In January 1969, JOHN McLAUGHLIN – an unknown Yorkshire-born jazz guitarist who had been eking a living as a session player in London and played alongside the likes of Georgie Fame and Brian Auger – travelled to New York ostensibly to join the group Lifetime, formed by Miles Davis’s departing drummer, Tony Williams. After the group’s first rehearsal, he accompanied Williams to Miles Davis’s house (Williams had gone to pick up his pay from Miles) and ended up being asked by the legendary trumpeter to join him in the studio the next day. That session resulted in the classic Davis album ‘In A Silent Way’ – a landmark record that paved the way for jazz-rock fusion – and which catapulted McLaughlin into jazz’s premier league.
In 1972, McLaughlin formed his own group, the pioneering jazz-rock behemoth, Mahavishnu Orchestra, in tandem with powerhouse drummer Billy Cobham and in 1975, after the group broke up McLaughlin went in a wholly different direction when he formed the acoustic group, Shakti, which fused jazz with Indian music. Since that time, the guitar virtuoso – how now lives in the south of France – has issued a raft of albums under his own name that marry a quest for spiritual enlightenment with music. His latest album, ‘To The One,’ follows on from his role in the Five Peace Band project with Chick Corea and was recorded with his group The Fourth Dimension (its members are keyboardist Gary Husband, bassist Etienne M’Bappe and drummer Mark Mondesir) and recently, the 68-year-old guitarist took time out from his busy touring schedule to talk to www.soulandjazzandfunk’s Charles Waring about his new album.
What was the inspiration behind ‘To The One’?
The music just came out on its own, Charles. I had no intention of recording. I had been working quite hard. I’d just finished about a year on the road with Chick (Corea) and the Five Peace Band and all of a sudden this music came out. I was on holiday in Spain with my family and we were in a restaurant. I said to my wife, do you have any napkins? I’ve got to write something down and the music came like that. It reminded me of that pivotal point in 1965 when John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ came out. He single-handedly integrated spiritual dimensions into jazz music. Don’t misunderstand me: all music is spiritual, all people are spiritual but they just don’t behave like spiritual beings for the most part. But prior to that it was only like Indian music that had a spiritual dimension.
So the music just flowed out of you unprompted?
The music just came out of me and I wrote it down. My wife said, John, you’re going to have to record again. And then after the music was written, it must have been sometime in the autumn last year, I woke up in the middle of the night and I had all these liner notes in my mind and all the titles of the tunes, which I hadn’t had, and it was all dictated to me through some inner voice. I woke up and I said oh, wow, this is wonderful and I said to myself well, okay, I’ll write it in the morning and a voice said no, you’re going to get out of bed now and you’re gonna write it down. And I did. It was kind of like dictation. A very peculiar experience I can tell you. I saw the titles and I said this is a chronological diagram of my musical and spiritual endeavours since that time in 1965. 45 years, can you imagine? And the titles, they tell the whole story. That’s how it came about.
It’s a very unusual way for an album to come into being, isn’t it?
Very unusual, yeah. It started with the ‘Floating Point’ album in India. I don’t know if you know that recording – it’s not Shakti music; it’s with Indian musicians but really great jazz players and the music came out in a similar way so maybe this is what happens when you get old, Charles. At least I hope it keeps coming.
So did ‘A Love Supreme’ have a profound way of influencing your own music after you heard it?
Well, it took me a year to hear it. It was too far above my head. It was just too far. But what was fantastic was the poem on the back, ‘The Prayer.’ This was so important to me and even when I look back retrospectively this was just a marvellous encouragement to me, because at 22, 23, what do you know? Nothing. You’re trying to find some kind of spiritual identity. I was floundering around trying to learn how to meditate and this and that. The West in particular at that time was not very conducive to this kind of self-awareness. So Coltrane helped me more than he could ever know. Sadly, he died before I even got to see him but ‘A Love Supreme’ was so important to me and is to this day so important because I don’t know if I would be who I am today without that poem. And anyway, I knew what was in the music (on ‘A Love Supreme’) was the same as what was in the poem: this wonderful, marvellous, spiritual relationship he had with the infinite, with God and with the universe. But I knew it was me who was stupid because I couldn’t hear it, and so I played that record every day and after a year, suddenly I heard it. But I had to work very hard to get to it. I was just listening to it today.
It’s a record that you can listen to time and time again and still find something new in it isn’t it?
Oh yes. It’s timeless. Isn’t that marvellous?
What’s been the highlight of your career?
The highlight? My whole life has been a highlight as I’ve been so fortunate. I was born in this little village in Yorkshire and ended up playing with my heroes, some marvellous players, and I had the opportunity to work and develop as a human being and as a musician. I mean my goodness, is there more than that? I don’t think so.
One final question: what inspires you to continue to make music?
Human beings, Charles. They are the greatest mystery in the universe. This is what the second piece on ‘To The One’ is about, ‘Special Beings.’ There are many of them, to whom I have a very, very profound debt of gratitude that I won’t be able to repay so I can just make my thanks like that. There are too many to be numbered, so I put them all together in this one tune. But there are so many special people, and not just musicians – writers, painters, thinkers, philosophers, spiritual men, gurus, holy men. There are lots. It’s a big list. You know, I’ve been around a while. I’m 68 years old.
‘To The One’ by John McLaughlin & The Fourth Dimension is out now on Abstract Logix.