Moved By the Spirit:
On a Farewell Tour, John McLaughlin Gets His Mahavishnu Working
John McLaughlin is easily one of the most influential musicians ever to take up the guitar. His boundary-pushing, holistic approach to the instrument has earned him countless accolades. He has many high-profile fans among the legion of rock guitarists, though his own music only occasionally qualifies as rock. A key figure in the jazz fusion and world music movements, McLaughlin lent his considerable talents to important works by (and/or with) Tony Williams, Miles Davis, Larry Coryell, Carlos Santana, Al DiMeola and many others. And as leader of Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin helped blur the lines between jazz and rock.
After a long and fruitful career (including 30-plus albums bearing his name, and scores of guest spots on other projects), McLaughlin is currently embarking on what was originally billed as a farewell to America; he’s since revealed that the 25-date “Meeting of the Spirits” tour with Jimmy Herring represents his final live performances.
“It’s my farewell tour, not just to America but basically everywhere,” McLaughlin says. The 75-year-old musician explains that he’s developed arthritis, and the condition is worsening. “I’m feeling really good right now,” he notes. “Musically, I’ve never felt better. But I don’t want to put myself in a position to take a tour and find myself with a really, really ‘bad hair day’ and I’m not able to play; that’s kind of a betrayal to myself and betrayal to the people who like the music. So this will be it,” he says.
The tour marks the first time McLaughlin and Herring have teamed up for a series of live dates, and McLaughlin is clearly excited at the prospect of sharing the stage with his fellow guitarist. “We’re very dear friends for awhile now,” he says. Each tour date will feature a full set by Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip (Herring’s solo project outside Widespread Panic), followed by a set from John McLaughlin and his band, The 4th Dimension. McLaughlin’s group features keyboardist Gary Husband, drummer Ranjit Barot, and bassist Étienne M’Bappé.
McLaughlin’s quartet recently released Live at Ronnie Scott‘s, a live set recorded at the famed and intimate London club. The album finds the band digging into McLaughlin’s deep back catalog, most notably “Miles Beyond” and other works originally performed with his pioneering fusion ensemble, Mahavishnu Orchestra.
And the tour with Herring leverages McLaughlin’s renewed interest in Mahavishnu Orchestra material. Citing Herring’s “personal affection for Mahavishnu music,” McLaughlin explains that the tour represents an opportunity to “bring all of that music back just to thank the American public for what a fantastic life I’ve had.” He calls the tour an expression of his “personal love and affection for America and American people.”
The British guitarist (he currently lives in France) has enjoyed a long relationship with American audiences. “It goes back to Miles Davis,” he says. McLaughlin played on Davis’ monumental Bitches Brew album, as well as the equally stunning but lesser-known Jack Johnson and several others. “But the big kind of explosion personally for me was in ’71 with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. And since then, it just hasn’t stopped.”
Mahavishnu Orchestra went through a number of lineups, but all included top players in jazz, rock and fusion. Violinists Jerry Goodman and Jean-Luc Ponty were members, as were keyboardists Jan Hammer, Gayle Moran and Mitchel Forman. The bass duties were ably handled in succession by Rick Laird, Ralphe Armstrong and Jonas Helborg. Powerhouse drummers Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden both served time in the group as well, as did saxophonist Bill Evans. The various lineups produced eight studio releases and a live album before disbanding for good near the end of the 1980s.
But the group’s popularity has endured. “A lot of people write to me about that band,” McLaughlin says. “It was a beautiful band; it was completely crazy, and really radical, but relevant until today. And it’s music that I love, and the fact that Jimmy is such a fan of that music.” So for the tour, after each of the two bands completes full sets, all of the musicians will return to the stage for a third set featuring the music of Mahavishnu Orchestra. “And that really excites me,” McLaughlin says, “because Jimmy’s such a player. And he’s going to be on my case; I don’t doubt that for a second!”
In keeping with the improvisational sensibility that’s central to the jazz aesthetic, the live versions of Mahavishnu classics aren’t likely to sound exactly like the studio releases. “I think all pieces of music have got a kind of life of their own,” McLaughlin says. Pausing a beat, he adds, “Okay, it’s a little outrageous to say a song is like a living being. But it’s got something mysterious and magical inside. When I play those tunes they take me into a special place, even after all these years.”
McLaughlin says that every time he plays one of those old tunes – some composed as much as 45 years ago – he gets something new from the experience. “It’s very hard to put into words, but it puts me in a particular place that goes back,” he says. “It’s kind of a time machine.” He makes the point that a great deal of the Mahavishnu Orchestra repertoire is extremely complex music. Fortunately, McLaughlin created a book of the arrangements back in 1973 and ’74. “If I hadn’t transcribed some of that stuff for the record,” he laughs, “we’d have to re-learn it!”
In conversation, McLaughlin reveals some of the tunes being rehearsed for the tour. He mentions “The Dance of Maya” from the group’s 1971 debut The Inner Mounting Flame, as well as “Eternity’s Breath” and “Lila’s Dance,” both from Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975). The combined skills of The 4th Dimension and Herring’s Invisible Whip will tackle the challenging material. “We’ve got three drummers, and we’ve got three keyboard players,” McLaughlin says. “Ranjit [Barot] sings. And Jason Crosby, one of Jimmy’s keyboard players, plays great violin.”
