First impressions are very important. But quite often, we forget about them – lost in the stream of memory. Those we have left usually are the most important and dear ones. Even though, my first introduction to the music of John McLaughlin wasn’t particularly special, I still remember that psychedelic effect of his guitar-parts on “Birds Of Fire”. A melody alternating with the great degree of tension. These are my first memories of McLaughlin. At that point, John has already passed his path – from being Tony Williams’ and Miles Davis’ side-man to the band leader and the moving force behind Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Despite the years of his creativity, McLaughlin’s newest “Liberation Time” is an incredibly well-written piece. John’s writing part wasn’t interrupted by the pandemic. He wrote everything uniting various musicians all over the planed. And as usually – many elements of his creativity. From free-jazz tonalities, to something as radical as “Bitches Brew” and “Birds Of Fire” and to more rhythm and blues tonalities.
Dan Volohov sits down with John McLaughlin discussing his work on “Liberation Time” and the formation of Mahavishnu Orchestra, meditation and improvisation, Miles Davis and rhythm and blues.
The self-titled track “Liberation Time” starts with piano-introduction. It was said that you haven’t been writing a piano-pieces since “Love Devotion Surrender”. What do you feel leaving guitar aside, which has been the primary instrument of your songwriting for decades, literally ?
Well, these two piano-pieces I recorded in 1980’s. Believe it or not! I recorded them before my limited piano-technique completely disappeared…Because, I started my musical life as a piano-player, as a pianist studying classical piano. Until the guitar-playing. So I had kind of refugee-technique on piano around 1980’s. Because, I had a piano at home. I recorded them in the midi but with the pedal and the velocity, the dynamics. They were in the archives. So I was looking for the archives when I started writing music for this album.
These two pieces, I had in my archives as midi-files. But performer, actual performers – not modified. So I spoke to Gary Husband who plays drums. A very good drummer. He’s playing drums on the album. And also, he’s playing piano. He’s fine pianist. And he has this application from Vienna symphony pianos. Which contains all the great pianos: Steinway, Bosendorfer even Yamaha – all I had to do is connect my files to his application of this piano. My performance was reproduced on a great piano. And the reason I put these two pieces…Because, that’s true – I had them for decades. And I’ve never used them! But the music on this album…Let me just give you a brief resume of why this music came. In fact…I think, it’s safe to say that without COVID pandemic this album would never have been made. Which sounds strange. But let me tell you, why!
The last time I played in public was January 11th, 2020. I had one concert in Calcutta, India and I had another concert in Singapore. It was my last concert. I had a very big European tour organized last year. Of course, it was cancelled. So we had Japanese tour in the Autumn – also cancelled. By the end of September, I started getting crazy, Dan! Because: no concerts, no travelling…This isn’t my life. All my life I’m travelling, I’m playing, I’m a touring musician…Like every touring musician today ( laughter ).
Yes, it’s very nice to be home with the family. At the same time, I can’t follow my profession. So, I started getting very frustrated. I have a lot crazier ideas coming at my head. But I can’t go out of the house. Here in Monaco and France we have a very strict lockdown and a very strict curfew. We’re just coming out of curfew. At this time, I, of course couldn’t go anywhere. At some point, I got SO CRAZY so I said: “Ok! I have to get this craziness out of my head.” – and the music started coming out! In two weeks, everything was written. Except these two piano pieces.
Of course, I’m blocked. What can I do with all of this music ? In March last year, I started working with other musicians by sending them audio-files through the Internet. Because, I was a pianist – so I can’t prepare keyboards. Preparing bass-players’ [parts] is not a problem. All the time, I was living in America, in New York, I had a drum-kit. Because, I love to play the drums. I’m not the drummer. But I love to play. I know how to set up a musical situation – [doing] a demo. So, I prepared, I invited these musicians from America, these musician from Paris, this one from London, this one from Monaco. This one from Cairo, in Egypt. I sent out the files. But I put my performance in.
The first performance with FAKE drums, FAKE bass, FAKE piano. Everything is fake. But it’s the right part and they have the score. These musicians, they are fantastic. So, they play. And sometimes, the file comes back to me. And IT’S SO GOOD, what they did. I have to re-do my part. Because, they evolve the piece in such lovely way. They inspire me to do better. Not all the pieces. But some pieces.
