John McLaughlin did not know what had come over him today.
felt like telling jokes. There was one about an elevator operator with
a lewd ending, another about a nun allowed to speak only two words
every five years and the old gag about four businessmen bragging about
"This is so much more fun than being
interviewed," he said, not trying to escape anything. It was just
a fact. He was prepared for what the moment had to offer but also
capable of affecting that offering in a variety of twists and turns.
Although the meter was ticking, other journalists were waiting their
turn, it seemed advisable to go with the flow. Let the yarns flow.
to fill the time constructively, here is some biographical background
leading to our subject of the day, his arranging and soloing on a
recording of the quietly sensitive music of (and in homage to) the
pianist Bill Evans for six acoustic guitars.
first band, Mahavishnu ("divine compassion, power and justice"),
was a name suggested by his guru Sri Chimnoy. It involved meditation,
asymmetrical rhythms, complex Indo- European compositional techniques,
high-flying improvisation and megabucks. It formed the early contours
of instrumental rock. The title of one of his best-selling and most
admired recordings is "The Inner Mounting Flame." You could
see it continuing to burn today.
"I've always wanted to
stretch the envelope. I like that expression," he said in
response to a question about his Bill Evans tribute, "Time
Remembered" (Polygram). "My record company wasn't too happy
about it. 'I'll assume responsibility,' I told them. 'If it doesn't
work, that's my problem.' I love Bill's music so much, it was just
something I had to do even if it made no commercial sense. It took me
six months to write those arrangements."
similar happened when he formed Shakti ("creative intelligence,
beauty and power"), which had energy, interplay and virtuosity
like Mahavishnu but with more subtlety and much less volume. He
laughed remembering it: "Talking about stretching the envelope,
Mahavishnu had all this electric energy, we were at the top of the
charts, selling like crazy. You take this form that's working so well
commercially and managers, promoters and record company people are not
going to be very happy when you follow it with an acoustic band with
three Indians in it."
He had been going back and forth
between electric and acoustic formations ever since, in search of new
envelopes to stretch rather than from lack of direction. He lived in
New York, Paris, and then Monaco. At the age of 51, he looked like a
winner on the professional senior tennis circuit, capable of winning
tough three-set matches.
It is astonishing how the making of honest music invigorates.
It jogs the mind as well as the body. His recent association with the
master Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu and his eagerness to take
risks like dedicating six months of his life to non-commercial music
for the love of it could not help but keep the flame lit.
found a well-known working quartet of classical guitarists "just
down the road from me" in the south of France (The Aighetta
Quartet). Call it luck if you will, in the '60s it would have been
called "good vibes." He would have preferred jazz guitarists
but the Aighetta were both virtuosi and nearby (his student Yan Maresz
played bass guitar). The guitar is a romantic instrument. Bill Evans
was a romantic pianist. But the transposition from keys to strings was
not evident. The Aighetta Quartet had never heard of Bill Evans.
and articulation were problems. He switched voicings and octaves,
changed tempi. What do you treat as a background? As a tutti?
Transitions had to be fashioned, passages recast from scratch. He kept
asking himself how he got into this mess. But he never doubted he
could write and play his way out of it.
At the end he
arrived at a "certain sobriety, even austerity, which was typical
of Bill." There were a lot of criteria to observe involving
spirit, lyricism and, most of all, economy: "I wanted to keep
from being garrulous. You can hear Bill's enormous French
Impressionist influence - Satie and Ravel particularly. He was
romantic but he had this economy which fit the guitar so well. The
album is dedicated to the guitar as well as Bill Evans."
the same time he had been working whenever possible with his jazz
organ trio, with Joey DeFrancesco and Dennis Chambers, which he
described as "classical." This meant the Jimmy Smith/Larry
Young sort of classic Hammond organ funk. Although he prefers the
acoustic guitar to the rough edges of distorting amplifiers, he never
hesitated to go electric when required. Notably, he did it for Miles
Davis, who called him in 1984 to play on his comeback album "You're
"I'd do anything for Miles," he said. "Miles
would call me and say: 'Come to the studio. Don't bring a guitar.
We've got one for you.' And there would be this weird instrument,
sky-blue, acrylic, with a fretboard reaching halfway to the ceiling."
Miles preferred to break envelopes rather than stretch them.
sometimes wondered if he was stretching enough. He once made an album
called "My Goal's Beyond." He would like to go as far beyond
as Miles or Coltrane - beyond existing elements - but he wondered if
he was limited by his love of structure. He loved Picasso, Degas,
Bach, Debussy... Bill Evans. He wondered "why people have such
preferences one way or another. Why does someone play the tuba and
another the piccolo. I don't think I'd ever be able to abandon
harmonic or rhythmic structure entirely."
the Bill Evans album, he kept asking himself: "Why?" The
original already sounded so wonderful. What could he possibly add?
Transposing four part piano chords to four guitars was possibly
irrelevant and maybe biting off more than he could chew to boot. "But,"
he concluded: "I gave it my best shot. That's all you can do."
looked over at the growing group of journalists and photographers
awaiting their turn, smiled mischievously and said: "Did you ever
hear the joke about he guy who...?"