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John McLaughlin's American Farewell Tour with Jimmy Herring

Alan Bryson By

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The greatest of all was the Village Vanguard in New York, when I first entered the Village Vanguard it was to play with Tony Williams—I mean, I heard Coltrane coming off the walls. —John McLaughlin
Nearly five decades have passed since John McLaughlin set foot in America as a relatively unknown musician to join the fusion band Lifetime, with the great drummer Tony Williams and equally great organist Larry Young. Two days later he was in the studio with Miles Davis recording In a Silent Way. The breadth and scope of his musical endeavors in the ensuing decades boggle the mind. It's doubtful we will ever fully know the impact he has had on music in general and the influence he's had on guitarists in particular. Naturally we focus on jazz first, but his influence stretches far beyond jazz to artists few people might suspect. For example, the artist, guitarist, singer/song writer, producer Todd Rundgren was interviewed on the Marc Maron's WTF podcast in 2016 and without prompting shared this:

"So I had a band that I played with, and I continued to make solo records, although most of the touring in that era was with the band (Utopia.) It was this collaborative musical exploration. For us as players, we started to think of ourselves as players, you know you play enough to get kind of good at what you are doing, and there are these gravitational influences that come by, and one of them was Mahavishnu Orchestra. It blew everybody's mind, not just my mind, everybody's mind, we were collectively blown. What those things do is usually to open you up to possibilities you didn't think of, playing in modes you didn't think of before. Creating melodies that don't have the typical cadences that you're used to, and that sort of thing. Creating textures that are hard to pin down in terms of the tonality... They called it jazz fusion or fusion rock, but it was all about having those jazz chops, and after all John McLaughlin was a famous jazz musician, and a lot of the guys he played with had some reputation, but weren't as well known..." At this point Maron interjected a question which changed the subject, but the point is, who would have guessed that John Mclaughlin had such an impact on Todd Rundgren? Hardcore Allman Brothers fans know, and Jaimoe has confirmed, that Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way, and Tony Williams Lifetime !Emergency were among the influential albums that the original Allman Brothers Band had in heavy rotation.

His influence does not appear to be waning with younger guitarists. Last year I interviewed Zayn Mohammed, the winner of the UK TV competition Guitar Star, and after we finished the interview he shared this with me about John McLaughlin: "I realized that my soul and his, we're dancing already somewhere up in the cosmos, and he's the reason that I play fusion. At the age of 3 my father was taking me to see Shakti until the age of 12, so I grew up with John McLaughlin and U Shrinivas as a kind of enigma, and as I've grown up I realize his soul and mine are made from the same tree—that's a huge, huge—it almost sounds arrogant for me to say that, but what I mean is just in our essence, in our soul."

These are emotional times for John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring. This year each of them has lost a number of close personal friends, and of course John is preparing for his final tour of North America—which might also be the end of his touring career. Recently I spoke separately with both of them in order to give AllAboutJazz readers and Talking2Musicicans listeners an inside look into John McLaughlin's Farewell Tour of America. In addition, I also spoke with Souvik Dutta, the founder of the Abstract Logix label, who is acting as agent, director, and manager for the Farewell Tour.

Although the two of them are separated by an ocean, over the past few years John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring have developed a deep and abiding connection. Souvik Dutta modestly called it a case of the stars aligning, but in fact he was nudging both of these stars' obits so that their paths crossed several times. Knowing them both so well, he recognized they were highly compatible. He arranged to have Jimmy open once for John in Boston, and made sure John heard Jimmy's albums: "I've been working with John Jii since 2003, that's pretty much the start of my journey. And with Jimmy, I've seen him perform since 1993 and listened to ARU since 1991... and how strange it is, so many years later I got to meet Jimmy through Jeff Sipe and we started working together from there, and I convinced him to do his solo album Lifeboat."

