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John McLaughlin

Author’s note: I reviewed John’s Cork Jazz Festival gig circa January 1996, and then interviewed him in London shortly after that. Features based on the interview were published in The Guitar Magazine and Record Collector in April and May 1996 respectively. This one, a more leisurely account of the interview, was commissioned by Irish magazine Hot Press but remained, alas, unpublished. I think they were hoping for more sensationalism. Well, they came to the wrong guy. But I think you do get a real sense of John’s character from this. He’s a one-off.


Commissioned by Hot Press, early 1996 but unpublished

Colin Harper

“We were ripped off!” he’d roared, “Ripped off!” – memorably lapsing into some vestige of a Yorkshire accent and instantaneously cumbusting any notion of Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, beacon of otherworldly bliss and serenity, scattering to the cognoscenti the secrets of Truth encrypted in billion mile an hour flurries of modal scales and complex rhythmic techniques, delivered in onstage situations involving garments of white cheesecloth, double-necked guitars and blistering volume. Times have clearly changed.

The wrath of the Mahavishnu (strictly speaking, he dropped the moniker after splitting with guru Sri Chinmoy in the ‘70s – but it still ‘feels’ appropriate) was, on this our first encounter, loosely directed at Van Morrison or his flunkies, though he was notably more careful than his band members at not singling out The Man. Criticising other musicians, it transpires, isn’t something a jazz man does. It was McLaughlin’s first appearance in Ireland for 30 years, at the Cork Jazz Festival last November, and he was sharing a venue – a venue, not a bill – with Van Morrison. There was no sign of any cheesecloth, the guitar had a single, sensible neck, the scales were somewhat more in keeping with mainstream jazz but the volume was still there and McLaughlin in full flight was every bit the archetypal guitar hero, striding around the stage, firing off solos with abandon and throwing shapes like shoe-gazing never happened. It was only an hour and a bit in when it became apparent that somebody was trying to interrupt his locked-in state of bliss from the side of the stage. The stage manager, one presumes, was more concerned with clearing one audience, wheeling another in and shifting the pot plants around for the midnight arrival of Van. The earthly presence of the God of Fusion was plainly of no interest to the man, and – possibly for the first time ever – the stage manager of an international jazz festival pulled the plug on John McLaughlin. And he wasn’t happy.

This word was McLaughlin doesn’t give interviews at the best of times, and this wasn’t one of those. “No chance” said the festival PR; “He’s only done one in the last three years” said the record company, “and that was on the phone.” Here was the man who had turned down The Irish Times a day or two before. “So, John, sorry to hear about the Van stuff, too bad… Great show… Can we do an interview some time?” Remarkably, he said yes, calming down with almost as much speed as his solos. “You set it up.” Two months later we’re exchanging pleasantries in the elevator of London’s Langham Hilton. The great man has flown in from his home on the sunny shores of Monaco, I’ve flown in via a foggy diversion to Birmingham the previous evening and the record company have booked a most salubrious suite for the occasion. Casually attired in turtle-neck and sweater, he talks with a curious French lilt, betraying the Yorkshire voice of rage and the mid-Atlantic drawl of early ‘70s live tapes. He seems personable and courteous, but the cliff-edge of wrath is e’er but a short step away. We enter the suite and he is aghast. Someone has turned the air conditioning on (“In the middle of winter?!”). And that’s not all. On the coffee table is a bowl of fruit and a mysterious note ‘To John Jones’. “Who is this John Jones?” mumbles the Mahavishnu, reading Jones’ mail. A little while later, somebody arrives at the door with a bunch of flowers for Mr Jones. The Mahavishnu, with increasing desperation, tries to explain that, really, they’re very nice but he didn’t order flowers, he’s trying to do an interview and, no, he has absolutely no idea who John Jones is. The man from the record company suggests we might care for some tea or coffee. “What kind of tea?” asks John. “Virtuosi-tea…” one mutters. “What?” says John. Once again, he is not amused.

