The coronavirus pandemic has brought countless forms of difficulty: from catastrophic to tedious and everything in between. It has affected the health, finances and emotional well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the world.
It has forced many of us to fundamentally change the way we work, take care of our families, buy food, go to school, socialize, create music and so much more. . For John McLaughlin, 2020, full of pandemic, was also the year he got arrested…for riding a bike.
The British guitar virtuoso weathered the turmoil of that year in Monaco, where the 80-year-old has lived with his family for decades. When the jazz-fusion great wasn’t practicing the guitar, McLaughlin fought his cabin fever by taking a spin on his bike. It was on one of these anti-stress hikes that he found himself on the wrong side of the law.
“During the first confinement, you had the right to move 1 kilometer from your home, and [stay] out for an hour,” he said. “I was on my bike, and I found myself in France, because France surrounds Monaco. I was about 500 meters away [over the limit] and I got fined. I had to pay 135 euros for 500 meters! [Laughs] It’s awful. So I tried to stay clean after that.
We are in mid-2021 when McLaughlin tells this story to guitar world. He can laugh about it now, and he’s also quick to recognize that a ticket is nothing compared to the many tragedies people have experienced throughout the ongoing Covid pandemic. But that day, when he was arrested, he was furious – a feeling that only grew as stay-at-home orders dragged on and restrictions tightened throughout 2020.
His frustrations reached their “boiling point” in September. But instead of jumping on the bike, he grabbed his custom PRS and “let it all out to the music.” The benefits of these sessions were two-fold: not only did they provide him with the catharsis he had so longed for, but they also laid the groundwork for his final full-length album, the aptly titled Release time.
“Within three weeks, I had all the music,” he says. “It broke me. Instead of anger, it was music.
Social distancing mandates forced McLaughlin to record the entire album remotely. It was a new experience for him – exchanging tracks online and figuring out how to create free musical collaboration with musicians from all over the world. Luckily, he’s chosen an assortment of outright killers to aid him in this effort.
Release timefeatures McLaughlin’s current ensemble, 4th Dimension – Gary Husband (drums/piano), Etienne Mbappé (bass), Ranjit Barot (drums, vocals Konokol) – as well as drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Nicolas Viccaro, bassists Sam Burgess and Jerome Regard, pianists Oz Ezzeldin and Roger Rossignol, tenor saxophonist Julian Siegel and JM “Kiki” Aublette contributed bass and drums.
“The audio files would come back, and I would put the headphones on and listen to the guys play and I wouldn’t be separated from them,” McLaughlin says. “Track Here, now, right away – Oz Ezzeldin recorded this in Cairo. The battery was made in Paris. Saxophone was made in London. That’s crazy ! But I put the headphones on and we were all together in the same room…I was inspired and very lucky to have these great guys playing.
A key element for Release timeas well as McLaughlin’s approach to music and life in general, is communion with “The Spirit” – an expansive practice that allows him to experience the interconnectedness between, literally, all that exists.
“For me, music is a form of meditation and self-discovery, especially if you improvise,” he says. “Knowing yourself…is for me an imperative in life…And that’s what happens when you meditate. You discover nature and consciousness is one thing…all separation is an illusion. We are all connected beyond any doubt. Everything and everyone… especially consciousness.
McLaughlin says he has cultivated his spiritual practice since the 1960s and believes it has direct and practical applications when it comes to creating art and music.
He’s brought this collaborative, open-minded approach to many influential projects and standout sessions over his five-decade-plus career: from giving guitar lessons to Jimmy Page and playing with Jimi Hendrix to playing with Graham Bond Quartet, Miles Davis, Santana, Jaco Pastorius, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea, Shakti and many more.
Release time testifies to the power of this spiritual connection – and to McLaughlin’s ever-amazing technical prowess and expressive six-string abilities.
The guitarist’s articulate, single-note phrasing and flowing bursts of alternating sixteenth notes shine throughout the album’s songs, which range from jam-packed to jazz-influenced (Here, now, right away) and exciting guitar/drums workouts (Release time) to soulful R&B/blues excursions (The blues of confinement) and high-flying, rhythmically tense compositions (As the spirit sings). Multi-instrumentalist McLaughlin even shows off his piano skills on some emotionally evocative interludes (Mila Repa, shade of blue).
In the wide-ranging interview below, McLaughlin opens up about the unique process of creating Release timehow he maintains his prodigious guitar strokes, the role that spirituality plays in improvisation and much more.
