John McLaughlin is a seeker. Along his musical journey, he has explored, and at times created, esoteric sonic realms. In the past half-century, the British guitarist’s inquisitive and restless approach to his instrument helped create jazz-fusion. After moving from high-volume, electric playing to pensive, acoustic guitar work, his groundbreaking blending of jazz and Indian classical music moved him to the forefront of what we now call World Music.
In the late ’60s, Miles Davis hired McLaughlin for the jazz godfather’s electric Bitches Brew era and subsequent line-ups. McLaughlin went on to record estimable albums with Tony Williams as well as a masterful 1973 collaboration with Carlos Santana, Love Devotion Surrender. Yet it was in the early-to-mid-’70s, with his pioneering jazz-fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra, when McLaughlin truly ascended to trailblazing heights as a guitarist. It was during this time that his playing and compositions established McLaughlin as, in some ways, a peerless guitarist.
The Mahavishnu tune “One Word” embodies the band’s awe-inspiring approach to electric music. Opening with McLaughlin swinging out of the gate, his tone a slow-burn, distorted crunch, peeling off a fury of 32nd notes, he and his bandmates—drummer Billy Cobham, keyboardist Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird and violinist Jerry Goodman—veer through a 13/8 time signature in an intense call-and-response, closing as intensely as it began. Few guitarists of his day, barring Frank Zappa and Allan Holdsworth, were this adept in laying out such cerebral, skillful playing—at warp speed, no less—with a similar intensity, emotional logic and personal tone.
In the decades since, McLaughlin has collaborated with dozens of diverse players, including fellow guitar virtuosos Paco de Lucía and Al Di Meola, a stellar trio with Joey DeFranceso and drummer Elvin Jones, among others. Regardless of the setting, McLaughlin has the rare skill at joining the “hive mind” of the players while maintaining his wholly singular sound and tone.
Now McLaughlin is closing out his half-century of being a touring musician with the Meeting of the Spirits. On this, his final global tour, McLaughlin is joined by a formidable guitarist and McLaughlin acolyte, Jimmy Herring. Currently Widespread Panic lead guitarist, Herring is a mercurial, unorthodox player in his own right, performing with the likes of Phil Lesh, Col. Bruce Hampton and Derek Trucks.
Their Florida Theatre show gives both diehard and curious music fans a last chance to be part of a historical moment when a true master of 20th-century jazz plays.
Folio Weekly spoke with McLaughlin about his farewell to the road, his latest release and the spirit invoked through improvisation.
Folio Weekly: How did this Meeting of the Spirits tour with Jimmy Herring happen?
John McLaughlin: This will be my final tour ever. I’ve lost count of how many tours I’ve done, especially in the U.S. since 1969; so I’ve gone a long way with American audiences. [Laughs.] It’s odd, really, because basically you can fight everything but old age. But I’m not really fighting, because musically I’ve never felt better. It’s wonderful. But I’m nervous about accepting tours next year, for example. I’m taking concerts here and there because I don’t want to have a bad “hair day” in the middle of a tour date. [Laughs.] But the whole thing about this tour, which has been planned for a long time, is like I said, I started touring in ’69 and by ’71, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was already getting a lot of excitement.
Miles Davis played both Fillmore theaters back then. But as far as a touring jazz band, Mahavishnu were really the first to play for arena-level rock audiences.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And the thing is, it was America who discovered Mahavishnu, and discovered me, for that matter. And to do this tour and bring that music back, which is part of my musical and personal history and so tied up with my years in America, because I lived there for a long time … 14 years. It’s really the best possible way I could say “Thank you and goodbye” to America. That’s really it. And the fact that Jimmy is on this, who’s such a fine player, and he’s such a fan of that Mahavishnu music and, man, he can play it. I’ll tell you how I first heard him. Somebody sent me one of his records and he played one of my Mahavishnu tunes I heard it and thought, “Man, why didn’t I play it like that?” [Laughs.] But what a wonderful rendition he made. So I’m really excited. Because he has a great band, Invisible Whip, and they’re all dear friends and they can play, too. So he’s going to do a kind of shorter set than normal, and so am I with my band, the 4th Dimension, which is such a killer band. The Mahavishnu music will be in Jimmy’s set and in mine, individually. But then we come out, as two bands, and it’s only the music from the early ’70s. I’m really excited because all of these guys play so well and with great spirit. It’s great that you like each other and each other’s playing but that spirit is really important, too.
Speaking of playing, your new album, Live at Ronnie Scott’s, has some mind-blowing playing by you and the band. I hope I don’t sound ageist, but how does the 75-year-old John McLaughlin invoke and harness the energy to still play like that?
I don’t know, maybe because I’m just an old hippie. [Laughs.] Because I don’t feel any different than I did all of those years ago, before I reached the magic age of 30. But of course physically, that’s one of the reasons it’s my farewell tour globally; I’m not doing tours elsewhere. But I’ve never felt better. I feel wonderful. But I’d rather go out on the good foot. The thing is, we’ll see how it goes for my hands; because after this, I want to take a year off. And we’ll see. You know, miracles happen. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not playing handicapped here. [Laughs.] I’m playing really well but I see it coming and that’s a risk I do not want to take. I don’t want to betray myself, my fellow players and the audience paying to see us.
This topic fascinates me and I know for some it’s hard to articulate, as it can be a very “non-verbal” moment. But, do you feel it’s possible to verbalize your experience of consciousness when you’re deep within improvisation?
Well, you might as well ask the question, “What’s the goal of life?” My personal goal in life has been to play an improvisational-style of music and getting involved with some degree of discovering who I really am. It’s the experience of liberation. You know, liberation from my ordinary mind and from my ordinary, boring self. Because inside, we’re all dynamic and inspired but accessing that can be kind of tricky because inspiration is something we have no control over. However, that said, I think by virtue of a certain dedication to music, through self-discovery for lack of a better word, I think encourages the conditions out of which you may be lucky and get ahold of that. With my band, we are all of the same mind. And when we go out on stage, we all have our musical devices, vocabularies and aims; and the older you get, the bigger it gets. However, the point is to get to the point where you step into the unknown, where everything is new, and this is a state of mind. We don’t have any control over it. I certainly don’t and I don’t know anybody who does. But playing with the right people, and that thing is there, when the spirit is there, then it can happen. Because I know it does happen, from direct experience. And when it does happen, there’s the experience of liberation, a freedom from the ordinary, everyday mind. You move away from the mundane into an awareness and perception where are you are free and at the same time you’re the experience of that action. It can be a blissful, joyful and liberating experience. The thing is, you can have it in meditation. I know, because I’ve had it. But playing music, when one of the players gets the spirit, it’s infectious, it spreads around on stage and then the audience feels it. The audience may not be able to name a note, they may be tone-deaf, but they always know what’s going on in music when it takes on that character. It just happens spontaneously. And when that happens, within the group there can be a collective experience of liberation; and really that’s what all musicians live for. It’s surely all I live for.