However, I will always try to find the way to have the drummer and the bass-player record together. Because, it’s very important in jazz-music…Actually, its important in any music. Because, the drums and the bass – they have to be like one feeling. Just the beautiful groove. This is how it came out. All the files went across the world. To this country, that country. This is really AMAZING [that] with technology today we’re allowed to do this.
I’d finish with this little anecdote: when I have all the files ready I say: “What can I do ?!” – my engineer, my real recording and mastering engineer is in London. My favorite studio is in London. I can’t go to London. I just can’t go…I’m not allowed. But there’s an application that studios have now – we have a Zoom. I have Zoom on my laptop and on my big computer. I can see the board and hear the sound of what the engineer is doing. And can hear what the engineer is doing. Hear it with the maximum delay of 90 millisecond. So we work. I mix the album at home with the engineer in the studio in London. AMAZING!
Do you feel like there’s a certain comfort zone within your playing or it’s always a search for you ?
Yes. In a way. But for me, Dan, every day is different. I’m different every day. I think, for everybody. We’re different from one moment to the next. Because, we’re alive and conscious beings. From day to the next is just a little bit. It’s hardly noticeable. From day to six weeks or month – you can notice it. So, after six months, I’m thinking a little bit differently then I was six months ago. And I’m hearing music coming into my head – it’s not what I could hear six months ago. It’s not searching.
Let me put it like this: I’m curious. I’m very curious about ALL KINDS of music. Because, every music is beautiful. Every music is good. But the difference is: is it well-played or not well-played. And is it deep or shallow. These are really the only differences. But in this sense, all the music is good. Because, it comes from the human-heart. As a human-being – I’m very curious. The fact is – it’s not I’m searching to get the new sounds…Is the new sounds, they come in my head. Without me searching for them. Every day is different from yesterday. I like to live in the present moment. It all has to do with my attitude to life, Dan.
Because, when you’re meditating, when you’re looking for the great questions of existence – you can only find them in the present moment. I can’t find them the answer tomorrow, I can’t find the answer yesterday. I can’t find anything except NOW. In this moment – that’s what we really have. I’m talking to you right now, in this moment. You’re in Russia, I’m in Monaco – this is amazing. And this moment, is the most…I can’t even put it into words…It’s like Einstein said: “Life is very simple” – he said: “Or, there are no miracles in life or everything is a miracle…”. And to me, everything is a miracle. I’m alive, this moment – it’s a miracle. I’m open to anything that comes into me. That’s why I don’t go and look to how I can make an album, how I can do this. I just work on my instrument and…the music comes.
How much has having this spiritual dimension integrated in what you’re doing affected your approach ? In particular, I’m asking about improvisation vs. meditative practices.
You know, the most important aspect of life to me is to know who I really am. To know what I really am and the rest it secondary. What’s important is my inner-awareness and my inner-perception. This is fundamental to my existence. Whatever comes after – whether I’m cooking a meal, whether I’m swiping the floor, whether I’m playing the guitar, everything is affected by my interior awareness. This is the first thing. So, of course, my exitance is completely affected my by interior development. You can call it spirituality [though] I’m not happy with this word – it’s been kind of abused. But the development of inner-awareness is in the end of the development of the spirit, in which we all are connected.
We can’t help but be connected. This is of course my conviction. Not everybody would agree with me. But I can’t give you kind qualitative answer to your question. I’d say – if it had affected, it affected 100%. But it affects the way I am 100%. It affects the way I cook a meal 100%. Because, I want to do it beautifully, I want to do it well and make myself happy and make everybody around myself happy. In a way, it’s 100%. Otherwise – it’s not that at all. You can’t be 25% or 40%. That’s not work like that.
Describing your work from the 60’s-early 70’s to these days, there is the epithet “radical” that usually comes with this. Even with “Liberation Time” we can use it. But when you started Mahavishnu Orchestra, what affected this type of mentality you, as artist and composer had at that point ?
First of all, it wasn’t radical to me ( laughs ). It was ABSOLUTELY NORMAL for me. That’s how I want to play. Of course, you have to understand that 60’s was a very-very important decade from a point of view of consciousness. Because, of course, from the middle of the 60’s I was dropping LSD like everybody. [Back in] those days it was completely legal. It was only in the 1972 when Richard Nixon and the other countries started realizing: “Oh, that might be dangerous. People might have drop-out and not be working human beings. NOT GOOD FOR SOCIETY! Not good for business!”.
