Like the joy and fast-paced enthusiasm conveyed on his classic tune “The Noonward Race,” guitar legend John McLaughlin is fully energized by several musical happenings on the horizon. There’s his new live album with current band, the 4th Dimension (Live @ Ronnie Scott’s); there’s his diving head first – or rather “hands first” – back into his beloved Mahavishnu Orchestra discography for forthcoming shows with jam master Jimmy Herring; and there’s his forthcoming “farewell” tour of America with Herring starting in November.
Recently, McLaughlin reached out to Elmore’s Ira Kantor from the South of France to wax poetic about his mentor, Ronnie Scott, his joy in rediscovering his classic Mahavishnu catalogue, how Herring compares to other guitar maestros he’s performed with over a 50-year career, and why his upcoming tour dates had to take place in the states (“I couldn’t think of a better way to do it, frankly!” he says):
ELMORE: Your last live album was recorded at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston; what is the significance for you in choosing Ronnie Scott’s as the setting for your latest live album?
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: I have a long history with Ronnie – we’re going back to the Sixties now. Ronnie’s was it for British jazz musicians. Ronnie Scott’s was it because it was a great club and Ronnie himself – whom I had the pleasure of knowing – he got the big American stars in there; Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
In the early-Sixties the Mike Carr Trio was really king. I spent a lot of my time playing R&B and jazz with the Mike Carr Trio. That’s what I was doing. There were two house bands – we were kind of the warm-up band with the Mike Carr trio, and then the classical rhythm section – piano, bass, drums for the guest artists to play with.
Ronnie himself was genius. At the beginning of the Sixties, he had the very first Ronnie’s in London which was on a little street in Soho – basement club. When they moved down to the bigger place where they still are today, he kept that little club open so young musicians would have a place to play. In those days forget about making a record. It was so nice just to be able to have that place where we can make new formations and stuff like that.
The last thing I want to say is that I have really a personal debt to Ronnie in so far as when I got the call from Tony Williams in ’68 – it’d be around October or November ’68 – and he told me he was planning to quit Miles [Davis] and play in a trio and he wanted me to join him, getting through to the U.S. in those days was almost as difficult as it is today (laughs). It’s even worse today. But Ronnie was instrumental in making sure I got my visa and just everything ship-shape. I mean I have a really big debt to him. He had great affection for young musicians; he took care of them as much as possible. What a great guy.
So, of course, all these years later I’m coming up to my goodbye tour of America and we had a northern European tour in the spring this year and one of the gigs was in London and I got to tell my agent, I said, “Listen, I want to play Ronnie’s;” I want to record and I’ll do two nights there. That’s what we did and I’m really happy. In a way it’s kind of a “thank you, Ronnie.” You can see it as kind of a homage after all these years.
E: I’ve noticed this live album boasts several classic Mahavishnu Orchestra tracks; why now are you injecting more Mahavishnu songs into sets with the 4th Dimension?
JMcL:: Basically, there are two principal reasons for that. First of all, already last year the guys in the band asked me, “Why don’t we play some of the Mahavishnu tunes?” They grew up with Mahavishnu too and were influenced by that band and its music. Generally, my occasional trips into “You Know You Know” or bringing in those kinds of allusions to some of those tunes – I never really considered it because there’s so much going on in my head every day; new music coming in. So, yesterday’s gone in a way. That request from the guys in the band was one thing and already at the end of last year I could see what was going on with my hands and I wanted to do a tour of America.
I arrived in January ’69, I think, and by two years later I had put the first Mahavishnu together. Little did I expect such a kind of embrace of that band and that music from American people. It was phenomenal really – absolutely unexpected, Ira. And it was wonderful, frankly, because there was such a passion for people to get into this music and they still are [passionate] today. For me, as a farewell tour, I want to bring that music back as a way to say thank you, frankly, to America and for everything that America has done for me personally. I was already listening to the Mississippi delta blues at 12 years old, 13 years old, trying to imitate those players, then went into jazz and all the rest. So, America and its culture and its musicians have been just such an influence on my life and it’s really just a thank you because it’s the only tour I’m doing. It’s the only farewell tour I wanted to do was in the U.S. It’s just a thank you for the fabulous years and let’s bring that Mahavishnu music back because already the guys in the band were busting my chops saying, “When are we going to play some Mahavishnu music?”