Because McLaughlin is such a painstaking composer and player, it stands to reason that he would look back on recordings he made decades ago and find fault with certain things here and there. “Of course I see faults,” he admits. “I see big, glaring faults.” But he says those things don’t bother him; he’s confident in the knowledge that he did the best he could at the time. “Of course we all learn as we go along, and retrospectively and with hindsight we always say, ‘oh, we could do it better.’ But I don’t actually think like that; I like them the way they are. And in that sense, relatively speaking, they’re perfect.”
McLaughlin believes that revisiting perceived shortcomings of one’s past work is a waste of time. “I think you’ve got to just enjoy it, or don’t listen to it,” he says. “I think it’s part of every artist’s – if I can use that word – evolution. Sometimes you’ve got to take a step backward to make a step forward.” He believes that all of the music he’s made – with Tony Williams Lifetime, with Miles Davis and even farther back – has made him what he is today. “Without those experiences and without that music, I wouldn’t be the musician I am today, and I wouldn’t be the human being I am today,” he says.
Though the music McLaughlin makes is nominally jazz, throughout his career he’s happily shared bills with artists well outside that sphere. Sometimes the pairings were a bit unusual and unlikely. “We’d go out on the road with Blue Öyster Cult or James Taylor or George Carlin or It’s a Beautiful Day,” he laughs. “I mean completely different. Lifetime played opposite The Who! Shakti played opposite Black Sabbath! But it was a beautiful time, because the whole vibe and the atmosphere was, ‘Let’s discover new music.’”
McLaughlin is filled with gratitude, and considers himself fortunate for the work he’s done with other artists. “All those great players: they, really, are the ones who made me what I am,” he says. “My life is dedicated to music, but I don’t have any story without all of these people around me.”
Though nothing from his historic 1969 studio jam with Jimi Hendrix has ever seen official release (it circulates on bootleg), McLaughlin acknowledges Hendrix as an influence. “Just take ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ that solo piece he did,” he suggests. “Amazing, man, amazing.” He admits that the 1960s drug culture made an impression, too. “Of course we were all tripping on acid in the middle sixties,” he says. “But I quit by 1968 and said, ‘Okay, I got the message, and now I’m going to alternate consciousness through yoga and meditation,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
McLaughlin finds a lot to enjoy in current music; he singles out the genres of drum and bass, jungle and trap for special praise. “There are creative and innovative new forms,” he says. “There’s more happening on the underground with really radical computer guys.” And while he knows of some superb young jazz players, he does worry about the genre’s viability. “I feel bad for the young musician who is just struggling,” McLaughlin says. “They certainly don’t have the money to produce their own recordings. And even if they do, who is going to buy it?
“And this whole conservative world, people don’t listen like they used to,” McLaughlin observes. “You can be in a cafe and a bar and you hear this kind of smooth jazz, funky jazz, cool jazz. And what happens? People talk over it. They don’t listen to it. It’s wallpaper!”
Meanwhile, John McLaughlin’s own music remains ambitious, anything but musical wallpaper. The players with whom he surrounds himself are collaborators, not mere backing musicians. He credits the influence of Miles Davis upon his thinking. “Miles was a great integrator,” he says. “He had the greatest musicians in his band, and there was always this wonderful kind of nice tension between the soloists. You especially hear it on the live albums. But this kind of perspective of ‘I’m going to shred and you guys back me up’ is leaning more towards the pop kind of situation,” he says.” McLaughlin characterizes that approach: “The band is playing, the singer is out in front doing his or her thing, the musicians are backing up, and that’s it. For me, jazz is not like that.”
But McLaughlin’s understanding of jazz isn’t insular; he’s made a career out of drawing from other genres, while maintaining a jazz sensibility. “There are rock influences, R&B influences, Hispanic and Indian influences,” he says. “But the way of jazz is a way of personal freedom; that’s why you dedicate your life to your instrument. In the music we play and the style we play, it’s possible to have this experience of liberation. Not just as individual, but collectively too.”
A subscriber to the idea that music is indivisibly connected to spirituality, McLaughlin has long taken a spiritual approach to music. He believes that concept of liberation as the whole point of making music, but his method is as outward-focused as it is inner-directed. “People say ‘the spirit moves you,’ or ‘the inspiration comes,’” he explains. “One of the musicians gets it, and it infects the band immediately. And the audience, they know.”
His approach to music isn’t exclusionary. “We’re no different from any other,” he emphasizes. “We just play music: that’s all. You cannot fool the audience; they know absolutely what’s going on, even though they’re not always able to put a finger on it. And when music gets to that point, that’s why we live. That’s why we’re born: to try to get it to that point.”
And John McLaughlin clearly remembers the moment when he first experienced that sense of liberation through music. “That happened with [Tony Williams] Lifetime in 1969,” he recalls. “We were at some college somewhere, and it was a magical night. The inspiration came, and I kind of flew that night. It was just a marvelous liberating experience, and I’ll never forget it.”
He readily concedes that such inspiration isn’t something that can be willed into being on demand. “It comes or it doesn’t,” he says. But he believes that The 4th Dimension does what’s needed to provide the right conditions for that inspiration. “Everybody in The 4th Dimension is aware of that necessity to give 100%,” he says. “Otherwise you’re kind of betraying the other guys. And there’s no time for betrayal; we don’t know if we’re going to be around tomorrow, so we’ve got to give it up. And we do.”
Photo by Alessio Belloni.