This interview took place June 2, 2012 at the Alfa Jazz Festival in Lviv, Ukraine. The festival had arranged a meeting room for us in the hotel and invited half a dozen photographers and other journalists to shoot and watch. Despite distractions and endless clicking of camera shutters, McLaughlin remained focused, thoughtful and open throughout.
When you listen to music, what you’re listening for?
I listen on different levels at the same time. First of all, is it real? Is it authentic? Because authenticity has really nothing to do with technique. It has to do with the person, with the human being who’s playing. And then, once it’s established if it’s authentic –I think this is done on subconscious level – i’m not really aware of it. Then comes instant analysis of the music; the way it’s played, the personality of the player, the predictability or lack of predictability – where it’s going; the sophistication of its harmonic and rhythmic content. There are already quite a few there, Larry (chuckles).
Do you go through the same process while listening to your own music?
I think it’s inevitable. I don’t think there are two ways we can hear. We hear the way we are, you know? The way we are determines the way we function.
But do you need to detach when it’s your music?
Oh, I’m as critical of myself as anybody else. I think I’m my best critic, or worse, depending on which approach you’re looking at.
Are you a perfectionist?
Perfectionist? I think we all are. This wonderful ideal is really unattainable, and the only analogy I can give is you’re on a journey with a nebulous destination. But it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that we’re on. Perfection is relative, isn’t it? Absolute perfection? What is that? That’s the infinite supreme being of the universe and all that it contains, including awareness, consciousness. When we sum that up this is what people might call God. This is perfectionism. This is nothing we can attain. Perfectionism is the best you can do in this moment, so it’s relative.
So where is that journey heading? Towards God? Towards the ideal?
Anywhere. Where you’re heading, Larry?
Right now I’m in the moment.
Yeah, me too. But we’re not heading anywhere. We’re just being. We’re here and it’s wonderful.
I think certain perspective comes with age, – I”m not going anywhere, I don’t want to be anywhere else, I’m just happy to be here right now. But of course when you are young and you have all those vaulting ambitions, which are essential only if you let go of them at some point–they’re essential in the beginning, all your ambitions and your work. You have this tremendous amount of work being a musician, being a jazz musician. I think being a jazz musician is a very demanding process.
In what way?
You really need to understand harmony, you really need to understand rhythm, you really need to understand your instrument. You have to in some way master your instrument, otherwise the instrument will master you. Because each time you pick it up and touch it, it says: “What are you gonna do to me today”? You know, “What have you got for me today”? And instruments are like that. And they have to be a part of you, subsume them into your body and mind complex. They have to be a part of you. If there are problems, then they will manifest themselves in some way. And then you have this whole school of improvisation, which is jazz is all about, which is the heart and soul of jazz. But if you want to improvise: what are gonna say? If you want to improvise, Larry, what would you say?
Depends what the kind of story I want to tell.
No, you have a tune, it’s your solo, speak to me. What can we say? The only story we have is our life’s story. Really. Which is to tell our story about loves and losses, and joys, and tears, and our relationships with ourselves, with our colleagues, and ultimately with the universe. And relations are really what govern us. And this is really the only story you can tell. But to get to that point – it’s a lot of work. And it’s a lot of learning. And when you learn everything, just forget it. This is another process. Because we go onstage, we have all this baggage of knowledge we have and that we just talked about: harmony, and rhythm, interpretation and this and that. And then you let it all go, and you just be. Just tell your story, just sing your story. But in jazz music you do it spontaneously.
So much of what we were talking about, especially about learning and forgetting, requires being in the moment… Can you prepare to be in the moment? How do you train yourself to get there?
I think this is the life’s training. This is not just training in music. When I learn from music is when you’re spontaneous, you’re most yourself, and probably most honest, too. Because you’re living in the moment and there’s nothing to hide. Anyway, in music there’s nothing to hide [laughs]. How can you hide in music? – You’re there with your trousers down by your ankles. So you just go for it.
And I think I would relate it to some kind of spiritual work, and some meditative practices. Since i’ve been doing this for many years, I know it affects me, because it’s a part of my life, I cannot be one way in life and other way in music.
Is playing a meditation for you?
In some respect it’s greater than meditation. Because you need the ability to be detached while your passions are moving, and you articulate them at the same time, where you have quite an intense physical activity while remaining aware and to not be swept away by your own emotions. So it involves a certain amount of serenity, if I can use that word, at the same time. You asking some very psychological questions, Larry [laughs]. I never really considered them before, but since you ask me I’m trying to answer them. There are some aspects which I would say are supreme. But there are also experiences that are possible in meditation, no, really… it’s about the same. I’ve had enlightening experiences in both situations. While passive and active – experiences of liberation, emancipation. In music, I would say there’s a little plus, because there’s an action involved at the same time. Whereas in meditation there’s no outward activity, but there is intense inner activity.
Interesting to integrate the inner and outer.
You used the phrase liberation in music at the press conference yesterday. Did you mean that internally and externally?
Internal and external is the same, Larry. If you have an internal experience, it’s just a matter of time before it manifests itself externally. You can consider them different but I don’t think internal and external are two different realities, I think there’s only one. And that’s it. Maybe it’s just two sides of one coin.
