“Last year, I decided to do a ‘farewell’ tour of the States and thought, what to do? The music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra has always been so special to me, and, right from the very start of Mahavishnu back in 1971, the American audiences accepted and embraced this music so enthusiastically. To me, there is no better way to say thank you to America than to celebrate the music of Mahavishnu on this tour.”
This is the 75-year-old guitarist’s first tour of the States in seven years, and is his first extended live presentation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra material from seminal albums such as The Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire, Between Nothingness and Eternity and Visions of the Emerald Beyond.
McLaughlin will be joined on this tour by guitarist Jimmy Herring, who, as a member of Aquarium Rescue Unit, the Allman Brothers Band, the Dead and Widespread Panic, has been at the forefront of the jam band movement for 25 years. Separate sets by Jimmy and his band, the Invisible Whip, and McLaughlin and his band, the 4th Dimension, will be followed by the two bands joining forces for an expansive closing set built from classic Mahavishnu Orchestra material.
McLaughlin spoke to Guitar World from his home in Monaco on the eve of the American tour to discuss the reasons for this new presentation of the revolutionary music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and exactly why this is a farewell tour.
So why are you calling this a farewell tour?
Because I want to avoid being in a position where I will betray myself and betray everybody else by going out there and not performing up to a level that I feel is necessary. That would be something that I would regret to my dying day. You can fight everything except old age. I have been having some issues with arthritis in my hands, but I do have my hands worked on regularly and, right now, I feel great. I will, of course, continue to record and put out new music, and I am not ruling out playing shows into next year and beyond.
This tour has been in the works for over a year and will feature Jimmy Herring, whom I love dearly. The two bands will each play a set and then for the third set, both bands will be onstage—two drummers, two bass players, two or three keyboard players and two guitar players—nine musicians. We will play only the music of Mahavishnu, from Birds of Fire, The Inner Mounting Flame, Visions of the Emerald Beyond, Between Nothingness and Eternity, The Lost Trident Sessions and Apocalypse.
To bring this music back is pure joy for me. The way it was received in 1971 was incredible. I had no idea that there would be this kind of reaction and…not success, but that the music would be taken to heart by the majority of these audiences. I had no idea what was going to happen with that band. You don’t form a band with the knowledge that it will be a success, certainly not with instrumental music. You never know what is going to work and what isn’t. Because of the unbelievable reaction, and the undying interest in this music throughout the years, I have always wanted to revisit it in a tour of the U.S.
Why do you think the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra resonated so much with American audiences?
I can’t tell you for sure, but what I can say is that American music has had a very powerful impact on me, going back to when I was 12 years old. It shaped my musical and my personal life.
What I hear people call jazz today, people chat over it. That’s not jazz music! Jazz is supposed to take you to a different world, into the world of the players, with the intensity and the passion of it. That’s how I grew up, and that’s what is real to me. Not smooth jazz or funky jazz that’s played in a bistro and people drink cappuccino over it! That doesn’t work for me.
On your new album, Live at Ronnie Scott’s, there are four tunes from the Mahavishnu canon: “Meeting of the Spirits,” “Miles Beyond,” “Sanctuary” and “Vital Transformation.” What is it about these specific tunes that make them the perfect representation of the sound of the Mahavishnu Orchestra?
There is something iconic about the song “Meeting of the Spirits” and about the title. In a way, every meeting is a meeting of the spirits, isn’t it? If it’s a meeting, it means there is more than one. The wonderful game of life, the whole fantastic theater of life, is that we meet each other—we meet the other—and this is fascinating to me.
The “meeting of the spirits” is when you feel something that is akin to you; you feel, in that other person, that you have known them before somehow, mysteriously. There is something invisible but you can feel the connection. And these are the great meetings. It doesn’t happen with everybody and it’s not supposed to happen with everybody. It depends on the degree of each person’s perception. I have found that people with a deeply developed sense of perception—or alternative views of the world, the universe, whatever you want to call it—I can have a “meeting,” a meeting of the minds and of the spirits.
Some people are interested in more superficial interactions, but that is fine too. Don’t get me wrong—this is not a criticism of anyone. Throughout the whole of life, the mysterious way that we meet people remains fascinating. Like, how did I end up in America, which had been an unthinkable dream for me? To end up playing with Miles Davis…it was the impossible dream coming true. Meeting people with whom you end up having a deep connection is one of the greatest pleasures of life.
One of the most powerful things that I remember about seeing the Mahavishnu Orchestra back in 1972 was the duet between you and Billy Cobham on “Noonward Race,” which has its origins in the song “Right Off,” from the Miles Davis album A Tribute to Jack Johnson.
