You’ve just wrapped up the last tour of your 54-year-old musical career, in North America. What has made you call it a day in terms of touring?
Age. I still feel like 28-29 years old inside, but my body doesn’t agree with me. To do tours now is more risky for me because I have arthritis in my hand. But I’m going to keep doing concerts with the Fourth Dimension, two in Mumbai, and one in Bangalore this weekend. Later this year, we have been invited to Brazil for a few shows — this is fine. The last tour had several motives behind it. One was the advent in 1971 of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was a very big event in the US. We enjoyed phenomenal success, and the music had an impact which continues to this day. I thought why not, because the Orchestra was a big part of my life and my music. America has been fantastic to me, and my musical life has been based on American music — from listening to the blues as an 11-year-old, to playing rhythm-n-blues, to jazz. I arrived there in the ’60s and played with Tony Williams, Miles Davis, Wayne Short, and all these people who are my peers now. So, this tour was to say thank you to America, for everything it has done for me.
Speaking of Miles Davis, do you think you’d have formed a band if he hadn’t told you to do so in 1971?
I will be eternally grateful to him. He’s a constant inspiration to me and he comes in my dreams and talks to me. (Mimics Davis) “John, we’re going to record on Thursday”. I once wrote the opening melody of a second movement of a guitar concerto for him, that I was performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. I had the trumpet player play it on flugelhorn, which is one of Miles’s favourite instruments. I recorded it, and I met him and played it for him in his hotel room. He sat eating a salad and the tape played on a big ghetto blaster. He listened to all three movements and then he said, “John, now you can die.”
And you won a Grammy last week for Best Improvised Jazz Solo, for Miles beyond from your album, Live at Ronnie Scott’s. Congratulations.
Thank you. This is coming full circle too — the Grammy committee chose this song, a homage to Miles that had been recorded in 1971, by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. We reanimated it and played it at Ronnie Scott’s. The Grammy has really pleased me, because all the elements from my life came together — Miles, Mahavishnu, the Fourth Dimension. I couldn’t have asked for a better category and it’s such an honour that they awarded that improvised solo. Because in an improvisation, you are who you are, you can’t hide behind the notes, and you just are yourself.
You’ve said that music is a way to liberate yourself, and that you played jazz because it is a way to freedom. Before you became Mahavishnu, what did you want to liberate yourself from?
Myself, from my boring little self.
Why? You were playing with Miles, jamming with Jimi Hendrix, forming your own band.
It was all wonderful and I am grateful for those things. But from my experiences in music and meditation, which I began many years ago, I know that we have another side to us, a big spirit that is in all of us, that tells you that you’re part of the universe and it is a part of you. This knowledge is life-changing but we can only have it if we go in search for it. All the work one does in meditation is so that you can hack your way through the superficial and ridiculous thoughts that invade us constantly. We are extremely mysterious and full of magic. Why do you go to a concert? I go to be captured by that person, and for them to take me into their world. I discover myself through them. On stage, if you’re just playing notes, who cares? If you’re thinking, you’re not playing. If you can play without thinking in a collective way, to experience liberation as a collective, that experience is beyond words. Everybody knows intuitively when the music hits you — that is beauty in action.
Would you say that your search for spiritual knowledge cost you the original line-up of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1973?
It’s probably one reason. I was on a different path with my yoga and meditation, and those guys (violinist Jerry Goodman, Jan Hammer on keys, bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Billy Cobham) were drinking, partying and hanging out with girls. After a gig, I’d go home and drink herbal tea, meditate and go to bed. I didn’t ask them to do it, but clearly there was a social schism, because I didn’t partake in that lifestyle. I’d done it before and I knew what it was like. In the end, the split was acrimonious — the spirit had left the ensemble.
You’ve spoken about drum-n-bass, trap and jungle, without being dismissive about these genres. Do you think they are reaching more people because they are quite visceral forms of music?
Yes, and that’s because I listen with my body, too. I’ve heard “intellectual” music and it leaves me cold. Music should be total, the way it is with Indian music and jazz.
What do you mean?
There is a certain physicality and sensuality in Indian classical and jazz, an essential part of both cultures. I love both these forms because it makes me want to move. At the same time, it doesn’t prohibit the intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction.
Will you make that CD you’ve recently talked about recording — “Deaf, Dumb and Blind”?
Yes, because I’m old now and stupid sometimes. I hate to think what that CD would sound like, though.