John McLaughlin swears that he has no more than 10 minutes to chat about the album he is recording in Chennai. But he is a passionate musician, and once he sets off on the story of his latest fusion project with a clutch of great Indian artistes, he is too excited to watch the clock.
“I had not planned this recording at all. It just… happened,” says the ace English guitarist, who made a name for himself in the 1970s, playing with blues/jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Carlos Santana.
McLaughlin has had a long relationship with India, having done cult-making work with Shakti. He has been travelling in and out of India for the past three decades, performing, interacting with Indian musicians such as Zakir Hussain, U. Srinivas and Shankar Mahadevan, and brushing up on his knowledge of the Carnatic veena.
This time, he has decided to stay on for six months and simply soak in some culture with wife Ina and two children.
But, for a restless musician like him, sitting still is an effort. “I began writing a lot of music. I was writing everyday and I’m lucky enough to know some of India’s greatest players…. So, I got talking with my wife, and we both agreed that I should make another recording,” he says.
It is an album he is very excited about, especially since he is working with a team of young and talented musicians such as percussionist Sivamani, flautist Naveen, sitar player Niladri Kumar, singer Shankar Mahadevan and mandolin artiste U. Rajesh. McLaughlin calls them “young lions”, more curious and confident about dealing with western music than the older generation of Indian musicians. The only “veteran” in the group is jazz pianist Louis Banks.
The album, says Banks, is likely to be “more western than eastern” because he composed it to start with. “But not entirely western because I, too, have been influenced over the years by Indian music. There is that Indian space in my music,” he says. Banks, who plays the keyboards in all the tracks, calls his work in the album “nirvanic”. The concept of the album is to replicate a stage concert in a studio, combining western harmonies with Indian ragas in the style that is McLaughlin’s trademark. “His writing is brilliant and, as a leader of the team, he is a demanding but generous perfectionist,” Banks says.
The team which worked together closely—and bonded over South Indian saapad thalis—describes McLaughlin as an unassuming celebrity. There was a time when he was unable to get the sound he was looking for from his guitar. Someone then suggested that the mic he was using be moved to another corner of the studio and that he use the drum boxes lying around to isolate the sound of the instrument. “He just simply started lugging the boxes around the studio himself. None of the airs of our music stars,” says Banks.
McLaughlin has musical connections all over the country, but he tends to gravitate towards the South and Carnatic music much more. “My first Indian experience was with Carnatic music. I was 13 when I heard Raja Ratnam play the nadhaswaram on the BBC. I didn’t even know where India was then, but it had a very powerful effect on me. It marked me for life,” he recalls.
McLaughlin’s strong grip over Carnatic music is something U. Rajesh vouches for. The mandolin artiste, who says he played the trickiest track in the album, adds he would often cross-check with McLaughlin for the Carnatic raga equivalent of the written music and always got an erudite answer.
“For a jazz musician to be so aware of the nuances of Carnatic system is rare,” says Rajesh. He is now taking jazz lessons from an obliging McLaughlin.
Fusion has been dismissed by the classicists as a genre without definitions. McLaughlin remembers that when he first put together music with Mahavishnu Orchestra, he had got a lot of flak from jazz purists. But, then, even the legendary Miles Davis was criticized for experimenting with jazz. McLaughlin has a clear notion about fusion: “Basically, it’s about building bridges and keeping the integrity of your music and the music of the person you’re playing with.”
As he points out, fusion is happening across the Indian music industry without anyone labelling it that. “Look at Shankar Mahadevan, who studies Carnatic music, but can sing in the Hindustani style. What about Naveen, whose base is the South, but who plays wonderful Hindustani music? This, too, is fusion.”
McLaughlin became an ex-curricular student of S. Ramanathan, who taught South Indian music at the University of Connecticut, to learn the veena.
He learnt the theory of Indian classical music from sitar wizard Ravi Shankar, again as an ex-curricular student.
McLaughlin worked on creating a special ‘Shakti’ guitar in consultation with the legendary sarod player Ali Akbar Khan.
He angered a lot of radio stations and music agents in the West by abandoning a successful electric music group like Mahavishnu to set up his Indian fusion band.
While playing with Indian artistes, McLaughlin used a chanting drone instead of the tanpura. Flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia was so taken up with it, he asked the guitarist to make one tuned to his needs, which McLaughlin did.
Shakti was disbanded in 1978 because ‘ghatam’ player Vikku Vinayakram was homesick. And violinist L Shankar wanted to experiment more with pop than jazz.