Jeff Perlah writes: When jazz-fusion guitarist John McLaughlin teamed up with trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis in 1969, the results were astonishing. McLaughlin’s technical precision and exotic inventiveness were major components of Davis’s eclectic approach on such albums as In a Silent Way and A Tribute to Jack Johnson.
Eventually, Davis gave McLaughlin some important advice.
“It was actually Miles who said one night after a gig in Massachusetts, ‘It’s time to form your own band,’ which was the biggest surprise of my life,” McLaughlin tells Newsweek. “So I wanted to make that come true for his sake.”
McLaughlin did just that by forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which chartered bold fusion territory with its improvisation-heavy blending of jazz and rock on such albums as The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire.
Before, and after, his work with Mahavishnu, the guitarist recorded a slew of acclaimed solo albums, including My Goal’s Beyond, which blended acoustic and Eastern music, and the dynamic The Heart of Things. And he has collaborated with other revered guitarists, including Carlos Santana on 1972’s Love Devotion Surrender, and Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia on Friday Night in San Francisco (’81) and Passion, Grace & Fire (’83).
But when McLaughlin performs with his current band, the 4th Dimension, on the final U.S. tour of his career, he’ll often be in Mahavishnu Orchestra mode. “I thought it would be very appropriate for me to bring some of my Mahavishnu music,” he says. The Meeting of the Spirits tour, which begins in Buffalo, New York, on November 1, also features guitarist Jimmy Herring, who has been a major figure in the American jam-rock movement for 25 years, and his band. After McLaughlin and Herring each play their sets, the two virtuosos will join forces for an extended jam based on classic Mahavishnu Orchestra material.
When I sat down with McLaughlin for a lengthy conversation about his career, he talked about his jam session with Jimi Hendrix; his work with the group Shakti, which fused acoustic, Indian and jazz music; and his decision in the ’70s to “clean up my act” and start doing yoga and meditation.
It must have been thrilling to perform with Miles Davis on several albums, but also to get his backing when it came to time to form your own band.
Oh, yeah, because he was the most honest man I ever met. You always knew exactly where you were with Miles. So I hung around until I found [violinist] Jerry Goodman. He was in Chicago, playing with a band called the Flock. I loved his playing. I also knew Stéphane Grappelli, but he was in France, and Jean-Luc Ponty, but he was playing with Frank Zappa at the time. Jerry was deep in the blues. He’s got that thing. And Jan Hammer, what an accomplished pianist.
How did you become a member of Miles’s band?
Miles was my hero since I was 15. So to get to play with him was a dream come true. By the end of the ’60s, when I met him, he was looking to move out of this fabulous quintet that he had for 10 years. And he was looking for a guitar player. He wanted to move toward that direction. I just happened to be there. So what Miles wanted from me was my R&B side, my funk side, as opposed to a jazz side.
Late last year, keyboardist Chick Corea celebrated his 75th birthday at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City. And you performed with Chick for a duet show and then for a concert billed as “Return to Forever Meets Mahavishnu.” What was memorable about those gigs?
It was a great pleasure playing the last week of Chick’s birthday bash. There were moments of pure joy. The first night was very special since it was only Chick and me playing standards, and as a consequence, more intimate than with the rhythm section. We’ve played as a duo many times over the past 35 years, but it never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to play with Chick and what a wonderful musician he is.
The following nights with Lenny White and Victor Wooten were marvelous in spite of our visible lack of rehearsal. One of the advantages of playing in a club is that even with bass and drums, the atmosphere remains intimate with the audience. So much so that if we blew the ending of a particular piece, we would redo it to get it right. There were times when we redid the endings three times! However, contrary to what you may think, the audience absolutely loved it. They were witness to musicians making mistakes and then getting it right, and in that atmosphere everything works.
Beginning in November, you’ll be on your farewell U.S. tour. Any plans beyond that?
I’m not gonna stop working in music, but I’ve been touring my entire life. I’ve been on the road since I’m 16. That’s a long time, Jeff. And I have to say, the world has changed, from the way we used to tour in the ’70s, even the ’80s, but then [there was] 9/11 and the new world order, and the invasion of Iraq, and the whole mess that is now the Middle East, the terrorists, the attacks. And to travel as a band around the U.S., the U.S. in particular, is extremely difficult. Maybe I’ll come back, but for the moment, it will be my farewell tour.
You and your band will be touring with Jimmy Herring and his group. That’s quite a show, from a guitar point of view.
I love Jimmy’s playing. He doesn’t stop growing. That’s what I love about him. Even before I met him, I noticed the impact Mahavishnu had had on him. He did a recording of one particular tune, and I heard him play it, and I thought, Dang. Man, if I could’ve played it like that. You know? I’m not kidding. He nailed it. It’s beautiful. Because he took a piece of mine and he brought another dimension to it. How? Because he’s such a great guitar player. Not only that, you gotta have a concept about something like that.
That was the great thing about Miles [Davis] as well. It wasn’t just that he was a great jazz player, a great musician. He discovered new forms. This was a ’60s thing. The new forms. It’s considerable, to me as a musician, to find new forms, new concepts of playing. And this, Miles did, not just once. And Jimmy—he’s got that. So finally Jimmy and I met, and we jammed.
What’s especially significant about playing your final shows in the U.S.?
It was America, in a way, that embraced Mahavishnu first, and I’ve been here [in the U.S.] since 1969. When Mahavishnu came out in ’71, the unbelievable reaction to the band was a real shock to me. It was a shock to everybody. The agents, the record companies, they were telling my manager, “Are you out of your mind? An instrumental band?” But you know, you never can tell … (read more)