Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My interview with writer Walter Kolosky on his new book Follow Your Heart: John McLaughlin song by song – A Listener’s Guide.

Follow Your Heart - John McLaughlin Song By Song

My first contact with author Walter Kolosky was a simple e-mail response he sent to me upon reading my brief bio on All About Jazz, the on-line jazz journal, where both of us were contributing reviewers. I had put a line in my bio stating how my first exposure to the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971 was undoubtedly the most awe inspiring performance I had ever witnessed. As it turns out almost forty years later it still holds that place of distinction in my heart. Walter, seeing a kindred spirit, wrote simply “…any fan of John McLaughlin is a friend of mine.” So began a mutual awareness that has continued over the last several years. When Ted Goia was forming, we were again brought together as reviewers for that noble, but short-lived experiment in online jazz reporting. Ted distinguished himself from other editors, by astutely choosing to focus on the review of individual tracks, allowing the reviewer more ink to express what made a particular song or recording of that song something to be savored. I soon discovered that Walter became the de-facto expert on all things John McLaughlin on  I also had an opportunity to read his first book "Power, Passion and Beauty" , undoubtedly the most authoritative book ever written about fusion’s premier super group, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, which as a fan I found thoroughly entertaining.
Power, Passion & Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra

When Walter e-mailed me recently that he had completed a new book and would like me to review an advanced copy, I was naturally enthusiastic and flattered. His book Follow Your Heart: John McLaughlin song by song – A Listener’s Guide is an enthusiast’s guide to virtually every song ever recorded by the talented guitarist. As a sometime guitarist myself, I found the detail incredible.Walter’s dedication to his subject is tantamount to religious zealotry.
After reading this listener’s guide, I thought it would be interesting for my readers if Walter would answer some of my lingering questions.
RAM: Walter, I just finished your book and I must commend you for the excellent job you’ve done in chronicling John’s amazing body of work. The previously unpublished photos, which you include, add so much to the overall appeal of the book. How long did this book take you to complete and how were you able to gather so many great photos?

WK: First, thanks for the kind words. I started the actual writing in April of this year, but you could say I have been writing this book for many years. I certainly had a head start being a lifelong fan and chronicler of John’s music....  I was also influenced by many readers of Power, Passion and Beauty who wrote to me that one of their favorite things to do was to listen to certain Mahavishnu tunes while they read about them. I am so pleased you like the photos.... I am grateful to everyone who took the pictures and to everyone who helped me obtain the rights to them.... Many of the images have true historical value.

RAM; You are an unabashed fan of McLaughlin and it clearly shows, but I am impressed by your inclusion of what you don’t like in his repertoire. You are clearly not a fan of his use of the synthesized guitar. What turns you off so much about his forays into the outer limits of electronica?

WK: It is impossible for me to like everything John McLaughlin has done. I am human. Besides, my credibility would be shot to holes if I enjoyed every single nugget he has offered. ..., only in the last few years have I begun to appreciate some of John’s synthesizer work more. I think I am like many other fans who want to hear John’s articulation in a straightforward way and not in a processed digital manner. In the process of writing Follow Your Heart I changed my mind somewhat because I have determined that there is a silver lining to much of McLaughlin’s synthesizer material. I think his composing has been overshadowed by his guitar virtuosity. In some ways when you can’t quite figure out what sound is John McLaughlin, you can focus more on the quality of the composition.

RAM: You make some definitive claims in this book I’d like to ask you about a few of them.

• You say unequivocally Birds of Fire is the greatest jazz-rock album ever recorded.”
   What makes this album receive this highest of honors?
Birds of Fire
WK: Birds of Fire was the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its apex. Since they were the greatest jazz fusion band that ever was – this album was the greatest jazz-rock album ever made.

• You also say of “One Word"  , from Bird of Fire, it is “…perhaps the greatest of all Mahavishnu tunes…”
Again what in your mind makes this song the greatest?

WK: It is the one tune on which all five members are allowed to stretch. Generally bassist Rick Laird performed the important task of holding the band together by supplying a strong and steady foundation. But on “One Word” he takes a wonderful solo that hints at further things he could have done.

RAM: Have you ever asked John what he considers his greatest single achievement?