The pandemic has shaken the world for more than a year. Has the guitar been a good outlet for you during all this uncertainty?
“I play guitar every day, sometimes two or three hours. Because it’s very good for my mind, because my mind and the music do everything well.
Do you follow specific guitar training to keep your technique at such a high level?
“No. Well, you could say yes… What I’m doing is I’m warming up; then I’ll be like, ‘What do I want to be free today?’ Right now I’m [playing] a track we recorded a few years ago called Transfusion [from 2012’s Now Here This]which has a tone but you can derive from it. [It’s in] 4/4, but there is a long bridge which is in 9/4.
“It has a more specific harmony. Sometimes I replay that eight or nine times, because I want to find more of myself than that piece. How can I move the harmonic extensions in the 4/4 section while keeping the integrity? Not just playing, because it’s out. But where you move aesthetically musically.
Release timeThe liner notes mention your “strong spirit connection”. New guitarists are always looking for their “voice”. Has the search for the spirit helped you with this?
“Absolutely. [But] to find your voice… If you’re not in it for the long haul, don’t bother. [Laughs] Because we never get to the end, young players! Believe me. [Laughs] The thing is, your question is a bit loaded. Because the minute you talk about the Spirit, you are talking about spiritual development: the development of the human person.
“If you don’t know who you are, I think you are in a dream. Not that the dream is bad; dreams are big. But knowing yourself is an imperative that I discovered in the 1960s. I had no idea who I was, what this mystery of existence is in this incredibly unfathomable infinite universe. What am I doing? What is everyone doing?
“Then you come back to play. Jazz demands that you improvise on structure. You have to know how to articulate tempo, harmony and innate sense of melody in improvisations. Now when it’s time to go solo… what are you going to say? For me, the answer is very simple. The only thing we can say is our life story: how deeply do you feel about the music you play and the people you play with…
“And can you articulate the depth of that feeling with the notes and the harmony. It sounds like an insurmountable problem. But it’s not, thanks to inspiration. However, inspiration is a matter of perception. And perception can be cultivated in meditation. That’s why I combine the two.”
Earlier you mentioned looking for freedom in your playing. Was it hard to break free with the other musicians when you couldn’t record with them in the same room?
“I sent the scores and demos to all the musicians with simple instructions: listen to what I did but take it and be yourself. Don’t play like I played unless that’s what you want. Any improvisation, be totally yourself. I’m not interested in what you think I might like. I want you to be who you really are… So it gave them a lot of freedom.
Are there any songs that you redid after hearing what the guys sent back to you?
“I did a lot of pre-guitar work, of course, even improvisation, melodies and arrangements. However, sometimes the file would come back from the players – and they were killing on it! [Laughs] I would have to do my part again because they took the character of it and developed it and challenged me where I had to do my part again to be sure [their] level… I had to redo The blues of confinement, Let’s sing our secrets, Here, now, right away. They came back killing! I had to step up. »
What material did you use Release time?
“I used my PRS [custom-built Private Stock McCarty Violin guitar] Paul gave me years ago. What a beauty. I like. I no longer use basic amps. I like preamps… I use the Line 6 HX Stomp, the programmable preamp. It’s a real beauty…
“I’m also a fan of old Mesa/Boogie V-Twins. [tube preamp pedal] and the Seymour Duncan Twin Tube Classic. And it’s not on the album, but I also use the Zendrive II preamp. It’s me, it’s what I like. »
I have to ask about this melodic guitar synth sound on Let’s sing our secrets…
“It’s a basic Logic sound that I’ve been honing for 20 years. But it’s not triggered by an ordinary MIDI device… It’s a simple thing called Migic. It’s an app that costs you around $49 or something and it’s really phenomenal. It’s only mono. You have to adjust it to the point where the input and trigger sensitivity matches your playing… If you want to switch to synth, I recommend it.
Do you plan to bring Release time live scenes after pandemic restrictions are lifted?
“Oh yeah… Can you get me a gig, man?” [Laughs]”
[Laughs] Well, I’m in Brooklyn. I know you last toured the United States some time ago. Do you think you will play USA again?
“I don’t know, it’s really hard to say. My whole musical world has been in total chaos in terms of tours, because there just aren’t any this year… But I shouldn’t complain because there are hundreds of millions of people in distress, musicians too. Then I do not know. And at my young age, we’ll have to see what the gods have in store for me.