Bandying word-play with a man who has dedicated the past 25 years of his life to communing with God through music – maintaining during such time a dizzying speed and an almost total avoidance of lyrics – isn’t a good idea. His mastery of his instrument is frightening, and he has proved time and again capable of flitting between straight jazz, orchestral composition, pummeling post-Hendrix rock and Indian classical music with an ease and exhilaration which must mesmerise his contemporaries, furrow the brows of his record companies and, certainly in the past, baffle his audience. “So what’s he like then?” said Martin Hayes – traditional fiddle wizard and closet devotee of fusion – a few weeks later. “Well, he’s, er, strange…” He’d said as much himself. “I like being strange, Colin. It’s a good feeling…”

The record company had more than common courtesy in mind in facilitating an interview. Released this month, The Promise is John McLaughlin’s 30th album in 27 years. It’s his quirkiest and most adventurous record for years, moving from fusion to bebop to pseudo-classical and beyond with brief bursts of ‘jungle’, spoken word and manic guitar jams in between. It displays, in one handy package, a fairly full gamut of the man’s myriad styles – with guest appearances from Jeff Beck, Paco De Lucia, Al Di Meola, Sting, sundry Indians and more besides. And by now, of course, his current label Verve have become attuned to the wayward ways of their most auspicious act: “Well, thank God,” he says, “they’re very happy with what I’m doing. So, touch wood, I’ve just re-signed for another five years.” For someone brought up on the metaphysical auras of his reissued 1970’s album sleeves (even the titles, for goodness sake) it comes as something of a surprise that a figure of McLaughlin’s perceived serenity, inscrutability and seemingly boundless musical questing should leave room in his concerns for worldly wherewithalls like sales figures and record contracts, but there they are. Even the Mahavishnu has a mortgage to pay – though woe betide the building society that stands in the way of his goals beyond:

“Any painter” he says, “you look at his paintings from 25 years ago and you look at what he’s doing today: is he doing the same thing? I would say there’s a 99.9% chance that he’s not, ‘cos he’s changed, and I’ve changed. But why not go with the changes? So I do. Just because something works commercially is no guarantee that it works musically – and it has to work musically – but there are certain risks you take. Like Shakti – I took risks with Shakti and I lost record sales with Shakti, but what am I going to do? Am I going to sell my soul? No, I have to stay happy with myself. There are different kinds of success and musical success is the most important. You want to have commercial success too, but not at the price of being unhappy.”

McLaughlin’s quest for bliss begins in Yorkshire, circa 1950: “My mother was an amateur violinist” he says, “and I asked her at eight ‘Can I take some piano lessons?’ and she said ‘Yes, of course. I had this dragon of a piano teacher, but at the same time I used to listen to a lot of music and practice, and every time you practice without reading music you’re developing your ear, developing an appreciation for music. It can only help.” He’s often been criticised for ‘too many notes, too little music’, and it’s clear from his interviews over the years that in spite of the same gritty, formative influences as every other English musician of his generation – Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, and other ethereal heroes of American long wave broadcasting – McLaughlin takes a more disciplined, austere approach, regarding the advancement of one’s technique and theory as a route – the route – to the advancement of one’s music. I suggest to him that this in contrast with the intuitive approach of, for instance, a player of similar age (McLaughlin is 54) and background like Bert Jansch:

“No, don’t make any errors” he says, “Bert Jansch has his own technique; Muddy Waters in 1952 playing very simple Mississippi Delta blues – very sophisticated technique in his own way. But I think it would be fairer to compare a jazz instrumentalist with a classical instrumentalist, because Bert plays finger-picking folk music and sings. I’m a guitar player. You have a discipline – a classical discipline and a jazz discipline. Now why do you have a discipline? Because if you don’t dominate your instrument, your instrument will dominate you and that’d really get in the way of the music.”