WK: No, but I bet you it would have nothing to do with music.

Belo HorizonteRAM: • You mention that John’s composition “Stardust on Your Sleeve” from his Belo Horizonte album is “…the most stunningly melodic song John McLaughlin has ever written.” He is obviously capable of gorgeous melody in his writing, why do you think he prefers to write more rhythmically challenging compositions that eschew melody for complexity and speed?

WK: Well, first I would actually say I don’t know what he prefers to write. And, quite frankly, I don’t know that I agree with the premise of the question. I write about 298 songs in Follow Your Heart. There is no doubt, as you say, that much of that music is rhythmically challenging. However, I would point out that most of those songs possess strong melodies. They may not be the type of melodies that people were used to, but the themes, at least to me, have always resonated.

RAM:• You write in a passage explaining his Live at the Royal Festival recording “John McLaughlin loves drummers.” I recently saw him in concert with his latest group The Fourth Dimension and it was obvious he loved to see dueling drummers. I watched him prod keyboardist Gary Husband to the drum kit and intoa veritable duel with drummer Mark Mondesir.
Live at the Royal Festival Hall

He has played with some of the best drummers in jazz. You document his work with Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Billy Cobham, Narada Michael Walden, tabla player Zakir Hussain, percussionist Tirlok Gurtu,
Dennis Chambers, Vinnie Colaiuta and now Mark Mondesir.

RAM: In your conversations with John,  did he ever intimate who he thought was the most sympathetic drummer that he worked with in his career?

WK: John doesn’t talk that way. I mean he doesn’t say “my favorite” drummer or bassist or anyone. As he says in the book, he likes people. So, I think the most important aspect for him is to like the person. I think that is everyone’s goal really, don’t you think? Obviously, he develops a different rapport with everyone.

RAM: After all your extensive research, do you have an opinion about your favorite McLaughlin drummer?

Tokyo LiveWK: Ralph, that is a most difficult question. My favorite drummer in Lifetime was Tony Williams and my favorite drummer in the original Mahavishnu was Billy Cobham. I think Zakir Hussain was the best drummer to have in Shakti and that Dennis Chambers was perfect forThe Free Spirits and The Heart of Things. You see? McLaughlin’s projects have been so disparate that I just can’t say I prefer one drummer over another. I have loved them all!
(Interviewer's note:  for what it is worth: Despite Walter's reticence to single out one drummer and with no slight intended to any of the monsters that he has played with, , I personally have never seen such sympathetic playing between a drummer and a guitarist as I witnessed between Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin)

Billy Cobham picture from Tim Brooks Rythmn Section
RAM:  Under your section on McLaughlin’s “Que Alegria” you state McLaughlin is always trying to find the sounds he hears in his head and he’ll try anything to get them.” You stated in several instances how you sometimes winced at his choice of  tone or how his synthesized guitar was sometimes indistinguishable from Que Alegriaother accompanying instruments. Do you feel John’s music has suffered from his fondness for trying the latest electronic effect?

WK: I did ask him one time if he ever thought technology was influencing how he approached his music. For instance, if he had a new synth that made a sound like an elephant – would he feel he needed to play that sound? (That is not the example I used with John.) He absolutely dismissed this notion. I just have to believe him. I want to be clear about my own view of the synthesizer. I was always impressed with how John forged ahead with the new technologies. But, given my druthers, I preferred a sound, a tone, an approach that sounded like it came from an actual guitar. I sometimes missed the attack. John McLaughlin is very much aware about the misgivings some fans have had about some of his tone choices. However, he must follow his muse. There is no doubt in my mind that someday his trailblazing work will be the subject of scholarship.

RAM: One of the things I most enjoyed about your book was the cogent comments from John under various sections. One comment I found particularly telling.It was his explanation of the meaning of the title to his song “Hijacked” from  his Live at the Royal Festival album he said “ We get hijacked periodically by our own minds. That is the real hijacker. The whole point of existence is to become un-hijacked. We become trapped in our thoughts, desires and ambitions. In short, we become trapped in our own egos.”

