British guitarist John McLaughlin will bring his latest — and last — U.S. tour, in which he is playing material by his ’70s and ’80s group, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, to NJPAC in Newark, Nov. 10.
“Yeah, it sounds a little strange, doesn’t it?” he says, with a laugh. “Well, No. 1, you can fight everything but you cannot fight old age — even though I still feel 29 inside.
“Second, only for America will I feature the Mahavishnu material. This is where it all started, so I feel it should end here as well. I’ve got Jimmy Herring opening up, who is a great musician and whom I discovered by watching performances of him doing my material, and I thought ‘Why didn’t I do it like that?’ ” He laughs again.
From his first album, Extrapolation (1969), to his most recent, Live at Ronnie Scott’s, and all of the glorious stops in between, this modest man has been one of the most revered and legendary guitarists of all time. He takes nothing for granted, appreciates the journey and is taken aback by the countless honors that have been bestowed upon him, including a Grammy and a spot on Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list.
“I’m very humbled by all of these accolades,” he says. “I mean, incredibly humbled, but it’s all relative, really, because at 75 years of age I still learn something every day (laughs). Can I just tell you? I play my guitar every day and do so because I want to. Music is infinite. There is always something to learn or attempt, and I consider myself very lucky to have gotten the opportunity to become and be a musician as my life’s work.”
Over the years, he has performed with, taught or worked alongside some of the greatest guitarists and musicians of all time. His ability to cross genres and mix jazz with fusion, funk, progressive rock and more, accompanied by his undeniable talent, has made him a man in demand since he first burst upon the scene courtesy of a chance encounter with the incomparable Miles Davis.
“Miles Davis was my hero,” he said, as if in awe, much like people react when his name gets bandied about. “My most fantastic memory over the years has to be arriving in New York City in January of ’69 and Tony Williams was there and the next day I find myself in a recording studio with Miles Davis, and it was a radical, unexpected baptism by fire. He was my hero and I got to play along with him.
“I’ve worked with some very capable and talented people. I taught John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin) harmony; he and I were in a couple of soul bands together and yes, Jimmy Page and I know each other and I was a couple of years ahead of him so I would show him some things and teach him a little bit. I still speak to him and John; we all get on quite well.”
After making a splash with Davis, McLaughlin began branching out and experimenting. He took the jazz niche found with Miles and developed it into something unlike anyone had ever seen by incorporating various high quality players with diverse backgrounds into a unit that would take the U.S. by storm. The combination of violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird and drummer Billy Cobham became the Mahavishnu Orchestra and their mix of electrified jazz, rock, progressive chord structures and Indian influences was new and exciting, and drew crowds in droves.
“Mahavishnu was formed and in 1971 it was such a phenomenon,” McLaughlin says. “More than I could’ve imagined. This is why I want to feature it on this last tour. I want to bring it full circle.”
The first incarnation of The Mahavishnu Orchestra lasted only three years. “Failure is easy to deal with, but success is difficult,” McLaughlin said with a slight chuckle. “Not sure where I heard that but it’s very much true, or at least it was in our case.
“My biggest regret is the way the first Mahavishnu split apart. It was unbelievable how much success we had, but it was too much, too fast. We all had our way of doing things and mine was to do yoga or meditate after our performances. I was no longer into smoking dope or partying. I’d done that, and because I’d go off and do my own thing, I was construed as antisocial. My bandmates stopped talking to me, and I recall asking them, ‘Why play and make music with me but not talk to me?’ They never really answered me but the music was beautiful and that’s what mattered, I suppose. But I look back and regret that it happened and that I was perceived that way.
“I tried to re-form the band in the ’80s, thinking that music was more powerful than ego. But I guess not.”
Speaking with McLaughlin, one cannot help but realize that he is a class act. Even his reasoning for this, his final North American tour, shows his thoughtfulness and admiration for his fellow musicians.
“I’m not feeling my age but I am getting older, and I’m afraid that something may happen,” he says. “Touring does require a rigorous schedule at times, and it can become rough, and I don’t want something to happen while I’m onstage. That would be a betrayal to my bandmates, my audience and my fans. I’ve seen that happen recently and I don’t want to be that guy.
“I am not retiring. I may take a year off after this and then do gigs here and there, maybe some select festivals and more localized shows.”
The current tour, titled The Meeting of the Spirits, has been selling out venues in nearly every stop along its way. The NJPAC show does have some tickets available, and McLaughlin promises it is going to be great.
“I’m quite excited about this tour, to be telling the truth,” he said. “For the last year I’ve been thinking about the new charts that I’m doing for the Mahavishnu set. I’m re-organizing the score for a now nine-piece band and I look back and thought it was complicated and I wasn’t even on drugs and now it’s even worse (laughs)! I’m so thrilled that Jimmy (Herring) is opening up the sets; he’s so talented. The way it will go is his band first, then my band, the 4th Dimension, and then both bands combined to do the Mahavishnu set.
When one reaches the status of a John McLaughlin — be it musically, athletically, academically or in any field where others imitate, duplicate or draw inspiration from you — sometimes it may be difficult to maintain a healthy perspective.
McLaughlin summed it all up perfectly when he said, “In 1967 I was poor, then I suddenly found myself very wealthy and then poor again. And now I’m comfortable. But one thing I’ve always been is grateful that I am a musician.”
For more about McLaughlin and the tour, visit johnmclaughlin.com.
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