McLaughlin’s domination of his instrument doesn’t appear to have taken too long. Obsessive achievement probably runs in the family – both his brothers are PhDs (in Marine Biology and Petro-Chemicals). Suitably esoteric subjects: “Mmm, different, Colin. Certainly different.” He took it up at 11 and by 16 he was off to Manchester, axe in hand, and shortly thereafter to London. The jazz direction had already been firmed up at school where he had a band – or three: “A band at school? Yeah, I did – it was a kind of traditional jazz band, and I also had a George Shearing kind of band and, alas, I had a skiffle group! The greatest thing about my school – and it was a pretty dreadful school – was my music teacher. He was great. And of course he taught classical music, but the fact that he had some students that were interested just in music and wanted to play, for him was enough. He encouraged us. There was a music club where we could play jazz records – in those days it would be Jazz At The Philharmonic, Oscar Peterson… I was also very much aware of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the whole bebop movement, but Miles [Davis] was a revelation, especially Milestones because it was really a milestone in jazz music and music in general…”

His early years London are something of a chronological blur. He started off in Georgie Fame’s band (enjoying the opportunity to say hi to his old mentor, now cheer-leading for Van, at the Cork gig), occasionally jamming with Alexis Korner before joining Korner mutineers Graham Bond, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to form the Graham Bond Quartet before, as legend has it, Baker decided he didn’t like the guy and had him shucked out in favour of sax player Dick Heckstall-Smith. Bond shared with Miles Davis a dark, mysterious public persona. Were they similar? “Not at all. Bond was wild, he was a wild man but we were all a little wild in those days. But a very interesting man, and very curious. He peaked my curiosity in a number of directions.” Bond’s involvement with Theosophy, illicit substances and latterly all manner of occult activities is legendary. A baptism of fire, perchance? “I think the whole of the ‘60s was a baptism of fire generally. It was pretty amazing, you know, because I’d been growing up with Miles and Coltrane and then 1964 comes along, Sgt. Pepper, LSD… And by this time I was already questioning a lot of things about perception, about life and about the meaning of it all – about existence.”

McLaughlin spent the mid ‘60s in London, recording as a session musician for about 18 months on “stupid pop music, until I couldn’t stand it any more”. He got friendly with Beatles’ men George Martin and Geoff Emerick at the time, later calling them up, in 1974, to produce the dark and ambitious Apocalypse – one of the indulgent era’s more successful rock band/orchestra projects, if a tad heavy-going to the casual ear. “I’m one of The Beatles’ biggest fans” he says, surprisingly, “and George Martin I believe is the greatest producer of the latter 20th century. And a great musician.” He doesn’t recall – or care to recall – too many of those ‘60s sessions but among them were a couple with The Rolling Stones and a few more with Northern Soul faves Herbie Goins & The Night-Timers, and if legend is to be believed he was giving lessons at the time to fellow sessioneer Jimmy Page.
His most extraordinary work of the period, well indicative of his already unique playing, were a series of recordings, including several co-written songs, with a refugee from Larry Parnes’ stable of British rock’n’rollers with silly names, Duffy Power. Power was, nevertheless, an exceptional jazz/R&B vocalist and the recordings – currently compiled on CD as Little Boy Blue – remain a fascinating glimpse of McLaughlin circa ‘65 and way ahead of his time. John himself prefers to side-step anachronistic reverence: “I don’t know any musician who sees himself in that way; he’s much too concerned with his music. He’s not thinking ‘Am I ahead of my time, am I behind my time’…” And he hasn’t even heard the stuff either: “Yeah, apparently some kind of record has come out with me and Duffy – nobody told me, I didn’t even know there was a recording. I mean, it’s too bad. It shouldn’t be like that. I should be asked – I should be paid, for crying out loud, and I was certainly never paid. But my association with Duffy was that we shared musical interests and that was really that. We didn’t really do any gigs – well, we did gigs with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, sometimes he’d sing with us. And in fact, that’s where Jack got all his harp playing and singing from, direct from Duffy.”