All the musicians, the Beatles, the Stones – everybody, we were all dropping LSD. At the same time, for the most of 1960’s, I was surviving, playing rhythm and blues, or even funk. But at the same time, I was absorbing all the music all the music from John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Bo Diddley, Sonny Rollins, the great jazz-musicians of the 60’s. And then, on January 69, I arrive in New York to join Tony Williams’ Lifetime. This was radical, Dan! WE WERE CRAZY! We wanted to breakout…Even a classical jazz-tradition. We all grew with rock-n-roll, R’n’B and funk – all these influences coming into jazz.
I was very lucky. I arrived in New York to play with Tony Williams – he was leaving Miles Davis and forming a Lifetime. At the same time, Miles invited me to start recording with him and play concerts with him. The years of 1969-1070 were INCREDIBLE years for me. Every time I’m working with Tony – I’m working with Miles. And in two different ways. Because, Miles – he wanted from me all the things I was using in the 60’s with rhythm and blues.
He was moving out of classical jazz. Which is why you hear albums like “Bitches Brew” and “A Tribute To Jack Johnson” – because, he wanted the guitar. And I was very lucky to be there. On the other hand, Tony Williams – he was very interested in my writing. In how I write music. He encouraged me constantly to write for Lifetime. A lot of that crazy music you hear in Lifetime is from me ( laughs ).
By the October of 1970. I was with Miles Davis one night. And he said: “It’s time for you to form your band”. I couldn’t believe he’d say such a thing. But I believe this was how I start to form Mahavishnu Orchestra. This is the one side of where I got the order. If Miles say: “You do this…” – he’s still my hero. And he’d always be my hero. He’s kind of guru to me. Like Coltrane. They’re real teachers. They taught me so much!
By the end of 1970, I become a discipleof my meditation guru – Sri Chinmoy. By July-August he gave me the spiritual name of “Mahavishnu” which means “Great Vishnu”.
I knew, I wanted a violin. Because, it was my mothers’ instrument. And I love violin. But I didn’t want a jazz-player. I wanted a rhythm and blues player. So I have to look around. I found this guy, Jerry Goodman in Chicago, playing with the band called “The Flock”. So I invited him. At the same time, you must know Miroslav Vitouš.
A big fan of Miroslav!
Me too! It goes back to 1969, when he arrived in London with Stan Getz, the saxophone player. And we became friends. When I arrived in New York, we became even more…Very dear friends. At that time, I’m forming Mahavishnu Orchestra, I get the call from Miroslav. I say: “Miroslav, how are you doing ?” – he says: “I’m very good! Listen, I’m working a band with Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul called “Weather Report”. We want you to be in the band. And I said: “Wow! Fantastic! But I have to say – I’m on the orders to make my own band! Miles gave me order. I have to make MY band!” – he said: “Oh, ok! I understand this!” – he understood it immediately. I said: “It would be fantastic, you’ll have a fantastic band!” – and they did, of course.
But he said: “Listen, do you have a piano-player ?” – I said: “No! I’m looking for a piano-player.” And he said: “I have a friend. Also from Czechoslovakia. He’s a very good pianist.” – “Really ? Is he in New York” – he said: “No, no! He’s in California! Playing with Sarah Vaughan”. I said: “If he’s playing with Sarah Vaughan – I WANT HIM!” –if you’re accompanying Sarah Vaughan, you’re a good musician! Because, she was a fantastic musician. I called him. He was another jazz-musician waiting to break-out. A new thing. More rhythm and blues, rock…whatever – into improvisation.
The bass-player, Rick Laird, who I’m afraid is not well. Poor fellow. We’re gonna loose him. He has cancer…
Oh my God…
Yes. [With] him and I, it goes back to 1965, when we were playing with The Brian Auger Band.
Who came first to the Mahavishnu Orchestra lineup ?
The drummer came first. Billy Cobham.
Where did you meet Billy ?
