John McLaughlin Heads Out on the Road Again


After some health issues, John McLaughlin has returned with a flurry of activity.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

In an interview published in DownBeat’s November 2017 issue, guitar legend John McLaughlin lamented the fact that a progressive arthritic condition in his right hand was forcing him into semi-retirement. As he said at the time, before embarking on his Meeting of the Spirits tour with fellow guitarist Jimmy Herring: “The American tour is it for me, because the situation with my hands is deteriorating. Short of a miracle, I think that’ll probably be it, at least in terms of touring.”

Fast-forward two years and it seems that McLaughlin has gotten his miracle. Following a triumphant European tour in the fall of 2019 with his 4th Dimension Band and some concerts in Asia in January 2020 with a new edition of his band Shakti, the guitarist-composer-bandleader is on the road again. He also recently finished the soundtrack for an upcoming movie (the New York-based film noir Abandoned Heights, directed by Jack Stallings), and he has a new album, Is That So?, an East-meets-West project with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and one of India’s foremost singer-composers, Shankar Mahadevan.

While this recent flurry of activity is nothing that McLaughlin could have anticipated two years ago, he has returned to the scene with renewed energy and optimism. “It’s really amazing,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Monte Carlo, where he has resided for the past 37 years. “A couple of years back, I was like, ‘Well, maybe now it’s going to be over soon, but I’ve had a good ride.’ But I’m still here!”

By getting an injection in his hand every three months and following the advice of Dr. Joe Dispenza (the internationally known lecturer, researcher, workshop leader, author and educator), the guitarist has been rejuvenated. “Don’t ask me to undo the cap off a bottle with my right hand—I don’t have the strength for that,” he laughed. “But for playing, it’s amazing ... like nothing ever happened to me.”

McLaughlin also spoke with great enthusiasm about a renaissance of Shakti, the pioneering ’70s East-meets-West group that in 1998 morphed into Remember Shakti. “Since we lost Srinivas [the late mandolinist, who died in 2014), we’ve been kind of in disarray,” he explained. “We had been playing on and off for 14 years together, so it was difficult. And in putting the group back together, we decided we were not going to go look for another mandolin player. So, we have a violin player now, just like the original ’70s Shakti band. He’s a great player named Ganesh Rajagopalan. The band is marvelous and we were very excited to do those gigs in Asia.”

Meanwhile, Is That So? finds the guitarist crossing that East-West divide in new and adventurous ways. Six years in the making, the new album has McLaughlin surrounding Mahadevan’s magnificent voice with complex orchestral harmonies that he meticulously pieced together via multiple keyboard overdubs. As he explained, “Around the time of the last Remember Shakti tour, in 2012, I got this bug in my mind: ‘What if I take one of Shankar’s improvisations on a bhajan, one of the lovely devotional songs of India, and apply harmony to it?’ It’s just a fascinating challenge. And to work with Shankar’s voice ... I mean, what a dream. It really began just absolutely as an experiment. And from the very first moment, all I had to do was follow his voice and my own heart.”

The process began with Shankar singing traditional bhajans and alaps on top of a droning tamboura, recorded on a separate track. “Once you remove the tamboura, the sky’s the limit, harmonically speaking,” said McLaughlin, who deftly incorporated complex polyphony and rich moving harmonies around the vocals. “Shankar’s voice is so lovely and he’s so soulful,” he said. “And growing up with the music of Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Duke Ellington, as well as classical music, the harmony of the West has been part of my life. And it’s thrilling to hear this Western harmony with his wonderful voice. It’s really my world and his world coming together.

“It’s really been an adventure for both of us,” McLaughlin said of his collaboration with Mahadevan, who has attained superstar status in India’s film industry. “We both love it so deeply and it’s so meaningful because it’s coming from such a profound and personal place. And I feel deep down that when people hear the music, they’ll respond to the beauty in it.” DB

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