Speaking of which, its curious that McLaughlin was never asked – as seemed perfunctory for embryonic guitar heroes of the period – to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and more curious still that just when all the rest – Beck, Page, Clapton et al – are forming prototytpe heavy metal bands, McLaughlin is wearing black polo necks and playing straight jazz with the Gordon Beck Quartet and the Danny Thompson Trio: “Yeah, I know but I think John [Mayall] wanted more of the Mississippi style and by that time I was much too much under the influence of Miles and Coltrane. But I’ve always just followed my nature as long as I can remember. You go where you feel happy and for me it was natural to gravitate towards jazz – towards more eloquent ways of expressing myself, and that’s all I’ve spent my life doing. Of course, Jimi [Hendrix] was on the scene then and Jimi was really blowing everybody’s mind – he was killing everybody – and Eric [Clapton] was already gravitating towards this way and Jack was looking for another vehicle. He’d abandoned double bass since the work we’d done with Duffy and he’d started to sing too…”
And there wasn’t even a tiny part of him that saw the success of Cream and thought ‘that could have been me’? “No way – why should I give a shit? Great for them, fantastic – but I was very happy. By October/November ‘68 I was already in discussion with Tony [Williams] and very shortly after that I left for America and basically I never came back…” The period 1969-71 is literally strewn with ground-breaking, experimental McLaughlin recordings. The first solo album Extrapolation, recorded before leaving England, is still regarded by jazz critics as the guitarist’s finest hour (“What can I say? They’re out of their tiny minds…”), while the next three – the Hendrix-inspired Devotion, the meditational My Goals Beyond and the John Surman collaboration Where Fortune Smiles – explored ideas that would reach fruition with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He denies, however, that it was in response to the sheer pressure of life in New York that he abandoned the excesses of the ‘60s jazz lifestyle (you think the rock’n’roll lifestyle’s bad…?) and sought for solace in spirituality:

“No, not because of the pressure – you couldn’t find a happier person than me in New York. For a European jazz musician to find himself playing with Miles Davis, Tony Williams, playing Harlem – it’s paradise, Colin. I was in Heaven. But of course there was a lot of crystallization going on musically – I couldn’t have arrived at a better time. To play with Tony – still today one of the greatest, revolutionary drummers – and the late Larry Young, who was my all-time favourite Hammond organ player, and then of course Miles… So a lot of musical things were crystallizing. Tony was encouraging me to write more and this coincided with my own personal quest for… whatever, during which time I began to practise meditation and became a disciple of Sri Chinmoy.”
With whom he parted company in the mid ‘70s: “Yeah, so it’s not my path, but so what? There are many paths, and I still meditate every day.” Would he have any affinity with that other volume-driven visionary of the period Pete Townsend? “Hmmm, yes. Wasn’t he a follower of Meher Baba? I’m very fond of Meher Baba, but that also was not my way. But The Who was a group that I always loved – I just loved their vibe – and Pete is one of the sweetest guys I ever met. The music’s very simplistic, so I didn’t really see much analogy in what Pete was trying to do in music and what I was trying to do but, nevertheless, I liked them then and I like them today.”

Far from simplistic were the two albums McLaughlin recorded during this same frenetic period with Tony Williams’ Lifetime and several Miles Davis albums including Bitches Brew (1970) – generally regarded as the birth of fusion – but the one that holds the fondest memories for McLaughlin is the relatively obscure Tribute To Jack Johnson (1971): “I was very happy when Miles eventually told me that Jack Johnson was his favourite record” he says. “I’m very much a big part of Jack Johnson – in fact I started off the main theme with these funny, weird chords and the sound… Miles would normally come in with a piece of paper or a paper bag on which he’d written some chords in a taxi on the way over, but I remember we were in the studio with Herbie [Hancock], Michael Henderson, Billy Cobham, Steve Grossman and Miles was in the control room talking to somebody and after a while I just started this R&B thing. We all got into it, Miles heard it, the light went on, he ran in and he played for 20 minutes straight and it was just great. He was just killing – and that was the only record where Miles didn’t do any direction, it was totally spontaneous. And that was Miles’ favourite record.”

During that same ‘69-’71 period in New York McLaughlin also found windows in his diary to turn up on recordings by Jack Bruce, Wayne Shorter, Larry Coryell, Miroslav Vitous, old uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. Oh, and wasn’t there a bit of a session with Jimi Hendrix? “It was a farce” says John, recoiling at the thought of a less than perfect meeting of the gods (which somebody happened to tape). “I mean, I loved Jimi, but we were at this big party in a studio, in New York, and I was playing this hollow-bodied Hummingbird which was feeding back all the time, it was so loud in there. But I didn’t care – I was with Dave Holland and Larry Young, and we all sat and played. It was hard to play guitar, but Jimi was killing. In fact, I remember taking Miles to see Jimi on the Monterey Pop film. Miles had never seen him before and he couldn’t believe it.”

John speaks very affectionately of Miles, and freely admits it was only on Miles’ insistance that he finally ventured onto the sunlit path with his own band – the truly peerless Mahavishnu Orchestra. The first incarnation lasted two years, cutting three explosive, genre-defining albums – The Inner Mounting Flame (1972), Birds Of Fire (1973), Between Nothingness & Eternity (1973). McLaughlin knew exactly who he wanted, bringing bassist Rick Laird over from England (previously a colleague in the Brian Auger Trinity), poaching pianist Jan Hammer from Sarah Vaughan, Billy Cobham from Miles’ band and searching out Jerry Goodman, ex violinist from The Flock, on a farm in Wisconsin. The violin was the key: “Maybe something to do with my mother” he says, wistfully, “she was a violin player, I always loved violin… I didn’t really have, like, a vision. I just had that instrument. You hear things in your mind and I heard a violin. I heard Jerry on The Flock record and I’d heard a few other violin players, and I didn’t want anybody else – I wanted Jerry. He was very much like a rebel, in there with his ripped jeans and his torn t-shirts long before it was fashionable, but I liked that – especially because it was a contrast to me, because I was into my meditation thing…”

Indeed – the cheescloth and serenity period: “No, I mean, I don’t have a serene kind of persona that I want to project – I’m just me, Colin. But I like contrast – in life and in music. Also, by this time I’d been getting louder and louder with Tony and Miles too – I mean, he wanted it loud. To the point where I played with Jimi on a round-holed guitar – impossible. If you play at a certain volume you’re going to have to have a solid-bodied guitar.” In this respect, McLaughlin went to town – first with Gibson then customised Rex Bogue double-necks. It was all down to the arpeggios, which characterised his compositional style almost throughout the ‘70s: “I like arpeggios on guitar and 12 strings perfect, and then I had the 6 string for the solos.” That said, there are several instances on record, particularly the live recording, where McLaughlin uses the 12 string for soloing – solos which, he believed, wouldn’t have worked on 6 string.

The unbelievably tight, call-and-response interplay between McLaughlin’s over-driven guitar, Goodman’s scratchy electric violin and Hammer’s distinctive mini-moog together with impossibly fast statements of themes involving not only the lead instruments but Cobham’s machine gun drumming were the unrepeatable, uncopiable hallmarks of that first, great line-up. And it still figures in the mind of a man not given much to ruminating on past glories: “I’ve got this live tape from Cleveland from the first band that is just unbelievable, from 1971. It’s unreal. It was a great band. But the second band was fantastic too. One of my all-time favourite records in this genre is Visions Of The Emerald Beyond (1975), with Ralphe [Armstrong, bass] and Narada [Michael Walden, drums/vocals]. Ralphe was a funky guy. In fact, we just played together, Ralphe, Narada and I, at the Jimi Hendrix 25th Anniversary thing in Seattle. But the violin was still the thing. Even after Jerry left, John Luc Ponty came in, then Stephen Kinder came in [in an unrecorded version of the Orchestra], and then Shakti. Shakti already existed anyway, from 1973, parallel to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and ‘75 was when I decided I wanted to concentrate more or less exclusively with Shakti. And of course there was already a violin player in that band called Shankar.”