On, “Jack Johnson” album. Normally, Miles would come with some pieces of paper, some chords. This session – he didn’t come with anything. So, he’s in the control. I’ve been waiting – talking to Teo Macero, the producer. We were waiting. There was Herbie [Hancock] on the organ, Michael Henderson on bass, Steve Grossman, the sax-player, Billy on drums…And I’ve never met Billy before! After 15 minutes I’m very bored in the studio. I’ve been thinking about the chord progression that eventually became “Dance Of Maya” on Mahavishnu [Orchestra] album. So, I start play this. But I started as R’n’B. Just for fun. I start playing. Then Billy picks it up. And Michael Henderson start playing. WE HIT THE GROOVE. Beautiful. We just hit it. Magical. The door opens. Miles is running into the studio with his trumpet. In front of the microphone for the 15 minutes he plays LIKE A GOD. I’ve never heard him playing SO FANTASTIC. Just listen to this album – HOW HE PLAYS ON THIS ALBUM! From this point, Billy and I got together after the session, we started hanging out, we became very dear friends.
He was the first person I asked to join Mahavishnu Orchestra. This was the band. But I have to tell you about Billy and I. We started playing this music before even Jerry arrived, before Jan arrived, before Rick arrived. We were playing just guitar and drums in [our] rehearsal studio in New York.
But fast-forward from the early 1971 to about 6-7 years ago…I’m in Montreux with my family. Claude Nobs, the founder, whom we unfortunately lost…What a dear friend…We’re on our bikes, riding around Lake Geneva. The beautiful [lake] – in the forest. Sunshine…Marvelous! And Claude say: “Listen, John! Can you play tonight ?” – I said: “I’m on holiday here! Don’t even play the guitar!” – “I have many guitars!” – Billy actually lives in Switzerland. So Claude says: “I called Billy and he’s ready to come! Because I have this band…” – it was kind of big English pop-band. But they’re stuck in Montreux. The plane is broken down and they can’t play. He said: “I don’t have anyone to play tonight with another band…” – Billy and I, we go to the stage that night. We haven’t played IN YEARS. DECADES. And we played the music from Mahavishnu only from the head ( laughs ). Can you imagine ? Just the two of us. It was amazing. It was beautiful.
Everybody says it was very radical. To me, it wasn’t radical to me. Because of this experience of the 60’s and the two years I spent playing with Miles Davis and Tony Williams. This is the kind of music that was coming out from me. And I love this kind of music ( laughter ). Fortunately, everybody like it too!…Not everybody, but a lot of people like it ( laughs )
Working with Miles and Tony, you still were a collaborator. How much has your mentality changed when you became the band-leader – with Mahavishnu Orchestra and later on, over the years of your career ? Like, Miles and Tony have been pushing you, to a degree. So what did you feel when you took their position ?
Well, I have to say I learnt than you can possibly imagine from Miles. Just to be with him. Because, to be on stage with him was one thing. The second say I arrived in New York, he already was in the studio. He invited me for “In A Silent Way”. Already in that session I leant AMAZING THINGS. But he put me on a test too. He had a way of talking to musicians that was unique…I’m not Miles Davis. I’m myself with the musicians. But it was fantastic to see him work with musicians.
Let me tell you [about] “In A Silent Way” – that’s the title track and that’s the title of the album. I’m very nervous. He’s my hero since I’m 15 years old. And I’m all of a sudden in the studio with him. We have this tune – a piece by Joe Zawinul. But there’s no guitar-part because Joe doesn’t know – I was invited to come to the studio only the night before. So there’s no guitar-part. He gave me a photo-copy of the piano-part. We started. I’m playing from the piano-part. We play a couple of times [but] Miles – he doesn’t like it. He looks at me and say: “You play on the guitar.” – I say: “Oh, you want me to play everything with the chords and melody ?” – “EVERYTHING!” – you know, he didn’t have a voice. “John, play everything!”. – “It’s a piano part, not a guitar-part!” – “It that affects ?” ( laughs ). Ironic! I’m sitting there and I don’t know what to do! He’s looking at me, all the musicians, they’re looking at me. What I’m gonna do ? Because I have a piano-part, I can’t do what he wants. I don’t know the score. All of a sudden he says: “Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar!” – can you imagine, to say something like this ? And the musicians – “We never heard this before!”. I say: “What does he mean ?!” – I’m already sweating. But it’s ok.
