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music: interview

There are jazz guitarists, and there is John McLaughlin. The 68-year-old Englishman has been a standout since he changed the sound and feel of Miles Davis's band on In a Silent Way in 1969, not only through the speed and agility of his playing, but also through the power and audacity of his sound. He turned the jazz world on its head two years later when he launched the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a high-volume, virtuosic quintet that added rock dynamics to the rhythmic and harmonic invention of jazz.

Since then, McLaughlin has gone a number of different routes, from the Indian classical-based approach of Shakti to his romantic orchestral composition The Mediterranean Concerto. Currently, he is touring with his high-energy quartet The Fourth Dimension, and will perform at Koerner Hall in Toronto on Thursday.

Guitar god

From the first, McLaughlin has been an object of adulation for other guitarists, thanks in large part to the speed and clarity of his playing. His high-energy solos with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, in which he would regularly match fusillades from drummer Billy Cobham note for note, inspired a generation of fusion guitarists, including Steve Morse, Al Di Meola and Eric Johnson.

For his part, McLaughlin grew up listening to many of the same blues greats as other young English guitarists in the fifties and early sixties: Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell. He was bowled over by jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, but otherwise his main influences were "horns or piano, and not guitar," he says on the phone from New York. "In fact, the next time I was influenced by a guitar player was Jimi Hendrix, in the later sixties."

Hendrix and Coltrane

Hendrix inspired him "not in a musical way, but in a tonal way," he adds. Back then, McLaughlin, like many guitarists in swinging London, had been experimenting with amplifiers and effect pedals in order to broaden the electric guitar's sonic palette. "This cool jazz guitar sound - it's fine, but it's not for me," he says of the old-school guitar tone. Instead, he focused on what he describes as "research into feedback and tube distortion," which led to the modern guitar tone. "Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, they nailed it in terms of this kind of iconic sound of electric guitar," he says.

"Jimi and the kind of harmonic distortion that he exemplified was, in a way, analogous to what [John]Coltrane was doing with his tenor sax," he adds. "Not that Jimi played, musically, anything like Coltrane, but there was something in the tone that I really enjoyed from both of them."

Davis and Coltrane

McLaughlin says Coltrane has been a source of inspiration since 1958, when he heard the Miles Davis album Milestones. "I said, 'This is it! This is real jazz!' " he recalls. "This, I felt, was my school and I was not happy, frankly, that there was no guitar player in that band."

Eventually, of course, McLaughlin himself was the guitarist in Davis's band, but it was Coltrane - specifically the album A Love Supreme - that inspired the guitarist's latest album, To the One. "It was a very personal kind of effect," he says. When he first heard A Love Supreme, 45 years ago, he "couldn't really understand at all what Coltrane was doing, musically. But there's a poem on the back, almost a prayer, that arrived really at the right moment in my life. There were a number of parallels between his inner life, perhaps you could say, and my own."

That sense of inspiration echoed in McLaughlin as he began composing the tunes for To the One. "I'm sure it's tricky to hear parts of A Love Supreme music on my particular recording, but there you are. That's the way it really was for me."