It may just transpire, incidentally, that the next Martin Hayes album will greet the world as Visions Of The Emerald Isle – but then post-gig banter in Dublin is a rarefied beast, and would anybody except people who hang around guitar shops get the joke anyway? And even then…  The final MO album, the little-known Inner Worlds (1976), featured a four-piece version of the band and a curious mix of fusion-by-numbers, Walden’s soul-mystic vocal outings and more adventurous eastern-tinged acoustic music that pointed in the Shakti direction. McLaughlin recorded three albums with his newly adopted band between 1975-77 -Shakti With John McLaughlin, A Handful Of Beauty and Natural Elements – inadvertently setting himself up as a latterday godfather of ‘world music’ to chroniclers of genres. As always, though, the collaboration was fuelled purely by musical exhilaration. McLaughlin – who had taken lessons from Ravi Shankar earlier in the decade – immersed himself in the rules of Indian music and commissioned a unique instrument in the form of an acoustic guitar with extra drone strings running across the sound hole diagonally and scalloped frets for infinite microtonal bends. The scales may have changed – and the speed, if anything, had increased – but the statement of theme with call and response soloing was still essentially the same. The experiment was, musically, a phenomenal success and the Shakti records are still as unequalled today as the best of the Mahavishnu recordings, but it came to an inevitable conclusion:

“I don’t pretend to play Indian classical music but I’ve studied it and I know the theory, I know the practical applications of it. I tried to get Shankar a bit more on my side with the study of jazz harmony, but he wasn’t really interested. He was more interested in going in a pop direction, away from any kind of complex harmonics. But I’m a western musician, Colin, and much as I love Shakti I still have a desire to play with western musicians – in jazz, R&B or whatever, but to play harmony, to play with musicians who improvise in a western way. I’d lost record sales with Shakti, so to make Electric Guitarist (1978) at the time was a great chance for me to, in a way, ‘come back’.”

Featuring an all-star cast of fusion alumni from the period, Electric Guitarist is one of McLaughlin’s most unassuming but enjoyable records, and with both Jerry Goodman and Billy Cobham on board was as close as he got to fulfilling a lingering but futile desire to regroup the first Mahavishnu Orchestra, which had ended in tears five years previous: “It was just stupidity – Jerry and Jan would act like two idiots – and when they stopped talking to me… I mean, who wants to play with people who don’t talk to you any more? They had six months notice – ‘If you’re not going to talk to me, this band is over’. And they didn’t. But I tried from ‘75, ‘76 – for a period of maybe 10 years – to regroup that band. Not for financial reasons but just because I felt it would be good to show everybody that the music was beyond petty bullshit. But it was not meant to be. I later saw Jerry and he said ‘Shit, that was the stupidest thing I could have done, to blow that’ – but at least we became pals again. Jan, for some reason, still holds a grudge against me. A great musician but what an idiot – I mean, for how long? It got to the point where Jerry would have been ready but Jan, in the meantime, is a multi-millionaire writing music for Miami Vice…”

Immediately after the ‘come-back’ McLaughlin went acoustic again, touring and recording in successful collaboration with Paco De Lucia and Larry Coryell, later replaced by Al Di Meola. The threesome reappear for one number on The Promise, and it was clearly a highlight for McLaughlin: “One of the pluses in doing a record like The Promise is that it opens up all sorts of imaginary doors, potential doors, but one of the most immediate is that since it brought Paco and Al and I back together they’re saying ‘we have to make another record together’, so that’ll probably be the next record.”

