As a member of that elite fraternity of musicians who worked with jazz genius Miles Davis, you might say that John McLaughlin has done good by the old man. After performing on such combustive Miles classics as Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, the innovative guitarist popularized fusion with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the most explosive jazz-rock band of all time. From the Indian-derived ensemble, Shakti, to the guitar trio with Paco de Lucia and Al Dimeola, John McLaughlin has kept Miles' flame alive, searching for new expression within jazz's diverse palette of styles and sounds. Not surprisingly, the guitarist has often been branded a fusion holdover. But for McLaughlin, fusion (like passion) is no ordinary word
"I'm a fusion musician, for lack of a better word," he said while in New York rehearsing for a U.S. tour. "But it's strange. Scott Joplin was a fusion musician and Ravel was one of the greatest admirers of jazz music, which he incorporated into his music. So where does fusion start and where does it end? Who is pure and who is impure? It's all bullshit in the end."
Constantly pushing the improvisational edge, McLaughlin views critical backlash as cooly as he does the Kenny G / Wynton Marsalis inspired trends in jazz. "In the end, it's just silly," he said, then laughed. "Coupled with this general frowning on fusion and its dubious origins, there has been a plethora of new bebop players. To try to reproduce what was done in the '60s with Miles or Wes Montgomery, is very strange. Why would you want to live in the past and ignore what Miles was doing with Bitches Brew and everything else since then? It's like 25 years of fusion just doesn't exist. I don't care if they acknowledge it, but to musically put on these blinkers Listen to Om or Ascension from Coltrane; this is some amazing fusion music."
While the Indian elements McLaughlin explored with Shakti remain evident in his intense, linear guitar solos, over the years his music has grown airier and more refined. But with The Heart of Things, he returns to blistering fusion form with a band of heavyweight gypsies pushing him to dazzling (if brief) improvisational heights. The album's best moments come from odd-metered tracks like "Acid Jazz" and "Seven Sisters," where tumultuous grooves collide with surging melodies. Aided by drummer Dennis Chambers and saxophonist Gary Thomas, McLaughlin has vibed with his best band since the Mahavishnu Orchestra's 1972 milestone, Birds of Fire. McLaughlin agrees that it's all about the players.
"The players and the form of the group are critical elements in how the music comes out," he said. "If I'm thinking of three guitars like last year with Paco and Al, the form comes out in that idea. The same with an orchestra. The form is very specific, as well as the players themselves making a difference. I like to write for musicians whose directions I understand."
Even so, The Heart of Things is no mere supergroup blowing session. "There are some records I've made where the pieces are just springboards for collective improvisation. But on this recording the writing was much more involved than I've been into for some time. There were a lot of ideas coming out in the pieces that I just let happen. Because I haven't worked with a band bigger than a trio for long time the improvisation in the shows is longer and more involved, but it's pretty live in the studio."
As committed as he is to the legacy of fusion, McLaughlin has kept his head above ground in the 25 years since fusion held sway. In fact, the burning sixteenth-note rhythms of such Mahavishnu classics as "One Word" and "Inner Mounting Flame" sound weirdly contemporary when compared with the UK phenom known as drum and bass, or jungle. And McLaughlin is a big fan.
"The jungle beat is a 70s beat, but double tempo," said the wizened guitarist. "That comes from the fusion period. It makes me smile, in a peculiar and obscure way, that I'm in the middle of this jungle music even though it's been translated into a new language. I do get a strange satisfaction that somehow I'm involved in all of that."
While he is up to date on the latest computer-driven trends, McLaughlin remains philosophic, almost childlike in his belief that music, not machines, lies at the heart of things. "We're all spiritual beings, functioning in the physical body, but if music is not indicative of a real world, then what is? Music reminds us of where we all come from and the great philosophies and religions and art. We live on this little planet going around this medium star in this average galaxy, (laughs) and that's normal? I think it's staggering."
As for future directions, McLaughlin remains open, just as Miles did some 30 years ago. "Miles didn't know where he wanted to go," he says. "I don't know where I'm going either, I just go. You go on your instincts and your imagination; they are inextricably twined together. You only go where you want to go and the devil take the rest. Isn't that the way we should go? I don't know any other way."