then, I had to go to India to find a replacement for Dr. Ramnad Raghavan [who played the double-headed mridangam drum on the first Shakti album] – this was my first ever trip to the Subcontinent. However, with the advent of the internet and the exchange of audio files, such things are much simpler.
In a broader sense, the idea of abandoning all rules of Eastern and Western music had occurred to me some years ago. But I had to wait for the idea to mature – and eventually I was ready to ask Shankar to send me recordings of improvisations and bhajans [Hindu devotional songs] that I could begin harmonising with.
- McLaughlin, Mahadevan, and Zakir go online for a lockdown jam:
—You’ve shared an incredible bond with Zakir Hussain for many decades now. While your co-vocabulary has varied greatly over the years, all your work has always seemed to be tied together by the same joyful, indomitably playful essence. How has the partnership evolved over time?
Having Zakir in my life is one of the very greatest blessings. I love this man, and am eternally grateful to him. With ‘joyful’ you have chosen the correct word – it is always a joy to play with Zakir. It is my personal conviction that at the very heart of music there is pure joy: and Zakir incarnates this in his music and playing. I saw him very recently over in Boston, for his honorary degree ceremony at Berklee College.
- Zakir & John demonstrate their musical telepathy:
—I notice that the 2020 group are billed as Shakti (no ‘Remember’). So does this band have more in common with the first Shakti incarnation? Or shouldn’t people read so much into the name?
Both groups have always been ‘Shakti’ to me. At the end of the 1990s, when the live recording with [bansuri bamboo flautist] Hariprasad Chaurasia was released, the record company felt a need to ‘re-market’ us. So the name change was simply a publicity device, nothing more.
- Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia takes the lead on Lotus Feet:
—The album showcases your fusion of Indian raga with more harmonic, ‘layered’ thinking. It seems that you take a very free approach: internalising the ragas’ melodic shapes, but then just using them as general fuel for harmonic inspiration rather than strictly observing their rules. How have your raga-harmonic ideas developed over time?
The fundamental idea behind the album is the complete abandonment of all such rules. Harmony is a subject I have studied throughout my life as a musician…that is to say for over 60 years now. Harmony is the one aspect that Indian music does not have: my plan was to work with Shankar’s improvisations and songs, with the tanpura [background drone] kept on a separate track. And then, throw away the tanpura.
Having determined what tonality he begins in, I will start from there with the harmonic accompaniment. But since the tanpura is no longer there, I can place the harmony behind his voice in any key I wish – and also abandon all Western rules governing harmonic progression too. So you see why this recording is radical to me, from both the Eastern and Western points of view.
All that said, it is another matter when it comes to accompanying Shankar or violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan on stage. In that situation, I can bend the rules to a certain degree – but only because I have had the opportunity to study Indian classical music theory in depth.
First this was with my veena [South Indian fretless lute] guru Dr. S Ramanathan in the early 1970s. And there was further development with Pandit Ravi Shankar later that decade, coupled with my close association with Zakir since 1972 – and the advent of the first Shakti in 1973, and as my main group from late 1975, all the way up to today…and beyond.
- L. Shankar trades fearsome lines with McLaughlin on Joy:
—Speaking of adapting Indian classical music to the fretboard…Mandolin Srinivas [who passed away unexpectedly in Sep 2014] is missed by so many – I’m sure he would smile at the continuation of the group. How does his absence influence the current Shakti incarnation?
As you can imagine, Srinivas is sorely missed. He left an indelible imprint upon all of us in Shakti, one that will last forever. Losing him in 2014 threw all of us musicians into such a sense of loss, that kept us apart for about five years. Until now, when we were ready to start playing together again.
- Srinivas on fire on the 5-beat Karuna, from Jazz a Vienne:
—A few years ago you said about your mother, “I inherited music from her, but I also inherited arthritis…it’s creeping up on me…”. You seemed to be flying around the fretboard at the Barbican, but I guess age will catch up with everyone in the end. Do you mull over such matters?
In the end, we’re all on death row together!
—How do you feel about the process of physical ageing? Do you think that the onset of any new limitations might actually open up new avenues of creativity as well? (e.g. I doubt Django would have sounded so innovative if he’d been able to use his full hand…).
Having experienced the reality that arthritis could end a career very quickly, I realised that one cannot fight ageing – and so back then, I accepted it. I felt that I’d had such a fantastic ‘innings’, and been so lucky in my life to have worked and played with the greatest musicians from the East and West – who could ask for more?
But in fact this wasn’t to be the end. I’ve been extremely fortunate in discovering the art of self-healing in meditation. Once you realise that the mind can make you sick, then it’s also possible for the mind to make you healthy. Today, while I don’t have the strength of a 20-year-old in my right hand, I have absolutely no problems playing the guitar. I am truly blessed.
- Meditation, with old friend Carlos Santana (1973):
—Pandit Ravi Shankar sounded great right up to his death at 91. But if age limits your physical capabilities on the guitar too much, might you switch to another mode of musical expression? e.g. MIDI composition (there’s a whole new microtonal world there I guess)? Or is this just something to think about if it happens?
Well, I just passed my 78th birthday, and I’m still planning a 4th Dimension Tour in Europe this Summer, a tour of Japan in the Autumn, and a further Asian tour with Shakti next January…so I’m not planning on quitting soon! However, once the inevitable moment arrives – and the physical level drops below a certain point – I will quit. What I will do from then onwards…I will decide about these things when they happen.
- McLaughlin’s centenary tribute to Pandit Ravi Shankar:
—To round things off…just something to pass on. I asked my jazz friends if they had anything they wanted to say to you: the first response I got back was simply: ‘John – do you know how much you are loved by us all?’
Thank you! And for these questions. I hope my answers are useful to you.
- The rhythmic-melodic genius of Ma No Pa – an all-time great track…
More: Some of my other McLaughlin-relevant writings:
- John McLaughlin @ Barbican: on fire in London (Jazzwise, 2019)
- Chiming with Indian classical: sonic bridges (Darbar, 2019)
- Alankar – melodic ‘decoration’: Indian ornamentation (GW, 2018)
- Shakti’s ‘Remainder Bar’ rhythms: odd-time flow (RJ, 2015)
George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer. I play guitar, tabla, and santoor, loosely focusing on jazz, rhythm, and global improvisation. Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the human voices, cultures, and passions behind them.
Recently I’ve worked long-term for Darbar, Guitar World, and Ragatip, and published research into tuning and John Coltrane’s raga notes. I’ve written for Jazzwise, JazzFM, and The Wire, and also record, perform, and teach in local schools. Site menu above, follow below, & get in touch here!
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