There was a time, during the ‘80s, when McLaughlin’s ‘next record’ could have been three years away and only available on import. His two guitar synth based records of the period with a violin-less band entitled Mahavishnu, featuring Bill Evans (sax) and Jonas Hellborg (bass) – Mahavishnu (1984) and Adventures In Radioland (1987) – are not without their moments but have an uncharacteristically anonymous feel, at its worst like muzak from American sit-coms. The current era of prolific, readily-available-in-the-British Isles releases was ushered in with the excellent Live At The Royal Festival Hall and the widely acclaimed Mediterranean Concerto, both from 1990. Since then, the UK based Verve label has overseen a flurry of diverse but regular projects, which have neither added to nor diminished his core audience and reputation, including Tokyo Live, featuring The Free Spirits; Time Remembered, McLaughlin’s exquisitely scored and executed tribute to the music of late pianist Bill Evans (not to be confused with…); and last year’s homage to Coltrane and the bebop sound After The Rain. An appearance on the recent all-star Hendrix tribute album In From The Storm, where he plays ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ with Sting, turning in his wildest solo in years – totally spontaneous, as it transpires (“I don’t like this overdub stuff, let’s just play…”) – should have given warning that the God of Fusion was about to stage a resurrection. That said, the agitated physicality of his performance at Cork was a revelation:

“I only play” he says. “I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m playing. But I wasn’t doing anything abnormal at that gig – you just have to play, and maybe it would be my last concert, I don’t know. I don’t know when I’m going to be called back, but I certainly would like to play every concert like it was my last concert. I have no regrets. But, I mean, a band like The Free Spirits with Joey De Francesco and Dennis Chambers – I mean, those guys are killing, they’re killing. They’re on my case all the time, which is exactly what I want. There’s a lot of dialogue going on and there’s a lot of spontaneity and sometimes we’re on a tightrope. It’s great, I like that.”

The Promise, with its track by track diversity embracing all manner of musical genres with playful interludes, is “a kind of visual journey. Also I like the idea which was relative to the first record I made, Extrapolation, in which the pieces didn’t really stop. There was this transition between one piece and the next, and that was very interesting work for me because each piece is so different. It was interesting just to find unusual ways to present these pieces, to string them together.” It is, given the retro feel of McLaughlin’s recent releases, a surprisingly contemporary sounding record. McLaughlin’s electric guitar sound throughout, while never as brutal and direct as MO days, shifts its coloring from the dark, sonorous, Bill Frisell feel of late to something resembling the effects used on Electric Guitarist’s ‘Phenomenon:Compulsion’. McLaughlin’s style has changed too, featuring, again Frisell-like, a preponderance of quarter-tone bends via momentary jabs at a newly favoured tremolo arm. Jeff Beck, of course, whose debut recorded duet with McLaughlin on the opening track ‘Django’, is the king of the tremolo arm and has kept the same sound and style for years:

“Yeah, well that’s me and that’s him” says John, “but he’s still my favourite. We played so many times together in the ‘70s – we did I don’t know how many tours together in America, his band and my band, and at the end of every evening we had both bands on stage, every night. Jeff is just a great guitar player – a rock/blues player if you want to put a label on it, but for me he’s just a great guitar player. And when I talked to him about doing the recording together and sent him a cassette – and remember we hadn’t played together for 20 years – he called me back and said ‘when can we go into the studio, this tune is just a killer tune’. I knew it would be perfect for him and it is – he’s killing on it.”

So what, then, is his proudest achievement? “My proudest achievement? To be alive today; to have made this CD, The Promise… I don’t think about my past the way anybody else does – I don’t even think about my past for the most part. I’m too busy with today, my life today, my ideas today. Occasionally I’ll have a reflective period or I’ll discover something I wrote some years ago and say ‘well, I didn’t work it enough – there are some things I can find out about that.’ Otherwise, I forget what I’ve done. I just go from day to day – like you, like everybody else!” Even God, it seems, is an ordinary bloke.

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