"The first time I heard Jimmy Herring, he was playing one of my tunes, and he played it more beautifully than me," recalls John McLaughlin, whose joint tour with Herring, "Meeting of the Spirits," kicks off in Buffalo on Nov. 1 at University at Buffalo Center for the Arts.
McLaughlin, widely considered one of the finest guitarists to emerge from the fertile musical ground of the late '60s, is jazz royalty, having worked with Miles Davis, Tony Williams Lifetime, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. But it's as the leader of his own Mahavishnu Orchestra – the world's first arena-filling heavy jazz and progressive music super-group – that McLaughlin found a conduit to the sort of mass audience that eludes most musicians who have achieved his level of sophistication.
Mahavishnu changed music, bringing the harmonic agility of jazz to bear on intense compositions and virtuosic improvisational interplay, all of it delivered with the volume and intensity of rock. The band's "The Inner Mounting Flame" and "Birds of Fire" are rightly touted as two of the finest albums to be released in the '70s, in any genre.
McLaughlin, 75, planned "Meeting of the Spirits" as his final U.S. tour, and to mark the occasion, he is revisiting the Mahavishnu material in a large-scale manner, for the first time in many years. "It's nice to start this final tour in Buffalo, because I remember some very fiery shows with Mahavishnu there way back when, so this is bringing things full circle," he said, referring to legendary M.O. shows held at the old Century Theatre in 1973 and '74, which have been widely bootlegged for decades.
For the Buffalo show, McLaughlin said he and his band will be doing a set, Herring – revered for his groundbreaking work with the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Widespread Panic and Jazz Is Dead - will do the same, and then the two guitarists will join together for a set of Mahavishnu Orchestra classics.
I spoke to McLaughlin by phone from his home on the French Riviera recently about Mahavishnu, Miles, his 50 years in the music business, and why music still matters.
Question: As you're preparing to take the Mahavishnu material on the road for the final time, I'm wondering how it has aged for you, and why you think it continues to resonate with so many listeners?
Answer: I don’t know why that music hit such a chord in people's minds and hearts, but it did, and I'm grateful. I suppose it had something to do with the age. It was such a prolific time for me, and there was so much music in the air. From listening to Miles and Coltrane, we learned about intensity, because playing with them, the music was intense and loud. We learned to leave blood on the stage, every night. Miles brought big-band dynamics to a small group. We took that idea, added the influence of Jimi Hendrix, and that became the core of Mahvishnu. People responded to it immediately.
Q: When you first came to the U.S. to play with Tony Williams, almost immediately, you were playing with Miles Davis and involved in making music that would truly change the world. Were you aware of the significance of that music at the time you were making it?
A: I arrived in the U.S. at the perfect time, in 1969, and I had a lot of music going on in my head. Playing with Tony Williams, who was a mentor to me, led to playing with Miles, and Miles became my guru. I was a disciple of his. Playing with him gave a serious boost to my evolution.
Tony encouraged me to write music, and when I was playing with Miles, all the funk and R&B that I'd played just to survive in England happened to fit in with the way he was moving at the time. I remember, in October of '70, I was chatting with Miles after a gig, and he said (adopts Miles-like gravelly voice) "John, you have to form your own band, man.' That planted the seed, and then while I was in the studio with Miles working on the "Jack Johnson" record, I met (future Mahavishnu drummer) Billy Cobham on the session. I remember, after about 20 minutes of jamming, I grew a little bit bored and started improvising this figure that ended up being the genesis of the Mahavishnu tune "Dance of Maya."
I suppose, at the time, we knew that the music was special and spirited, but did we know that it would be so influential? Probably not. We were concentrating on letting the music speak through us, and to do that, you have to learn to get out of the way, and to inhabit the moment.
Q: Musicians realize that the deeper we get into the music, the less we really know, and the more we feel like eternal beginners. Have you felt this, and is this part of what motivates you to keep searching, as a musician?
A: It never ends, Jeff. Never. I have to play every day in order to maintain what I have. The upside is that every day I learn something new. Sometimes I feel like a three-legged donkey, but then other times, I feel like a dolphin gliding effortlessly through the water. The thing about improvisation in music is, you have access to this experience of individual liberation, and what we really practice when we are practicing is the ability to get out of the way of the spirit.
Q: I've been lucky enough to find myself around some truly talented young musicians lately, kids who seem open, dedicated and aware. This made me feel that the future of jazz might be in good hands after all. Do you agree?
A: Well, there absolutely are so many stunning young players around, and that is incredibly inspiring to see. Right now, with jazz and improvisational music – or with any music, really – it's rough. No record company will give a young jazz artist a contract, and it is very, very difficult to make a good living. But musicians are a global family, of course, and it's a great, great privilege to be a musician. You get ripped off, you get abused, but god – what a marvelous gift it is, to be a musician.
Q: Do you continue to believe that music has the power to transform lives, and thereby, change the world?
A: Absolutely. Here's an example – for the past nine years, I've been going to Palestine, because my wife and I are involved in a non-governmental agency that provides music therapy for troubled young people. Music heals. There is no question. I've witnessed music's power to transform people who feel very little hope, who feel beaten down by the darkness all around them. I've witnessed resilience in the face of the worst horrors, and music has helped to foster that resilience. I'm an old hippie, Jeff, and I truly believe that if you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem. If we don’t help each other, we have no hope of a positive future. This is one of the many things that music has taught me. Even with so much darkness all around us, music offers an unbeatable optimism.
John McLaughlin & Jimmy Herring: Meeting of the Spirits
7:30 p.m. Nov. 1 at UB Center for the Arts (UB North Campus, Amherst.) Tickets are $51.50 to $61.50 (box office, Ticketfly). Visit ubcfa.org.