In February 1969, guitarist John McLaughlin moved from Yorkshire, England, to New York City to play in a band called Lifetime. Days into his stay, he met Miles Davis and found himself in CBS's 30th Street Studio laying down tracks that would end up on Davis's seminal album In a Silent Way. McLaughlin's playing was dexterous and sentient, running with and finishing off Miles's directives. He was able to hook into the odd signatures and give the music exactly what it needed. Proficient in the Indian raga, McLaughlin shape-shifts his notes and modes, breaking from the trappings of jazz. It's a kind of ESP, with McLaughlin forming whatever image the music thinks of. A lizard? McLaughlin dials in lizardous harmonic distortion, and throws it into delay. Water? He goes phaser/wah, chorus for gills, in fifths. A condor? He sees what the condor sees. McLaughlin would go on to become Davis's go-to guitar player through the years. He would also go on to become one of the best guitar players the world has ever seen or heard. (Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 49th in its list of "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.") McLaughlin's most recent release, To the One, with his band the 4th Dimension, was recorded in homage to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.
To the One is a tribute album of sorts to Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Or not exactly a tribute, but you used A Love Supreme as a muse or blueprint of sorts?
I had no intention of making an homage to Coltrane. It happened when the music arrived in my mind. There was something in the music that reminded me of the time in 1965 when I heard A Love Supreme for the first time. Having read about the life of Coltrane, I found some parallels in my own life. There was also the time I woke up in the middle of the night shortly after I'd finished writing the music, and all the liner notes were in my mind, along with all the song titles. It was an unusual experience, and I recalled the events of 45 years ago when I heard Coltrane's recording for the first time, and the momentous event that it was to me.
The Miles Davis albums you are on have literally raised me, as far as my musical life is concerned—Big Fun and the sessions that make up Panthalassa especially. If you could, walk me back to February 1969, when you got to New York. How did it come about that you would play with Miles? What was it like in the beginning with him?
Miles has been a hero and a guru to me since I was 16 years old. I arrived in New York to play with Tony Williams, who was Miles's drummer at that time but was leaving to form Lifetime with Larry Young and myself. The thing was, Tony had to finish the week with Miles at Club Baron in Harlem, which was where we planned to rehearse during the day. I met Miles that same night, and the next day he invited me to come to the CBS Studio to record the following day. It was mind-blowing for me. That recording was In a Silent Way, and it was maybe the most important day of my life. The title track was the first up, and it's a Joe Zawinul tune. Since Zawinul didn't know I was on the date, he photocopied the piano score for me. Miles didn't like the way it was going and asked me to play it alone on guitar. I said, "It'll take a minute to put the chords and melody together since I only had a piano part." He said, "Play it like you don't know how to play guitar." I was nervous but threw caution to the wind, and I also threw out all Zawinul's chords and just played it in E. Miles had the red light on already and, frankly, I had no idea what I was doing. Miles loved it, putting it on side one as the opener and the finisher.
What kinds of guitar or guitars do you like to play live? Do you have a favorite guitar?
My current performing guitar is a Godin special based on his Freeway SA model. It's a fine instrument. I've been playing Godin instruments for about seven years now. Over the years, I've had some great guitars, and I still have a small collection at home. An old Les Paul Custom, a White Stratocaster, a Paul Reed Smith and J 200. The Godin is special since it has a very good MIDI captor built in, and this is very useful for archiving and preparing scores.
What is your setup in the studio? What amp do you like to use? What effects? How do you get your sound? Are you into falconry?
My setup in the studio is the same as my live setup. Over the past few years, I've been using a Mesa-Boogie V-Twin pre-amp. I used Mesa amps for years in the 1970s. Recently, I tried out a Seymour Duncan Twin tube pre-amp, and it's good. There are two more pedals in my rig: an MXR delay and an MXR chorus for harmonic work. No falconry.
You've said, "In fleeting, unexpected moments, music arrives: a riff, a chord progression, a rhythmic fragment." Why do you think this is? When music arrives like this, what do you think is going on in the subconscious of your brain to make that happen?
That's a deep question, and I don't know the answer. It's not logical. In one moment there's nothing, and then there's something. It's kind of like thoughts. We don't know where they come from. It's all part of the great mystery of existence, and I really don't have an explanation, but this is why I've been involved in yoga and meditation since the late 1960s, to address these fundamental questions of life.
How did Miles communicate to you in the studio? Were you free to play whatever you wanted or felt? Or was it a directed thing?
Miles was a master onstage and in the studio. That said, he loved his musicians, and he wanted them to be free while at the same time moving in the general direction he established, more by saying what not to do rather than what to do. He definitely wanted his musicians to feel free to express themselves.
How did it feel to be in the studio for the sessions that turned out to be Bitches Brew? Those are such epic recordings. Did it feel epic at the time? What state of mind were you in? What state of mind was Miles in?
I didn't think like that at all. I was just excited to be on the recording with Miles. We all were. Of course it was clear that Miles was experimenting, but then Miles had been experimenting since the mid-'50s. As for myself, I didn't think I was playing anything ground-shaking, I was just absorbing everything that was happening in the studio and watching how Miles was able to get music out of his musicians that they didn't know they could play. It was truly amazing.
What did you do to prepare for those sessions?
By the time of Bitches Brew, Miles was inviting me to come over to his house regularly, and I always took my guitar. He would play a chord on the piano and ask me what did I hear? Could I hear some kind of riff? Something like that, and we'd talk about this and that. In that sense, I was definitely more prepared for the Bitches Brew recording than Silent Way.
When you think back to then, and those sessions, what memory comes to mind?
I mentioned the Silent Way anecdote because Miles was famous for his cryptic remarks in the studio, and when he told me to play like I don't know how to play the guitar, I can tell you that the musicians thought that this was a special one for the annals. Other than that, I remember taking Miles to the movies to see the Monterey Pop movie because he'd never seen Jimi Hendrix play. In the movie house while watching Jimi, he kept saying, "Damn, damn!!!"
Was Miles easy to work with? How would you classify your relationship with him?
He was like a godfather to me. A really demanding leader, but honest. You always knew where you were with Miles. One other thing, in those days, in 1969, it was really hard to make ends meet, and he would always ask me if I was eating and was I okay with my rent. Then, without even waiting for an answer, he'd stuff a $100 bill in my pocket. He really cared.
I was joking around with a friend the other day, telling him that when I listen to some of your playing, it's so good that I "jizz in my pants." Especially "Black Satin/What If/Agharta Prelude Dub." Not to freak you out or anything, but I mean it as the highest compliment I can give. And with respect. Your guitar playing is orgasmic. It conveys energy that is orgasmic. How do you do this? How do you play music that is so transcendent, so moving? It doesn't seem like it's the kind of thing that can be forced. Are you sure there's no falconry involved?
I really don't know how to answer this question. [Laughs] No one has ever phrased it that way before. I take it as a compliment. There is without a doubt a certain sensuality in this jazz music, but then I believe that all music should integrate both body and soul, and for that, rhythm is such a magical thing. It kind of unites everybody all at once.
Has your guitar playing changed over the years?
Every day I learn something. It may not be much, but over a period of time, we change and evolve as human beings. Since it is my personal belief that I cannot be one way in life and another way in music, how I evolve and change as a human being will necessarily change my music. My life has been and is still today dedicated to music in general and the guitar in particular. So I work and discover new ways constantly. It'll be like this till I fall down and never get up.