"Then in 2010 when John was on tour in America, I don't know if he remembers it actually, but at a single gig in Boston, Jimmy and his band opened up for him. During that tour we did the New Universe Festival in Raleigh, NC and he saw Jimmy with Lenny White that night. But it was really the PRS Event (Paul Reed Smith) in 2015 that aligned the stars more favorably for something like this to happen. John Jii agreed to perform the music of Mahavishnu, I know in the past, I don't know if the word is 'resisted' or not, but I know he's shied away from doing that in the past. But I think when he saw Jimmy play and met him personally, I know he was taken aback not only by his musicality but also by his personality. He then found out that Jimmy was also a Mahavishnu fan, and was already covering that music for years with his band... The stars just aligned. Imagine asking John McLaughlin to have another guitarist with him on his farewell tour! So it was entirely John's decision to have Jimmy come onboard."

Jimmy Herring shared this about playing the PRS Anniversary Night with McLaughlin: "This is a trip, because I always viewed John McLaughlin as the supreme musical being. All music is contained in every note that he plays. Music from all cultures. You can hear rock and roll, you can hear Indian classical music, you can hear French jazz, you can hear Miles Davis, you can hear all this in every note he plays. And this is the way I've always envisioned John McLaughlin. John is the master of Indian classical music, the most complicated rhythmic system we know of—it's the deepest, the most complex, and yet the most beautiful."

"Bruce on the other hand is not any of those things, but the thing they have in common with each other is that they both are like a raw nerve, they're both so exposed when they play—they're so true to themselves, so pure. The thing that blew us away when John came out and started playing is that he sounded like Bruce! Not in the notes that he was playing, John has a lot more chops and musical knowledge, but the one thing they have in common with each other is that they are both so pure, and so exposed in a beautiful way, because they're not faking it. The minute John started playing it was so raw, and so real. I hadn't heard John play through an amp in a long time, and he plugged into one of Paul Reed Smith's amps and he cranked it up nice and loud, and it was like, oh my God. All of us just about fell down. It was like all those records that we grew up listening to, there's that sound! And it's right there beside us!"

"Before I came to Atlanta, I was listening to Mahavishnu back in North Carolina, just a complete addict, and I obsessed over everything John did. I followed him through different phases of his entire career, and was struck by how he was able to reinvent himself. Every few albums he would do a drastic turn, and he would be like a different musician, in much the same way as Miles Davis. I remember Belo Horizonte and I was able to see that band play live twice. And the Music Spoken Here record —I was absolutely baffled by his ability to go from Mahavishnu, to Shakti, to anything he wanted, then there was this incredibly cool French twist on the Belo Horizonte sessions—and getting to see them play that live! I never got to see Mahavishnu, I never got to see Miles Davis, or any of the things John had done before that. He came out playing an acoustic gut string guitar as if it were a Les Paul. He didn't seem to have any limits, only now just a completely different format. He would change all the elements around him, and then just be himself. It was mind-blowing, and when he got up on stage at the PRS event it was just surreal."

One of my observations when speaking with Jimmy Herring concerned a couple of similarities he and John McLaughlin share, one is having an older brother who expanded their musical horizons, and the other was that both were happy as sidemen and needed a nudge to form a band and have their name on the marquee. Jimmy astutely noted that the one doing the nudging was a mentor, who was important in their lives: "Yes, and Bruce was my Miles Davis, and he did the same thing with all of us. Like Miles, Bruce didn't want to keep the same band together for twenty years. He wanted to work with new people, get them ready for the major league, but staying tight with them after they left. Always talking on the phone, always playing together whenever the opportunity came up. It's true John and I have those same things in common, the older brothers and the mentor."

For those who might not have heard, Bruce Hampton collapsed on stage during a celebration of his 70th birthday and died shortly thereafter. He was surrounded by his loyal fans and a star studded group of musicians with whom he had been close. He was known for his campy humor and theatrics, so it took a couple of minutes for those present to realize that this was not an act.

Naturally it was a terrible shock for those present. The trauma is still too immediate for Jimmy Herring, so I didn't broach this subject with him. However, when speaking with John McLaughlin there was a natural segue to this incident when he spoke mournfully of all the friends he had lost this year : "But I couldn't imagine myself one year ahead, because a musician's life is precarious. When I think of all the friends I've lost over the years, how about the people we've lost this year. Al Jarreau, Larry Coryell, Allan Holdsworth, but you know (laughs) we're all in the same boat. As they say, we're all on death's row. A little dark humor." Sadly, only a couple of days later I learned from a McLaughlin Tweet that John Abercrombie had died.
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