Interview by Danny Coleman
“Yeah it sounds a little strange; doesn’t it? Well, number one, you can fight everything but you cannot fight old age; even though I still feel 29 inside,” explained a laughing John McLaughlin as he discussed his latest and last North American tour along with his November 10 show at the NJPAC in Newark, NJ. “Second, only for America will I feature the Mahavishnu material. This is where it all started so I feel that 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? (laughs)”
From his first album, “Extrapolation,” to his most recent, “Live at Ronnie Scotts” and all of the glorious stops in between, this modest man who is one of the most revered and legendary guitarists of all time, takes nothing for granted, appreciates the journey and is legitimately taken aback by the countless honors which have been bestowed upon him and his talent. Grammy Award winner, voted one of the, “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” by Rolling Stone along with several other, “TopGuitarist” awards as well as a plethora of additional hardware in his trophy case serve as stark reminders that his quest for excellence must continue. “I’m very humbled by all of these accolades. I mean incredibly humbled but it’s all relevant really, because at 75 years of age I still learn something every day (laughs).Can I just tell you? I play my guitar everyday 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. Yes, the awards are great but very humbling as well.”
Over the years, he has performed with, taught or worked alongside of some of the greatest guitarists and musicians of all time. John’s ability to cross genres and mix jazz with fusion, funk, progressive rock and more accompanied by his undeniable talent have 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 stated 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 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 with his music and abilities; taking the jazz niche found with Miles and developing 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 Jerry Goodman on violin, Keyboardist Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird and drummer Billy Cobham became the Mahavishnu Orchestra and their mix ofelectrified jazz, rock, progressive chord structures, and Indian influences was new, exciting and drawing crowds in droves. “Mahavishnu was formed and in 1971 it was such a phenomenon; 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, it started in America and I want to bring it back and end it there.”
Alas, much like every fire which starts fast, the dangers of burning out too quickly often exist and the first incarnation of the group lasted only three years. “Failure is easy to deal with but success is difficult,” he 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 anti-social. My band mates 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 reform the band in the ’80’s thinking that music was more powerful than ego but I guess not.”
Speaking with John, 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. Touring does require a rigorous schedule at times and it can become rough and I don’t want something to happen while I’m on stage. That would be a betrayal to my band mates, 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 Meeting of The Spirits Tour,” has been selling out venues in nearly every stop along its way. The November 10 show inside Prudential Hall at the NJPAC 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 with much enthusiasm. “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 drawl inspiration from your art, 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.”
To obtain tickets for any of the upcoming shows or discover more about McLaughlin and his final North American tour, please visit www.johnmclaughlin.com.
Danny Coleman (Danny Coleman is a veteran musician and writer from central New Jersey. He hosts a weekly radio program entitled “Rock On Radio” airing Sunday evenings at 10 p.m. EST on multiple internet radio outlets where he features indie/original bands and solo artists.)