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Guitar guru John McLaughlin's spiritual path has been a long one

John McLaughlin says he was nervous as a kitten and had sweat pouring down his back the first time he played with Miles Davis on the In a Silent Way sessions in 1969. McLaughlin had just moved to the United States from England to join Tony Williams's Lifetime group when Davis invited the then-27-year-old guitarist to perform on the album.

Davis said he wanted to play the song "In a Silent Way," so Joe Zawinul, who had written it, gave McLaughlin a photocopy of the piano part, which, McLaughlin says, isn't the easiest thing for a guitar player to read. Although he might have been in heaven playing with one of his musical heroes, whom he'd been listening to since his mid-teens, the nervous and sweaty McLaughlin was getting by playing the piano part until Davis jumped in and said, "I don't like it."

"He stopped," McLauglin recalls. "Everybody stopped. Everyone's looking at me. And he turns around and says, 'Play it on the guitar.' I said, 'Okay.' He said, 'Play it alone on the guitar.' Here comes the acid test, right? So I said, 'Miles, it's the piano part. You want me to play the piano chords with the melody?' 'Yeah.' I said, 'It's going to take me a minute.' 'Is that a fact?' Miles says. So everybody's wondering, 'Oh, man, who's this new kid in the band?'

This, McLauglin points out, was Davis's way of grilling the new cat, and it happened to everyone else in the band — Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter — at one time or another. Now it was McLaughlin's turn.

"All of a sudden, he sees me sweating," McLaughlin recalls. "I don't know what to do with the piano part. 'Just play it like you don't know how to play the guitar,' he says. What a thing to say! The band starts laughing. I'm thinking, 'I gotta do something, because he says I gotta play it like I don't know how to play the guitar.'

"What am I gonna do? Shit! I say, 'I know an E chord. I may not know how to play guitar, but everyone knows how to play the E chord on guitar.' So I transpose the tune, and I had thrown all the chords away. I just started playing the melody in E major — only the thing was that Miles had the recording light on."

Talk about a trial by fire. But McLaughlin aced it: He says Davis liked the part so much, he put it on the opening and closing of side one of In a Silent Way.

"I was blown away," McLaughlin confesses, "because I had no idea what was going on. But that was his way. I saw him do that with a lot of musicians. He had a way of not making them confused, but making them think differently and play differently."

While McLaughlin, a fiery and visceral guitarist deft at both jazz and Indian music, says playing with Davis was one of the most significant and important moments in his life, the music of John Coltrane also had a profound effect on him, particularly the album A Love Supreme, which McLaughlin first heard when he was 23 years old. At the time, McLaughlin was struggling with questions of existence — things such as the meaning of life, what the word "god" was, what the spirit was. Then Coltrane came along with A Love Supreme and brought that dimension of spirituality into jazz, which was a pivotal experience for McLaughlin.

A Love Supreme also inspired McLaughlin's latest effort with his group the 4th Dimension; To the One was released on the Abstract Logix imprint this past April. He says he didn't plan on making any kind of homage to Coltrane, but the music started to come to him without any call on his part in the summer of 2009. "It was really special," he declares. "Nothing like this really ever happened to me."

The sound and the feel of the tracks on To the One took him back to 1965, when McLaughlin first heard A Love Supreme. "Certainly some of the music that came out, without me even wanting it to, it just kind of came out like that," McLaughlin explains. "Of course, it's not like Coltrane, but I'm not Coltrane. I don't want to be Coltrane. I'm happy to be who I am. The music just basically comes out the way it is."

While McLaughlin says he doesn't necessarily want to equate himself with Coltrane, he says he did have some similar kinds of experiences. "There are certain things, like when I began my spiritual quest, you could say, at the end of the '60s," he points out. "Coming out of the whole hippie period with meditation and yoga, and really getting deep into that in the '70s. The Mahavishnu Orchestra was about that. That was a great band in those days. In a way, that kind of spirituality was much more overt than it is today."

While McLaughlin's spiritual path has been a long one, he says that his spiritual development over the past fifteen years has probably been the most significant part of his life.

"In the end, this is really all that we have," McLaughlin points out. "How do we live with our soul? How do we live with the supreme being? What kind of relation do we have with ourselves through our soul?

"This is what's great about jazz music or improvised music," he adds. "You're telling the story right now in its realness. What's weird is that you can go to the stage tired — you didn't get much sleep, you haven't eaten, you have to get up early, you had three flights — and you get to the gig and you're like, 'Aw, man, I'd just like to sleep.' But you get on stage and you get amazing inspiration. You don't know where it comes from. And that's all, really, that we live for when we go to the stage — to have that thing happen. Because that's the only moment we have, really. The rest doesn't exist."

But in that moment, McLaughlin says, the key to playing well is just getting out of the way. "It becomes very simple in music, because if you're thinking, you're not playing," McLaughlin concludes. "Playing is really not thinking. There's no way you can do two things at the same time, at least not for me, anyway. If I'm playing, I'm really not thinking. I should not be thinking if I'm playing. So this is all a question of practice and discipline and getting out of the way. That's really the secret."

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon