Legendary guitarist John McLaughlin talks about his last tour

Jimmy Herring and John McLaughlin at soundcheck at the Paul Reed Smith 30th Anniversary Celebrations held at Ram's Head Live, Baltimore. Photo via First Edition Arts.
Jimmy Herring and John McLaughlin at soundcheck at the Paul Reed Smith 30th Anniversary Celebrations held at Ram's Head Live, Baltimore. Photo via First Edition Arts.
Published November 21 2017

As you might imagine, quite a lot of thought goes into planning your final tour ever.

"It’s not a light decision to not tour again, but that really is the situation," said John McLaughlin, the guitarist behind legendary jazz-rock fusion outfit the Mahivishnu Orchestra. "To bring the music of Mahavishnu to life 45 years later, and to play it with a musician such as Jimmy Herring and his band, who have worked so hard to learn so much of that music from the early 1970s, is to my mind the absolute best way I could say goodbye and thank you to my friends in America."

The British McLaughlin, 75, feels he owes this final tour to America, the country that birthed the blues and jazz. He got his start playing with jazz icons Tony Williams and Miles Davis, and the intricate, exacting compositions of his virtuosic New York ensemble Mahavishnu Orchestra earned him disciples like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana.

Among his followers was Herring, a guitarist for Widespread Panic who has also played with the Allman Brothers Band and members of the Grateful Dead. Together they’re packing venues coast to coast — including Ruth Eckerd Hall on Saturday — as McLaughlin says goodbye for good, playing the music of Mahavishnu and simply jamming with Herring.

Before the Clearwater show, McLaughlin answered a few questions about his craft via email.

In reviving songs from the Mahavishnu Orchestra for this tour, how much freedom do you allow yourself and your band to evolve them from their original 1970s versions? Do you let the riffs and improvisations change every night, or do you try to recreate the original versions as best as possible?

From the very beginning, the compositions were written integrating improvisation into them. This is my tradition that I learned from the greatest jazz musicians. Of course, improvisation is still today an integral part, as important at as the composition itself. That said, much water has passed under the bridge since those days, and the improvisers also. Basically, the compositions are intact from those days, though very slight modifications have been made to a couple of tunes to integrate the guitar of Jimmy Herring. Essentially, we are just bringing back to life those tunes from 45 years ago.

Who’s the most exacting, perfectionist performer you ever recorded with (other than yourself)? Can you share a story or memory that explains why?

Without doubt, Miles Davis. Miles is the musical equivalent of a Picasso. Not just one of the greatest jazz musicians ever, but an artist of great stature.

Your further question, "Why?" doesn’t really belong in the world of art. First of all, I discovered Miles and his music in 1958 and became his greatest admirer. Secondly, playing and working with him from early 1969, I discovered another side to his genius: In the studio, he had the gift of bringing out music from his musicians that they didn’t even know they were capable of. I’ve had this experience on a number of occasions, and have witnessed Miles doing this with other musicians. Your terms "exacting and perfectionist" can be construed in different ways. To me, Miles was exacting and a perfectionist in the realization of his art.

You go back many years with Chick Corea, all the way to Miles’ band. How would you describe Chick’s artistry?

Absolutely outstanding! I first heard Chick in 1967 on an album of Montego Joe, and hearing Chick play, I recall clearly thinking, "This guy is amazing, and he’s gotta end up with Miles." Eighteen months later I’m in Miles’ band and Chick is the pianist. Chick and I have collaborated over the past 45, 46 years. I think this is a testimony to our musical relationship.

Jimmy Herring has played with Widespread Panic, the Allman Brothers Band and other jam bands. What have been your impressions of the jam world over the years, from the Grateful Dead to today? What’s the link between your work and theirs?

Curiously, a fairly tenuous link with the bands you mention. You need to know my roots lie in the music of Miles and John Coltrane to mention only two, and the rhythm and blues of the 1960s. In the jams you cite, an analogy can be found in the recordings of Coltrane in particular, where his improvisations could stretch to 25 minutes or so. A much stronger and earlier influence on me was Jimi Hendrix, whose work on the guitar was nothing short of revolutionary. In effect, the "jams" have been around for a long time.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

IF YOU GO

John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen Booth Rd, Clearwater, 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 25. Tickets start at $43.25 at rutheckerdhall.com 

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