This post is authored by Andre Vasconcelos. Manager of the Brazilian tab of the Berklee Blogs.
It is about time that the Berklee Blogs landed another interview. This time I was gifted with the opportunity to send some questions via email to noone other than John Mclaughlin. Yes, the guitarist for Miles, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the one that jammed with Jimi Hendrix for HOURS, and many other projects. John is considered by many, and rightfully so, to be the father of Fusion guitar with his genre-bending capabilities and an unparalleled knowledge of the instrument.
As expected from his multicultural background, his music is a really rich and rewarding experience. Adding his extensive jazz vocabulary to the powerful intensity of the rock n’ roll riffs written in intriguing and challenging time signatures derived from his passion for Indian music, you get a very quick gist of Mclaughlin’s newest album with the 4th Dimension, Now Here This. The guitarist will be at the Berklee Performance Center on June 22nd, a highly recommended concert.
Dear John, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. My name is Andre Vasconcelos and I am the manager of the Berklee Blogs. Through this job I have been able to interview many of my musical heroes such as Pat Metheny, Seamus Blake, Michael League, Steve morse and now you! So once again thanks!
1 – I would like to start the interview discussing your newest release, the album Now Here This, featuring the return of the 4th Dimension group for its second studio album. For this project you recruited Ranjit Barot to play drums. Could you tell us about the composition and the recording process of this wonderful album?
Dear Andre, Thank you for your kind words. For some strange reason I am not able to sit down and write music. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work very well. I have to wait for musical ideas to arrive in my mind, and they let me know in which direction they want to go. Basically the ideas can be acoustic or electric: Jazz (fusion): with orchestra or sound design. Since the groups I’m primarily working with at this time are the 4th Dimension or Shakti, most of the ideas appear in one or the other of these forms. Once I have enough music that I feel is valid, then I can plan the recording. I’ll make demos and scores and send them to the musicians with enough time that they can get the concept of the pieces. After that it’s just go to the studio and record live. The good thing about studio recordings is that one can make several takes of the same piece to get the best overall take.
2 – Do you feel that recording an album entirely Live is absolutely essential to capture the interactivity and the energy of the band? Or can the same thing be done separately, in a more pop/rock format?
Whatever people may call the music we play, it is essentially jazz music. Jazz demands the collective experience, because through the collective experience we have the possibility to experience the freedom and liberation that playing improvised music can give.
3 – On the subject of orchestration and finding the right tone for each track, what are the things you take under consideration when you choose between either the synth guitar or the electric to be the one featured in the tune?
At this time, the principal feature of the synth guitar can be heard in slower pieces. The right tone comes from the musicians with their particular way of looking at the piece and trusting to instinct.
4 – As one of the most, If not the most, important guitarists on the history of Jazz I would like to know what do you think is the role of the guitar in that specific genre, and how has it changed throughout the years?
Very kind words Andre, but I feel you are exaggerating. In asking such a question, you are bringing into the answer the evolution of jazz music in the past 45 years. Since the advent of Rock ‘n Roll, the guitar became the iconic instrument of the 20th century since without the guitar R ‘n R would not exist. Growing up in the 60’s I became influenced by rock generally, and
R ‘n B in particular since that was how I made my living then. Of course, I am from the beginning a jazz musician by love and discipline, but R’nB is an integral part of jazz to me.
It was inevitable therefore, that the guitar assume a more active role in jazz music and its evolution. Personally, I see a connection between what Jimi Hendrix was aiming for with his use of distortion, and John Coltrane with his experiments with tone on his tenor sax, even though the forms are vastly different.
5 – Talking about improvisation and the way you approach it, do you feel like playing different instruments makes you improvise differently? Does the idea come from your ear and is just exposed by the instrument or is it affected and transformed by it?
I assume you are questioning the use of the synth guitar and the electric guitar, and possibly the acoustic guitar also. I can only speak from my own experience, but each instrument obliges me to play differently, and even approach the music and improvisation differently. In a sense each instrument has its own key to the world of improvisation, and you need to work to find this key. If you asked a pianist about the difference between an acoustic piano and a synth, he’d give you a similar answer.
6 – As one of the fathers of Fusion and genre and border bending music, what are the upcoming artists you have checked out or been introduced to that we as students would love to discover and follow?
I would immediately suggest some musicians that play with me. Pianist and drummer Gary Husband is an innovator in jazz music. Ranjit Barot is our drummer, but is also recording under his own name, and doing wonderful work in the realm of Indo-jazz fusion. The singer in Shakti group Shankar Mahadevan, is doing a fantastic job building bridges between musical cultures.
I would also suggest keeping your eyes and ears open to some of the underground bands. I’ve been ‘surfing’ the underground for many years and there are some very special things happening. Of course there is quite a bit of rubbish, but then again, not all jazz we hear on the radio is very good. Some of the music that’s called jazz I would call garbage since it lacks passion, authenticity and depth, and jazz needs all of those aspects of our being. Actually all music requires these aspects of our being.