I close the score and say: “No chords, no rhythm – nothing! I’d play the melody and whatever happens – happens!” – we do it like this and the red light was on. Immediately! We play it. We listen back. And Miles loves it. He loves it so it was a miracle, Dan! From this session and the following sessions, I saw how he works. And how systematically…For example, in “Bitches Brew”. In a way, on “Bitches Brew”, he didn’t know what he wanted. But he knew what he didn’t want. He didn’t want what he’d already done. He wanted something new. One thing I heard once he said: “We’d play blues-enough. But I don’t want to hear any “F”-notes”. This is a typical Miles-statement! He’s like a Zen-master.
After all these recordings, I see how he works and what he wants. He doesn’t want musicians to play what they think he wants, he wants them to completely be themselves. But in the context of the direction he’s going in. Sometimes, he start. He set up a groove. Like: “Dum-dum-dum-dum…Ba-pa, mba, mba-mba-ah!…” and he say to the bass-player: “Less! Less notes!” – and then he goes to the drummer and: “M-pa! Pa-pa!…Ok ?” – doing so, it blew their minds. Because, they don’t know what to think. But when your mind is blown, you start playing from a different place, Dan. And he was a master at this. What was great – he wanted everybody to be themselves. Miles loved all of his musicians. He really did. He was not even a hard-leader. But just wanted everyone to be on their toes, to be ready and among his notices – to be themselves.
All of this and with Tony. And of course, I got to work with other people – I did albums with Wayne Shorter. So I saw how he worked. I saw how Joe [Zawinul] worked. And other people. Playing with the great musicians, I had such fantastic opportunity in these two years – 1969-1070. By the time, I get the order to form the band, I knew what I had to do. I had the blessing in a way, I had the experience. I knew how to talk to other musicians. To get them to be themselves and play the part I want. You can’t a bully as a musician. Music is only about love, in the end. Isn’t it ? It’s only about love. Without love, music doesn’t work. You can’t be angry and play music. It’s silly. It doesn’t work. Does it ? If you’re angry and start playing music – in 20 seconds you’d forget that you’re angry. And you’d be happy. Amazing! This is the power of music. It makes people happy. It was not a problem.
Of course, you always run into problems. In the end, Mahavishnu Orchestra is a classic example. You ask me about this. We had SO MUCH SUCCESS. In a way, I regret that we had so much success. Because, there’s one thing I learnt from one person already in 1960’s. He told me and I respected it…He was actually my lawyer. And said: “John, failure is easy to do with. Success is much more difficult.” – you can understand that. I never forgot that. In the end, I had a problem. But I can understand this problem. You have to remember that we had this band with a lot of success – big audiences, playing big tours and everything.
I was into my meditation trip; I was into my yoga. After bit concerts, I got home to the hotel – I had a salad and I got to sleep. And the guys, they went drinking, have girls or have a good time…That’s what musicians normally do on the road! I know! But I was into my trip. In a way, you could say I was a little antisocial. Because, I didn’t go drinking with them, smoking dope, hanging out with girls etc…But I didn’t ask them to meditate or to do what I wanted to do. That was my life. I know, perhaps being the leader and having my own trip going…And you can understand [everything]. At the end, it became very difficult with Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman. Very difficult. To the point when they didn’t want to speak to me anymore ( laughs ).
At the same time, as you said – there are always problems. To a point, I think you coped with everything just incredibly. Even with “Liberation Time”…
Yeah. It’s very sweet for you to say! But in the end, Dan, music is really the power. Music is everything. It’s so much more then my trip, his trip…Music is from the universe. It connects us all in such beautiful way. But it was actually the cause behind the breakup of the first Mahavishnu. I regret to this day…Afterwards, Jerry and I became good friends again. But Jan Hammer never spoke to me again. I still don’t know why ( laughs ). Can you imagine ? But that’s life. I went on, there was the second Mahavishnu.
In the end, there was the third version. But the music goes on. My life is music. Music comes into my head. Here I am – ALL THESE YEARS LATER. I’m so grateful. I’m full of gratitude to have a musical life, to still have musical life today. Here I am talking to you, my friend – who loves music, just like me. And it connects us! We’re connected by the great spirit – I know this. But we’re really connected through the music. Because, we have this opportunity to speak.
Liberation Time is out on July the 16th. Pre-order the record – here.