John McLaughlin on Miles Davis, Mahavishnu and More

Dean Budnick on January 23, 2015

Starting out as a “studio shark” in the 1960s, guitarist John McLaughlin’s storied career includes celebrated stints with The Tony Williams Lifetime and Miles Davis’ electric band along with his own innovative projects like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti and The Guitar Trio. McLaughlin remains a vibrant, vital artist currently touring and recording with his group The 4th Dimension. Here, he reflects on some of his collaborations with celebrated musicians.

In his liner notes to A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Miles Davis describes you as “far-in.” I’ve always wondered what you thought of that.

I took it as a compliment, of course. The ‘60s was such a fertile decade where you had people going out toward the more arrhythmic kind of music. Sometimes they called it free jazz, but it wasn’t free of rhythm. Listen to some of the later recordings of Coltrane with Rashied Ali—the pulse is definitely there but it’s much more subtle. But some music was just completely arrhythmic and I never went for that. I like to be inside the rhythm and Miles had the most marvelous sense of rhythm—just impeccable.

I think it’s an even greater compliment that he told me and a number of other people that Jack Johnson was his all- time favorite record. That hit me very deeply because of the recording process itself. Normally, when Miles would come into the studio, he’d be carrying a coffee in a brown paper bag and, in the taxi, he had taken the paper bag and scribbled some chords. We’d play around those chords and that’s how the session got going. Only with Jack Johnson, he didn’t even have any paper bags; he didn’t have anything.

The way it started was that Miles was in the cabin with [producer] Teo Macero and after 20 minutes of sitting in the studio, I just said, “I’m gonna play; I’m bored.” So I started playing this thing that subsequently became “The Noonward Race”—that piece for the Mahavishnu Orchestra—but I played it in an R&B way. I had spent so many years playing rhythm and blues in the ‘60s.

So I just started jamming. Billy [Cobham] picked it up, Michael Henderson picked it up and we had a groove going. Then, Miles ran into the studio with the red light on and he played the most unbelievable trumpet for 15 minutes straight.

I think one of the reasons he really liked that record was because it didn’t come from his direction—it just came about. The fact that he cited it as an all-time favorite just warmed my heart. But I disagree with him. Milestones was the first milestone in my life because that’s where I first discovered Miles and this new school, and Kind Of Blue put the cap on it.

I got so lucky because I had gone to New York to play with Tony [Williams] and Larry [Young], and I met Miles the day I arrived. I saw him again the next day and he said, “Come to the studio,” and that was the In a Silent Way recording. The title track is a Joe Zawinul tune and it’s a beautiful piece, only Miles didn’t like the way Joe set it up. So he said to me, “You play it. Everyone will stop and you play it.” Well, I had Joe’s part but there was no guitar part. So I said, “Listen, this is a piano part. Do you want the chords and the melody?” I was sweating so hard my clothes were soaked. That’s when he said, “Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar.”

You mentioned your days in the R&B scene and that makes me think of the cover to your Electric Guitarist album, which is an image of your business card when you were quite young. I always imagine you handing it to Jimmy Page, who brings it home so his mom can schedule a lesson for him.

That card was when I was 14 or 15. It’s goofy. Somebody had said, “Oh, I’ll print you up a card,” and I thought, “Oh, cool, a card. I exist!” I had only one card, and I wasn’t about to give it to anybody. Who was going to contact me, anyway?

I gave lessons to Jimmy a few years later when I must have been 19. We ran into each other when we were kind of neighbors living in South London. He must have been 17 and he said, “Can you teach me some stuff?” We got to know each other much better in the mid-‘60s, when we both became studio sharks. The British pop scene was booming at that time and— if you could read music—then you were in. Jimmy was a session guitar player like me and John Paul Jones, to whom I gave harmony lessons, believe it or not. John Paul Jones and I were very good friends, and we were in a couple of R&B bands. Everybody knew everybody in the London-pop recording scene.

You also played with Mitch Mitchell back then, which is how you later met Jimi Hendrix. Some recordings circulate of you jamming with Jimi at the Record Plant. Are there more that haven’t seen the light of day?

If you really listen to The Jimi Hendrix Experience, of course, Jimi is killing. He turned the guitar world on its ear. But Mitch, who’s really a jazz drummer, brought this Elvin Jones style into the Jimi trio. There’s some beautiful musical stuff going on in there.

It was through Mitch that I got to meet Jimi in 1969. That was a real pleasure and we used to keep running into each other with six, seven studios working full-time. But some of those recordings, I am not sure if it is even me. At that time, I was playing a Gibson Hummingbird guitar—it’s a folk guitar but I really liked the sound, kind
of clean and clear. That’s the guitar I was using on In a Silent Way. But in a Jimi Hendrix environment, I plugged in and even at 50 percent, the guitar was already feeding back. It was freaking out and shaking because Jimi was playing with three Marshall stacks and the volume was so loud. I should have had a solid-body guitar. I got one later but, unfortunately, that was too late.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra played some shows with the Allman Brothers, and I’ve heard you were friendly with Duane Allman. Did you ever perform with him?

No, we never played together. Duane was beautiful. What a sweetheart and what a guitar player. But with Mahavishnu, there were few jam sessions because the arrangements were becoming more sophisticated. Who’s going to come in and jam with “The Dance of Maya?” You would have to improvise in 20 [the song’s time signature]. The Allman Brothers had their own thing going and I love that band.

When you toured with Mahavishnu, you were on some rather eclectic bills. That doesn’t happen much anymore.

We did things with Steve Miller—he had a way with the guitar—Blue Öyster Cult, James Taylor, It’s a Beautful Day, even George Carlin. I loved it, man! Back in the ‘60s, I got to see Richard Pryor open up for Miles Davis at the Village Gate in New York and that was unreal. But it’s so boring these days because everyone is in
a drawer now; everyone is in a category.