John McLaughlin: On Coltrane And Spirituality In Music The electric guitarist never got to see his hero, John Coltrane, play the saxophone. But McLaughlin was so moved by Coltrane's 1965 masterpiece A Love Supreme that, nearly a half-century later, it's central to his own new album, To the One.
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John McLaughlin: On Coltrane And Spirituality In Music

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John McLaughlin: On Coltrane And Spirituality In Music

John McLaughlin: On Coltrane And Spirituality In Music

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(Soundbite of "A Love Supreme")


Guitarist John McLaughlin never saw saxophonist John Coltrane perform. The jazz icon died in 1967, before McLaughlin had the chance. But John Coltrane's historic album "A Love Supreme" has inspired every twist and turn of John McLaughlin's career since he first heard it.

Now the master guitarist has composed an album inspired by his passion for "A Love Supreme." It's called "To The One." It's been nominated for a Grammy award in the best contemporary jazz album category. John McLaughlin is in the studio at member station KUSP in Santa Cruz, California.

Thanks for joining us, and congratulations on your Grammy nomination.

Mr. JOHN McLAUGHLIN (Musician): Thank you, Liane. Thank you. Nice to be here.

HANSEN: It's wonderful to talk to you and I really want to talk about the -first, the album that inspired "To The One" and your career, John Coltrane's "Love Supreme." I mean, this is such an iconic, important album to a lot of people who are fans of jazz, and a pivotal one in the development of the genre.

When you first heard it, what did it mean to you?

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Quite frankly, Liane, I couldn't hear the music. I couldn't hear it. It was just over my head. It took me, actually, a year of listening to that record almost every day to finally hear what he was doing musically. But this was the first time - and for me, this was really significant - that the spiritual dimension had been integrated into the world of jazz music. And this, for me, is a phenomenal contribution of what he made.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Your album is one that is not one for instant gratification, although it is beautiful to listen to the first time. But there are layers of meaning in this. There are six parts to "To The One" and it begins with the tune you call "Discovery."

(Soundbite of song "Discovery")

HANSEN: Are there echoes of Coltrane in this? We open the door to this recording, and there's a little bit of Coltrane echo in there.

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Undoubtedly. And I'm very happy about that. It actually was not at all my intention to make any kind of homage. I had the idea to make a record simply because the music came. I didn't sit down and say, okay, now I'm going to write a record, I'm going to write music. I can't do that.

HANSEN: But you were I think unconsciously - perhaps subconsciously, channeling that spirit of Coltrane. His own piece "Pursuant" is a little similar to "Discovery" whether you knew you were doing it or not. And discovery is always the first part of a journey, really.

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Yeah, it is. I mean, discovery in life. We discover things. We're born, we're young, we wake up, I mean, for me, I was in this magical world. And I was born in the country, so I was lucky in that sense, so I would see - I was surrounded by nature. But for me, the whole world was magical when I was a kid. And, of course, we grow up and we become a little more cynical. And so, in a way, I think probably more - it would be more appropriate if it was rediscovery. But that's maybe a little too pretentious.

HANSEN: Growing up - where were you growing up, what music were you listening to?

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: I was born in a very small village in Yorkshire. Emily Bronte country, Liane. My mother was an amateur violinist, God bless her. And so, there was really just classical music in the house.

But perhaps one small anecdote I could tell you I think really marked me for life. Because I was about five years old, and my mom had put the "Ninth Symphony" of Beethoven on the record player. And at the very end of this "Ninth Symphony," there's the vocal quartet that comes in that is just really sublime, especially when you think Beethoven was deaf when he wrote it. I mean, it's just really extraordinary.

And so I was sitting in this chair and suddenly this vocal quartet came on, and my hair stood on end, and the hair on my arms and my neck, and I was having this experience that I knew was directly connected to this music. But a five-year-old boy, what do you know? You don't really understand. But I knew it was from the music. And I think it's from this experience that determined that I would be a musician in life.

(Soundbite of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony)

HANSEN: In various forms of spiritual theology, Zen included, life is described as a journey. It's not a destination. And there's a tune on your album, "To The One" - "Fine Line" - about spiritual awakening and the fact that it's not - you can be awakened, but will it be sustained? I mean, there's a Biblical story about seeds falling on fertile ground or in the thorns or in the rocks. Is "Fine Line" what you're expressing there? You've had this spiritual awakening, and you want to try to stay on the path and it's a very thin, fine one.

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Absolutely. Everybody's spiritual, without exception. But it's a kind of path and the path is very broad. And at the same time, we're very susceptible to falling off, which of course, over the years I've done. But it's really a question of awareness of your own nature.

HANSEN: We're talking to guitarist John McLaughlin. His new recording with the band The Fourth Dimension is called "To The One."

I'm interested in a quotation that you attribute to Miles Davis and it actually works into a question the musicians that you're playing with now. Now, Miles Davis said, play like you don't know how to play. And Gary Husband, who is the keyboard player and one of the drummers on this CD, Gary Husband said you gave him so many instructions about how to drum, he was completely confused. So he just played his heart out.

And were you deliberately confusing him or was it a way of trying to communicate what you wanted, or you really just wanted him to go at it for himself?

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: What I want people to do in the band, is I want them to be who they really are and I want them to play how they want to play. But I think we should perhaps give the listeners just a little bit background on that cryptic quote. Because I had been in New York a day, and I'd been invited by Miles to participate on the "In A Silent Way" recording, which was, I mean, I was just -nervous is not the word.

There I was in the studio, and there was a tune called "In A Silent Way," which is a Joe Zawinul tune. And Joe, he didn't know there was a guitar player coming, so the only thing he could do was photocopy his piano part and give it to me. So I had a piano part in the studio.

So we ran it down, Miles didn't like it. We ran it down another time, he didn't like it. This is when he stopped, and he looked at me, he said, I want to hear it on the guitar. I said, you want these piano chords in the melody? Yes. So I said, that's going to take me a minute just to put it together because it's not a guitar part. And he said, is that a fact? So already, you know, sweat was running down my back. I'm thinking, what am I going to do here? I've got this piano part, and he wants me to do the whole thing.

So after about ten seconds, he looked at me and he said that famous quote, play it like you don't know how to play the guitar. Play it like you don't know how to play the guitar. So I threw out the chords, I threw out the rhythm. I threw it all out, and I just played the melody, and I just played it real simple. And I was just astonished because he had been able to pull out of me something that I didn't know I could do.

(Soundbite of song "In A Silent Way")

HANSEN: Where do you move next, musically?

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: I'm not really moving anywhere, Liane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Sitting right here, chatting with you.

HANSEN: You're staying in one place with your eyes closed, right.

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: The thing is, every day is new to me. So I'm not like I was yesterday in some subtle, small way. And so I don't even stop to consider where I'm headed, because it's - I'm actually indifferent to that now. I'm just happy to be here right now in this moment because it's really the only one that I really have, isn't it?

HANSEN: John McLaughlin's new CD is called "To The One," and it's been nominated for a Grammy award. And he spoke to us from Santa Cruz, California. What a conversation. Thank you so much.

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Oh, thank you, Liane. What a pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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