7 – What are your 5 favorite albums of all time? –
A 1952 recording od Muddy Waters with Little Walter playing blues harp. Muddy plays acoustic slide guitar that’s just amazing.
The 1958 recording of Miles Davis, ‘Milestones’.
The 1964 recording of John Coltrane, ‘A Love Supreme’.
Date unknown: Charles Mingus recording, ‘Mingus presents Mingus’ with Eric Dolphy
Date unknown. Bill Evans’ recording. ‘Sunday Afternoon at the Village vanguard’.
8 – Being the Brazilian writer for the Berklee Blogs I would like to ask you about your perspective on Brazilian music in general. How did it influence your musicianship? Are there are any brazilian groups that you currently follow?
Brazilian music began its impact on me as far back as 1968 with the recording of Stan Getz with Joao Gilberto. This recording had an impact on Jazz itself. Later I had the opportunity to play a TV show with Astrud Gilberto which was a real pleasure. The music of Hermeto Pasqual, Egberto Gismonti and Joao Bosco have all had an impact on me that continues to this day.
9 – A lot can be found online about your work as a session musician back in your early 20s. I’m sure that as the visionary artist that you are, it served as just as financial support. Were there lessons or things you took from that kind of work that carried out throughout the entirety of your career? Could you find inspiration in tasks that aren’t necessarily inspiring?
Of course, we have to survive, and some of the recordings I made as a session player were the opposite of inspiring. But if we stay alert, we can learn at every opportunity. The first good thing about a session musician, is that you need to read music very quickly, and there are some fine musicians in the pop world. Some of my unforgettable experiences were recording with Burt Bacharach on a movie, with singers like Wilson Pickett and the Four Tops.
10 – With the Berklee Performance Center show drawing closer and closer the Berklee community has been discussing and mentioning all of their favourite records and projects you have been involved in. One in particular seems to draw special attention amongst the students, the famous Trio of Doom with Tony Williams on drums and Jaco Pastorius on bass. Would you tell us a little bit about the time with the trio consisting of the most iconic fusion players to date?
Unfortunately, Jaco’s name for the band was prophetic since I am the only member left alive today, and I miss them both. I have played, and I am still playing with the worlds greatest drummers, and they all have a wonderful story to tell. For example I returned home yesterday after playing a concert in Istanbul for Unesco and the International Jazz Day. Playing drums was Vinnie Colaiuta, and Terry Lyne Carrington, both marvelous players, but when I think of Tony Williams, I think of a revolutionary. Tony turned the drum world on its head. Already by 1965 I was one of his greatest admirers, and to play with him a few years later was a dream come true. I like to think I helped Jaco in some way as he came to see me in 1974-5 having driven up from Florida. The first thing he said ‘I’m Jaco Pastorius, can you lend me 20 bucks? I have a flat tire”. I never got the 20 bucks back… Since I had the great Ralphe Armstrong on bass, I didn’t need another bassist, but I called Tony that night after Jaco and I jammed, and suggested he hire him. It was just a year later that Joe Zawinul scooped him up for Weather Report. The rest is history. The Trio of Doom was a gig sponsored by the US State Department to play in Cuba, and I have to say that the rehearsals were totally unbelievable. This is where Jaco coined the name… It’s regrettable that the rehearsals were not recorded as they were superior to the Cuba and studio recordings. But, you can’t have everything…
11 – How has your relationship with the Berklee College of Music so far? What are your thoughts on having one of the biggest music schools in the world focus primarily on contemporary, non-classical styles?
I’ve been associated with Berklee for more years than I remember. I’ve sent more than a few students to study there and never regretted it. It’s a great institution. I even gave a master class there about 35 years ago. When I was growing up and trying to learn jazz, there was no school to study jazz music. The record player was the teacher. That and the radio, because where I grew up in a small town in the north of England near the Scottish border, I could tune in once a week to ‘Jazz Hour with Willis Connover’. You cannot imagine what a pleasure this was.
Of course it wasn’t FM, it was medium wave with lots of interference as it was broadcast from Frankfurt Germany, but Willis played the great jazz artists, Miles, Mingus, Coltrane, Monk, Bill Evans and all the rest. I think Berklee’s influence is an important element in the high standard of musicianship we see in the young musicians today.
12 – Just to end the interview on a light note, what is your favorite non-musical hobby?
Hiking in the Alps, biking and tennis.
Hope you enjoyed it! I certainly did!
I’m coming from the UK to see this gig on the 22nd. I have been invited by my very good friend Walter Kolosky who lives in Boston. It’s always such a thrill and privilege to see John, Gary, Ranjit and Etienne. They afforded us such a lot of time to talk and mingle with them at the Barbican centre in London back in November, thanks to Souvik at Abstract Logix.
I’ve heard so many classic performances recorded at Berklee, it’s really going to be amazing to actually be there in person. Thank you for the interview, I’m always fascinated to hear what John has to say.