It is well known that John has been on a personal spiritual quest for most of his life. Despite this purposeful dedication to a higher way, I was somewhat surprised to find out from your book how many personal disagreements he has had with other musicians over the years. You mention disputes with
Jerry Goodman, Jan Hammer , disagreements with Al Dimeola and Jean Luc Ponty, and a deserved beef with Jaco Pastorius and most surprisingly and a twenty-five year spat with drummer Billy Cobham.

WK: Well, I think when you look at the record, McLaughlin has not had that many spats compared to the hundreds of musicians he has interacted with. It is just that the tiffs happened to be with some famous people. I am happy to say that most of those issues are over and these musicians have reached out to each other in some way. Music, like any art, is full of strong-headed individuals who have distinct visions. When you combine artistic ideas with business, horrible things can happen. The artists who manage to make it through the minefields unscathed are rare.

RAM: Ever since the first Mahavishnu exploded on the scene; John's influence on guitar players and other musicians is undeniable. Other than this obvious ground breaking work, what sets apart John's playing for you when compared to the other icons of the guitar world like Bill Frisell, John Abercrombie,
Allan Holdsworth, Pat Metheny and /or John Scofield?

WK: That is some list. Each one of those guitarists holds McLaughlin in the highest esteem and the same is true in return. Comparisons can be useless as each of these players has a distinct style and approach.. But, I think I could say what sets him apart is that he has been a driving force in several different genres of music. Metheny has even written about this. McLaughlin helped lead the way for jazz fusion, world music, acoustic guitar appreciation and synthesizer guitar movements. It is really quite an accomplishment when you consider it.

RAM: Walter as a fan who was first blown away by the Mahavishnu Orchestra in its first iteration many years ago, as was I, is it possible for John to ever be able to meet the expectations that this first band created for many of us?

WK: Nope.

RAM: I detect from your writings that despite your respect for the many paths John has taken with his music, you prefer the slash and burn, stunning virtuosity that was a hallmark of his early career. Is this accurate? What is your favorite recent album and why?

To The OneWK: True, I prefer the slash and burn when it comes to him playing electric guitar. However, it is inaccurate everywhere else. For instance, one of my favorite albums is the acoustic Belo Horizonte. I am absolutely thrilled by
 To The One. I love its slurring energy and the spiritual aura, in both a secular and non-secular way, which permeates it. It is a masterpiece.

RAM: Need I ask what your all time favorite McLaughlin album is and  your favorite song?

WK: I would be lying to you if I could say which album was my favorite. It would depend on the day of the week, the hour on the clock and my mood. My favorite song is still “One Word” for the reasons I told you before. I think one of the things Follow Your Heart will do is to make listeners reassess their favorite tunes and even change their minds back and forth. My goal is to make people realize we are dealing with one of the greatest guitar players ever, who just happens to be a remarkably important composer as well.

RAM: Thanks Walter. As far as my own observations, John's considerable composing talents were reintroduced to me recently when I  reviewed the HR Big Band with Billy Cobham playing the "A Meeting of the Spirits: A Celebration of the Mahavishnu Orchestra" . The music continues to inspire young musicians and fans alike.

To some degree I think John and the first Mahavishnu Orchestra was like a convergence of five comets colliding together at one particular time in space. This fortuitous union created a supernova in my music world never to be repeated. It also happened at a moment in time, for me at least, where I was particularly receptive to the message and unabashedly embraced it. Despite John’s ceaseless journey to free himself from the confines of that glorious achievement, he will always be inextricably tied to it  and for many of us may never be able to surpass it.
But  frankly John doesn’t have to surpass what he has done, nor does the brilliance of past achievements in
any way diminish what he has subsequently so valiantly pursued. Part of that pursuit is excellence, a goal few of us achieve to the extent that he has in both his playing and compositions. He continues to inspire loyal fans and a global bevy of musicians with his beautiful and complex music. For a perfectionist like John, who in the final quotation of Walter’s book states “ Just so you know- I never stop.” , his continuing quest is a solely personal journey. He generously offers us what he discovers along the way. We can choose to embrace or reject the offering as we like, but it is of little consequence to his own primary goal of following your heart.

Walter's book is available on Amazon or Abtract Logix through these links.
Follow Your Heart - John McLaughlin Song By Song

1 comment:

  1. Nice article! I remember seeing Mahavishnu way too many years ago. I had the album "Birds of Fire"