The Spirit Of Mahavishnu
Legendary Guitarist John McLaughlin Plays a Fond Farewell Thank You Tour

By Lee Valentine Smith

The raw rural blues and hot urban jazz of the '50s, merged with the rise of R&B and the later influx of psychedelic rock culture of the '60s set the stage for a fertile blend of styles. By the early '70s, the propulsive swirl of genres fueled the often maligned and misunderstood styles eventually known as progressive and fusion.
Yes, Genesis, ELP and many other like-minded musos toiled within the hallowed and tightly structured halls of prog. Conversely during the same timeframe, jazz was leaning heavily toward loosely structured improvisational pieces.

Miles Davis and his former drummer Tony Williams were two cornerstones of the edgy, unpredictable sound. But perhaps the definitive and most influential group of the heady fusion movement was the highly influential Mahavishnu Orchestra. Led by former Davis and Williams associate John McLaughlin, the loose-limbed group combined all the crafty guitarist's many influences into one swingin' combo of influences.

Over the years McLaughlin's sound has influenced a number of musicians in jazz, rock and improvisational jam bands. Fast forward to 2017, McLaghlin and Jimmy Herring (Widespread Panic, Aquarium Rescue Unit) are on The Meeting Of The Spirits tour. McLaughlin called from his home in France to discuss his final journey to the States.

It's exciting that you're working with Jimmy Herring on this tour.

How about that, yeah! I'm excited too. I'm always excited to play, but especially for this kind of tour, a farewell, it's great to have Jimmy on board. What a great guitar player and what a lovely man he is. He's got the spirit.

Right, he has a great presence on stage. You both do, actually.

Well that's what you need on stage, otherwise it's just a lot of notes.

How'd you meet?

He recorded a tune by me from the old Mahavishnu days and it was really amazing. I thought, 'Why didn't I record it like that?' He just killed it. We've known each other for quite a while now; we've played together before and I'm just really happy about it. For the show, Jimmy will go on first and then I'll play with my band the 4th Dimension - and these guys just kill me, they can play anything. Then we'll come on for a third set and it'll be all Mahavishnu music from 1971 on. There's a lot of music there.

In 2009 you said you had no plans to stop touring and you continue to grow musically every day. Now a few years later, you're saying farewell. What happened?

Musically, I'll tell you, I've never felt better. That said, I inherited music from my mom but I inherited arthritis from her, too. I'm getting up there now Lee, I can feel it creeping up on me. But I've really been taking care and everything's fine but things can happen. It's just normal, the machine's getting older, but I feel like I'm 29. I'm just another hippie, well an old hippie! But the idea of going on tour and having a "bad hair day," to put it one way, would be catastrophic for me. I'd feel I was betraying everybody including myself. I don't want to put anybody or myself in that position.

But you'll continue to play music, though, right?

I'll be playing until the day I keel over, then that'll be it. But I'm really getting nervous about doing tours so this is it. I don't mean I'll do Asia or Europe sometime. This is it. This is for America.

You'd rather do it in the US and not in your native Europe?

Yes because American music has had such an influence on me. I was 13 years old when I first heard the Mississippi blues and then jazz and R&B, and all this was before rock'n'roll of course. And to play with so many great American musicians over the years including Miles Davis who has been my hero since 1958. When I put the Mahavishnu Orchestra together in '71, it was so embraced by American audiences. It was so unexpected because you put something together and you never know how it'll be received. You just believe in the music and that's it. So I wanted to bring it full circle, I wanted to play that music again in America, especially with somebody like Jimmy who really loves the music. It's the best way I can think of to say thank you to America for the music and the love and affection from all these years. I love America maybe more than some Americans. When I got off the plane at JKF in 1968, it was snowing but I wanted to kiss the ground!

So many European-born musicians appreciate American culture and music, and seem to look at it as the goal of their career to make it here. Even back in the early '50s when the Mississippi Blues had its first big blast, it was due to the initial acceptance in Europe.

It's true. Maybe it's like people who grow up near the Eiffel Tower. They see it everyday, so what. For musicians like me who were influenced by America, it's so significant to be able to actually go and work there. By the time I was 16, I'd heard all the American blues greats and then I got hooked on Miles and that was it for me. When Tony Williams invited me to join his band, for me, as a foreigner, it was beyond my wildest dreams. How lucky can ya get? I've played with the absolute best.

You arrived in America during such an incredible era.

Indeed. It was an amazing period. I was just coming out of the whole psychedelic thing, I was like, 'Ok I get the message.' I started meditating and doing yoga and trying to find altered states of consciousness that didn't involve ingesting certain chemicals, if you know what I mean. And America was coming from the Civil Rights movement and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Vietnam was still going. So much was happening. It was the greatest dream of my life, come true.

The times dictated the melding of styles that became Miles' best stuff and the core of the Mahavishnu catalog as well.

Absolutely. There were so many things going on then and Jimi [Hendrix] took it all a level – no, seven levels higher. I never dug the cool jazz guitar sound, I loved Coltrane and Miles and that passion and their intensity. Cool jazz, even though they were great players, just wasn't enough blood for me. When I started playing with Miles, my musical intensity took a kick-start, like a rocket. Then in 1970, after a gig somewhere, out of the blue he said, 'It's time you formed your own band, John.' That led me to the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

And it still remains one of the best examples of true jazz fusion.

Well coming from my love of the blues and R&B and Miles and Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and of course Jimi, then adding the fact that I was already under the philosophical and music influence of India, that's where it all came from. And I don't think it could have happened at any other time because music is a product of the culture. By 1971, all these contrasting elements became a part of that sound. It blew my mind the way it was received in America. Unbelievable.

Now is a great time to look back on those days - with all of today's culture shocks and society in transition.

I could see it coming and said, 'I'm gonna have to do a farewell tour of this music.' The guys in my band would ask, 'When are we gonna play some of the old tunes?' But I have been just living day to day, like any other artist. I'm listening to what's going on in my head today and it's like, 'Hey let me see what I can do with that.' I tend to forget what's gone down. Let me live today because there's really no tomorrow anyway. But the guys in my band were on my case and now here we are. I'm so thrilled and excited to get to play it all again. Yes, it's my farewell tour but I don't care. I give thanks to God every day and whatever happens, I'm a happy guy.

John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring – The Meeting Of The Spirits Tour plays Symphony Hall November 22 at 7 p.m. For more information, pelase visit atlantasymphony.org.

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