Guitarist John McLaughlin burst onto the jazz scene in the 1960s as a member of Miles Davis’ cutting-edge electric groups. On famed works like “In a Silent Way,” “Bitches’ Brew” and “Jack Johnson,” his guitar work very much helped define Miles’ sound. Then in the early ’70s, his own jazz-rock fusion group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, became immensely popular and highly influential through melding together musical concepts from various genres. And McLaughlin’s playing was loud, fast and intense. He became, in short, the electric guitarist to listen to.

After these successes, though, McLaughlin became fascinated by Indian music and formed an acoustic group with Indian instruments. Leaving behind the powerful electric sound he pioneered, his acoustic guitar blended with the complexities of Indian rhythm and melody on extended Indian-style improvisations. Defying his record company, the group, Shakti, released their self-titled album in 1976, a release that became a landmark in world music. Along with tabla player Zakir Hussain, McLaughlin has performed with Shakti for over 35 years.

Though Shakti’s original mridangam (Indian drum) player T.H. “Vikku” Vinayakram returned to India to run his family’s music school, one of his sons has now taken his place in the group. In a rare visit to Japan, Shakti will play in Tokyo tomorrow night, Jan. 31. McLaughlin took time during the Indian leg of the tour last week to talk by phone from his Madras hotel. He spoke with warmth, enthusiasm and a certain humility about the music he has devoted himself to.

So, how did you get into Indian music?

I was aware of Indian music after being introduced to it through [Indian] thought. By 1964, I was playing with Miles, but I’d become very interested in philosophical research, shall I say. By the end of the ’60s, I was practicing yoga and didn’t want to take anything to alter my state of consciousness. I began breathing exercises to find an alternate state of consciousness naturally.

So, I was already very much involved in a quest for my own identity. I became aware of Indian music and its inclusiveness, the way it incorporates every aspect of the human being.

It’s like an entire spiritual system in itself.

Yes, it is really, and that’s what was missing in the Western musical tradition. Now, don’t get me wrong, when I listen to Mozart or Ravel or these composers, the music is sublime. It’s on the same level. The difference, I think, is that Indian music represented fully all aspects of the human being, from the most humorous and most funny to the most profound and most sacred. When I discovered its closeness to jazz in terms of rhythmic improvisation, I was floored. The only sacred music in the West was masses.

It seems like, though, in the ’60s it must have been East is East and West is West.

There were a lot of students absolutely into this music. I was lucky, really blessed, to get a chance to become a student of Ravi Shankar, to continue my education in both North Indian and South Indian music. I should point out, though, that I also realized I did not want to become an Indian musician. I am a Western musician who studied harmony as part of my music school existence.

What really drew me to this were the players. I met Zakir in 1969, and after 35 years together, he still constantly amazes me with his inventive creativity and mastery of Indian music. Not to mention music in general. My desire to know Indian music really was the desire to play with these people that I admired so much. To play with them, though, you have to know what’s going on.

At first, it must have been quite different from playing with jazz musicians?

They are really very similar in that they also are struggling to master their instruments and have to master their traditions. But at the same time, the Indian musicians are very adventurous and generally are seeking to enrich their own traditions, sometimes by bringing in western influences. I think this is one of the reasons that Shakti has been able to last through 30 some years. Zakir is as fascinated with Western music as I am with Eastern music.

How is Indian music different in its improvisation from jazz?

The essential difference between the cultures is harmony. They do not employ harmony in the sense that Western culture employs it. Instead they developed the playing of melody and rhythm. Improvisation is essentially a spontaneous art form. To improvise you have to be free, and we’re talking ideals here. In order to improvise you need mastery of the instrument, mastery of rhythm, its exposition and articulation, and melody, which can be very personal. The aspect of melody and phrasing in India has developed so extensively because they don’t have this concern with harmony. By bending notes in a very precise and a scientific way that has been designated over the centuries, they are able to embroider or elaborate in fantastic ways.

The bended notes are like in blues?

The bended note in blues is a very primitive way of doing the same thing. When you bend a note, you are expressing something, whether you go up or go down. When you start to make a real study of Indian sliding, it’s really a very precise way of phrasing. It never developed in the West, because playing the right note, the right harmony, and interpretation is more important. Part of this comes from piano, which is the dominating instrument in the West, where there is no bending of notes. They don’t have these restrictions in India. They have impeccable ears and are marvelously and purely in tune. If you are out of tune, then you are back to the drawing board, back for another year of training.

But, improvisation is not just technique?

Improvisation really concerns your personality. The freedom of the music allows that, not just the fact that it’s inclusive and incorporates all the dimensions of the human being. It allows you to be who you really are — in music. You have the freedom on the condition that you have the mastery. It brings us back to this kind of thing I realized quite a long time ago in jazz that perfect freedom basically comes from perfect discipline. To get to the unknown we have to go through the known, but all the way.

Was the feeling of being yourself different in jazz?

No, not at all. This is one of the wonderful common denominators that jazz and Indian music have together. It’s not the cult of the personality, because we have to play together and give each other help to reach the highest possible point of inspiration. But at the same time, you can be who you truly are, on condition that you have gone through the discipline of theoretical, practical, and musical mastery of music. We have so much in common. Jazz is essentially rhythmic. It’s more than that of course, but without the rhythm and without the beat, it can’t exist. Indian music is basically the same.

When you play guitar with Indian musicians, you have to adapt to them, but they must also have to adapt to your guitar?

They don’t really have to change. By choice, they can change, but I want them to be themselves totally. Like in any jazz group, that’s all I want any musician to be, is to be themselves. But what works in Shakti is they know I don’t want to be an Indian musician. They are such fantastic musicians, but I had to learn a lot with my teachers. Ravi Shankar taught me konnakol, a South Indian way of learning rhythm. You can sing it and keep the beats with your hand. It’s incredibly easy, but goes to the most sophisticated heights. It’s all the mathematics of the groove, and how you subdivide and then calculate spontaneously as you play. It’s another mind-set. With konnakol, you can hear rhythms from anywhere in the world and know absolutely what they are doing immediately. It’s one of the key points that allowed me to play with these great Indian musicians.

Other world groups never quite mesh as fully as Shakti.

That’s one of my criticisms of so-called world music. It’s done wonderful things, introduced people to people, cultures to cultures. With Shakti, though, we really play together. Some of these world bands, they’re not really playing together, that is, they’re not improvising, and not stimulating each other to get to a place where they’ve never been before. You don’t get there through what you already know, but through the encouragement of people around you. There’s not enough spontaneity in some of this world music.

What’s in store for this tour?

On this tour to Tokyo, one of Vikku’s sons will be playing with us, so now Shakti is second generation. He grew up listening to us play, I knew him when he was 2. It makes me feel a little old, but it’s great. He’s taken over for his father and he has pushed barriers even further. When you see him and Zakir together, it’s amazing. I know what they are doing, but basically I am just sitting there in amazement keeping the rhythmic cycle for them.

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