Guitarist John McLaughlin speeds past his critics

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MONTEREY, Calif., Sep 28 (Reuters) Nearly 40 years after helping pioneer jazz fusion with Miles Davis, guitar maestro John McLaughlin still faces harsh critics who dismiss such technically demanding, electronically charged music as ''steroidal'' or even a ''pestilence.'' British-born McLaughlin, 65, accompanied trumpeter Davis on the seminal 1969 ''Bitches Brew'' and ''Silent Way'' albums, which shocked jazz purists and delighted others by bringing together elements of jazz and rock.

He has continued to fuse different musical styles such as Indian classical music with improvisations over complex chords and time signatures. Despite the skeptics, he has won praise as one of the world's great guitarists.

''It stems from certain puritanical ideas about what they think jazz truly is,'' McLaughlin said of critics in an interview after playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival late last week. ''I could care less. What do they know? ''You find this everywhere. I've played with a number of musicians who are really not jazz musicians. Paco de Lucia, for example, when we made this association in the '80s, Paco was viciously criticized by the Flamenco purists.

''When Zakir and I got together, when we came out in '76 with (Indo-jazz group) Shakti, there was real consternation in the Indian camp because they thought the music was going to be sullied by my influence,'' he told Reuters.

Over the years, McLaughlin has performed a wide variety of styles, from acoustic groups in which he sat on the floor with tabla player Zakir Hussain and other Indians to hard-charging electric groups such as the electric fusion Mahavishnu Orchestra. He is now touring the United States with his electric fusion group, the 4th Dimension.

''Frankly speaking, if I care what people write, whether it is positive or negative, I believe personally I'm on the wrong path,'' he continued. ''To pay attention to flattery or criticism is a waste of time for artists.'' GREATEST GUITARIST? Even if rock guitar heroes such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page attracted many more fans, some music lovers see McLaughlin as the fastest, most versatile guitarist of his generation.

''We are contrasted, but the idea of a superior or inferior guitar player is an absolute nonstarter,'' said McLaughlin, a resident of Monte Carlo, Monaco. Of his stardom, he said he's ''a little marginal, but jazz is a marginal music, compared to mainstream pop, rock, rap.'' Indian music has provided important inspiration for the guitarist and he lived in India with his family between November 2006 and July 2007. He is soon to release an instructional video on how Understanding Indian rhythms can help inspire musical composition and improvisation.

Although the Internet has made it easier than ever to access specialized types of music, McLaughlin said he must rely on concerts and other work to earn the bulk of his income.

''If I had to live on record sales, I'd be pushing up the daisies,'' he said over a breakfast of eggs at a Monterey hotel.

''In my world, if you want to make a record to make money, you're already off to a bad start.'' McLaughlin says he has twice come perilously close to bankruptcy because of what he called unscrupulous agents.

''You have to become a musician with your eyes wide open, especially a jazz musician, because if you are lucky, you can make a living,'' he told Reuters. ''I knew, throughout my life, really excellent musicians struggle just to get by.'' Even with his skill in improvising at breakneck speed before a live audience, McLaughlin says he has not mastered the six-stringed instrument.

''As soon as you try to play a musical instrument, you learn the meaning of humility,'' he said. ''The greatest musicians I have ever known, they're all humble.'' ''The discovery of how little you really know, this is very sobering. But this is very good: it separates the men from the boys.'' REUTERS SG RK0850

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