I’ve known Jimmy [Herring] for some time now and Jimmy – what a guitar player and what a fan of Mahavishnu music he is! In fact, I got introduced to him through a recording somebody sent me of him playing one of my tunes. I heard it and went, “Gee I wish I’d have played it like that all these years ago.” But of course, I was doing the best I can all that time. But he’s amazing at how he took that piece and played it and just killed it. It was wonderful.
During the final version of Mahavishnu Orchestra before I took up with Shakti in 1975, I did a long tour with Jeff Beck who is one of my all-time favorite people and guitar players and we had two bands. What we did was we’d each do a set and then come out at the third set with two bass players, two guitar players, two drummers, two keyboard players and we just had a ball. And so I suggested this idea to Jimmy. There will be Mahavishnu music in my set; there will be some in his set, but when we come together for the third set, it’s all Mahavishnu music. I’m really excited about it because, of course, the past few months I’ve been diving back into that music with the scores and doing some slight rearrangements. We’re both very excited about the possibilities because as you hear the songs on the live album, it’s wonderful for me to go back in time and bring them up to date.
E: Why are you calling your America tour a “farewell” tour? What does the future hold for you?
JMcL:: I’ve already told my agent that I’m not going to take any tours next year. I inherited arthritis from my mother … and so it’s been with me for two-and-a-half years now, at least, a little more. Musically, I’ve never felt better but for next year if I commit to tour, that’s a big responsibility, Ira. If I’m in the middle of a tour and I can see how it’s kind of slowly, slowly coming – if I were to be in the middle of the tour and not able to play 100 percent I think this would be a personal disaster for me and I think also for the guys in the band. I would feel like a traitor. The audience pays their hard-earned money to come out and see a concert. When I go to a concert I don’t want to see a guy going “Oh, I’m awfully sorry I have a headache,” you know what I’m saying?
I will continue to take gigs. I’ve already taken a couple but I’m nervous about the tour and just having “a bad headache” and just being kind of stuck and everybody gets stuck with me. This for me is a catastrophe, it really is. I don’t want to put anyone in that position.
I’ll keep playing; I’m not going to stop. The day I stop is the day I’m going to keel over, Ira. This is actually a very positive thing, this realization. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed for me but it’s not guaranteed for anyone. The band – the 4th Dimension – they’re all aware of it. When we go on the stage for a concert; we’ve gone thinking maybe it’s the last one so let’s give 110 percent. Jimmy’s like that too.
E: You’ve toured and recorded with an array of legendary guitar players over the years; describe the synergy at work between you and Jimmy Herring.
JMcL:: We jammed already, we played together and it felt really special. He’s a very special musician and he’s a very beautiful person too. Who knows what it is? It’s hard to put a name to something when you meet somebody whether they are a musician or not. You have an affinity for them or there’s an affinity between those people and I don’t know the logical explanation about that. I mean I can say he’s a lovely man, a marvelous player. I mean I really admire his playing.
That thing that we called affinity; I’ve had it with a number of musicians over the years. Lord knows I’ve had quite a few bands with marvelous players but I think something happens between Jimmy and me that defies definition or name, if I can put it like that. It’s a spirit thing. You look at each other and you know the guy is there and aware and listening. I’m giving you logical tags to what I don’t have a word for – for what we call affinity or the spirit or whatever. But he’s wonderful and the idea of playing guitar with him is because I love guitar; that’s my instrument and I love the way he plays. The only other time that I really had that affinity was when back in the 1970s when I was touring with Jeff [Beck]. Jeff is beautiful and Jimmy, he’s like another Jeff in a way, if that makes sense.
E: Any other thoughts or reflections before I let you go?
JMcL:: The idea of this tour is so lovely to me – the music and excitement and fun we’ll have! In a sense I can be more myself. I think it’s truly a meeting of the spirits because the spirit is there. That’s the thing, spirit is just a word but the meaning of that – what I was trying to describe before – when you have life and spirit together playing music, things can happen that are so unexpected and can be so beautiful. I know that’s going to happen, which is why, to me, I couldn’t think of a better way to say goodbye. I really couldn’t.