You’ve been out there for a long time – you have a good long career and it continues, fortunately for all of us.
Yeah. Thanks God.
Is it still fun for you?
Yes. It’s playing music.
What’s the most fun part about playing music?
Playing with people you love, for people. And we love music but music loves us! This is a wonderful feeling. And people love music. Music is a such profound part of human nature. And to be a part of that whole process is profoundly satisfying – to be part of that.
Do you have sense of what it is specifically that people respond to?
They respond to that authenticity, that thing that is direct and personal. People understand everything, I believe. They don’t understand it academically; they don’t understand the harmonic and rhythmic content, but they understand the direct authenticity of the person, that’s coming through in the music. I believe that. I recognize this, and this is why it was the first thing that came into my mind. And I believe what music can do: music allows us to enter the inner life of another person, and feel the emotions and see the perceptions of that person. And that’s a wonderful thing. What other art form can do this in a spontaneous way? Music has a very special quality in this sense.
You’ve been working for a long time to in a certain sense integrate East and West at least in musical tradition. And I wonder what do you feel are the most attractive aspects of East and West, and how compatible are they?
Well, first of all, I’m not trying to integrate anything. You know I’m a kind of India-phile since the 60’s. So I have a very strong attraction to the answers they’ve given to very profound questions of existence for the last 5000 years. This was a very powerful magnet for me –in my personal terms, especially in the early days. What I discovered subsequently was that this music of India shares that element of improvisation. And only jazz music really has this now. In Western classical music, they used to improvise, but this has been lost in the world of interpretation, I think to their loss. But to try to say precisely say what it is about the musicians and the music… I was so drawn to the masterly playing and the way that they improvise that it seemed to me absolutely natural. And this connection was very deep to me. Very profound. And in the end, all I wanted to do was to play with these people. Because I love them, really. I loved the way they play. There was one other aspect that I should point out. I discovered very quickly that Indian music is all-inclusive, in terms of a human being and its multitude of dimensions. And this is one of the reasons why I consider Coltrane like a guru to me. I’ve had quite a few gurus in my life and he’s one of the greatest because he almost single-handedly integrated the spiritual dimensions into jazz music. And this was earthshaking for me because I was already aware of the all-inclusivity of the Indian music. In terms of that from the most capricious to the most sublime. From the most profound to the most erotic. This is what they have in Indian music. So this was marvelous.
But to put it in a nutshell, I just wanted to be out to play with these musicians. Because I felt I could connect with them, and of course learn about them, about their culture, about their music. I’m still thirsty for learning today, at my tender age of 70. But I’m an old hippie, Larry, you know, and that’s the way it is. This was my desire. And partly because of my desire, I embarked upon studying Indian music, in addition to its philosophy and its great teachers. So I had the fortune to study South Indian music with Dr. Ramanathan, which was already going on during my time with Mahavishnu Orchestra. In 1972-74 I was studying at Wesleyan University, and then from 74 through 76 I had the good fortunate to study with Pandit Ravi Shankar. I’m not a sitar player, i’m a guitar player. But for some mysterious reason he took me under his wing as a student. I was living in NY at that time, and every time he’d came to NY he called me and said “Come over.” And I’d go over and be there, making tea or whatever, just be with him. That’s all. He was a North Indian musician but one day he said he would teach me Carnatic music, because he knew both schools perfectly. and so, at that point, he starts to teach me South Indian Carnatic rhythm. Already, I learned with Dr. S. Ramanathan, who was my first guru; but Pandajit, he developed that. And already by this time I’m working with Zakir Hussain – the greatest tabla player alive today.
Did you know his father?
Yes, of course! But I remember the first ’76 Shakti, that was the first Sgt Pepper free concert in Central Park, and Panditji was there with Alla Rakha [Zakir Hussein’s father and Ravi Shankar’s tabla player], and they were there at the side of the stage … at one point they were looking at us and Alla Rakha and Panditjee said [with Indian accent] “What are these boys doing?” [laughs more] Like we were really flipping out or loosing it all, whatever, I don’t know what they thought. In any event, because of my friendship with Zakir I got to know Alla Rakha very well. But there’s a festival every year, the 3rd of February which marks the day of his passing. It’s been 10 years now. .So Zakir and I decided to make our own festival in India, in Bombay (Mumbai now). And so we invited all the musicians we wanted to play with and we had our own festival. We had 2 concerts – 1 in Bombay and 1 in Deli–and we just had a marvelous time, it was wonderful. And when we went to Deli for the concert, we walked on stage and there was Panditji Ravi Shankar sitting front row center. And all the musicians were nervous and we thought he might leave at the break. But he stayed to the end with the two encores, and in the end of the second encore he walked on stage, and gave every musician his blessing in front of the audience. That was so delightful, Larry. And then he went to the microphone and was talking about what we were doing, that he thought it was,… I don’t know the word… Prouvant de que – “justified” in a way. All these experiments we started doing in the early 70’s, in a way, we got to in the end with the blessing of Panditji. And that was a wonderful feeling for me. that we hadn’t been totally screwing up, if you know what I mean.
skip to conclusion of the interview here.
This interview was commissioned by the Ukrainian music magazine, Counterpoint. Thanks to its Editor, Viachek Kryshtofovych,Jr.