The Jack Johnson session is where I first met Billy. The album is mainly just a jam, and it’s the one album that Miles didn’t direct. He didn’t have any music prepared for this session. After 20 minutes of waiting to begin recording, I just started playing something I’d been thinking of that eventually became part of a Mahavishnu tune, as you so rightly pointed out. I just started playing some R&B, which is the first thing you hear on “Right Off,” the opening tune. Billy kicked in, and bassist Michael Henderson kicked in, and we hit a groove and Miles ran into the studio, with the red [recording] light already on, and we went on to play the most amazing stuff I’d ever heard him play for the next 15 minutes. Jack Johnson is unique in that sense.
You were both perfectly suited to one another, in terms of the intensity with which you played and the sound, and “Noonward Race” is a good example. Another perfect example is one of the tracks you include on Ronnie Scott’s, “Vital Transformation.”
Yes, true. The thing is, by the time the other guys came in—Jerry [Goodman], Jan [Hammer] and Rick [Laird], all they had to do was to bounce off me and Billy. By then, we’d done some serious playing together, just the two of us. Our first gigs were in July of ’71 at [New York City’s] Gaslight and the Café au Go Go opposite John Lee Hooker, which was a trip! Billy and I would do a lot of duets on the gigs; the other guys would say, “Go ahead!”
One of the primary things that made Mahavishnu connect with so many people was the sound of your guitar—you were playing through Marshall stacks with distortion and with an intensity that had, at the time, been so closely associated with Jimi Hendrix, but the music itself had other elements in it, such as jazz harmony, polytonality and unusual time signatures. It was challenging music in so many ways.
Yes, challenging to the listener! [laughs] And, mysteriously, it did appeal to so many listeners across the globe. You mentioned Jimi, and I have to say that the very first guitar players I fell in love with were Mississippi blues players like Muddy Waters, Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Robert Johnson. I had been playing classical piano at the time, but when the guitar arrived in my hands, I stopped everything else. I fell in love with it, and I am still in love with it today. American music, starting with Mississippi Delta blues, just killed me, and I began playing it on the guitar.
From that, I moved into jazz, but what always bothered me was that Miles didn’t have a guitar player! Why?! Coltrane didn’t have a guitar player. Why not—where are they? There were great guitar players at the time, and I have great respect for all of them, but they had kind of a “cool” tone, almost like a nylon string guitar. I wanted intensity—I wanted blood on the floor!
When I heard Eric Clapton for the first time, the sound and intensity was in line with what I was thinking about. I got to know Eric in ’62, ’63, and after that when he was playing with John Mayall. I loved the way he was playing. He had the sound. I was playing with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, and after I left, Mitch Mitchell played drums with Georgie till he left to join Hendrix. I left Georgie Fame in ’63 to play in the Graham Bond Organization, which included Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker of Cream.
The music of the Graham Bond Organization was pretty twisted, with lots of unusual influences.
That’s true, but Alexis Korner, who I also played with at that time, was even more twisted! He was the godfather of bringing jazz and blues players together in London. Everybody ended up in Alexis’ band, including me, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Cyril Davies and many others. I initially met Mitch through the Georgie Fame connection, and by the time I was playing with Tony Williams in 1969, Mitch was with Jimi, and he loved Tony. Mitch loved Elvin too, and when he joined the Experience, he really brought the jazz element, the “Elvin” thing, into the band.
Mitch idolized Tony—every time he was in town with Jimi, he’d come and see us play. In ’69, we were playing a club in the East Village called Slugs, the kind of place where you paid your dues. Four one-hour sets a night. We alternated between Slugs and the Vanguard, often on the bill with Herbie Hancock’s Octet. Miles would come down and listen to us there. Mitch came to see us everywhere. One of those nights at the Vanguard, Mitch said, “We are recording at the Record Plant; let’s go over there and I’ll introduce you to Jimi.” And that’s where I met Jimi for the first time.
Was Hendrix an influence for you as a guitar player?
Absolutely. Jimi really turned the world upside down with his playing; he turned the guitar world on its ear, as we all know. He had the sound and the intensity, and, to me, he was trying to do what Coltrane was doing. If you never hear anything else, listen to Jimi’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” because what Jimi did is a work of art. It’s just stupendous, it’s phenomenal. Jimi was a phenomenon. I had been mostly influenced by saxophone players, such as Miles, Trane, Cannonball Adderley, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. Then I heard Eric and Jimi, and they were blazing new, exciting trails. Jimi, in particular, really got to me. Jimi impacted on every guitar player—the electric guitar would not be what it is today without Jimi.