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John McLaughlin's American Farewell Tour with Jimmy Herring

Alan Bryson By

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His thoughts about Bruce Hampton's death: "Jimmy and I have become quite close over the past few years, especially after we're now planning to tour together. His agent (Souvik Dutta) and I work together, and he was there, so I heard about it within hours. For me it is an ideal way to go, but for the fans it is dramatic—I don't know, it would upset me to have seen that. To witness the loss of a friend, you know. But from his point of view I think it was perfect, there couldn't be a better moment in one sense, could there? But from the point of view of the musicians around him, I know they thought he was goofing around, it was like 'Okay, Bruce' and then there's the shock and horror that kicks in, and that's rough when your friend dies in front of you. But he's (Bruce) there looking down and thinking wow man, what a way to go. For me yes, but to witness it, I don't know, I think it would be painful."

Generally artists are eager to talk about their latest recording, so I fully expected the conversation to revolve around his soon to be released live recording at Ronnie Scott's. Especially since it wonderfully captures him completely on top of his game, with a band that is tighter than stretch pants at an all-you-can-eat buffet. However, the implications of his upcoming farewell tour and the loss of so many of his close friends have understandably pulled on his heartstrings. As a result, my lead question about Ronnie Scott triggered a flood of memories, and my interview plans quickly flew out the window. Instead, I had the fascinating experience of listening John McLaughlin vividly reliving a flood of powerful memories.

He was speaking about how great Ronnie Scott's was, and then he continued: "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. I know it sounds ridiculous, but you know I grew up with that—Sunday Afternoon at the Village Vanguard with the Bill Evans Trio. Everybody played there, everybody!"

"Ronnie Scott's was not quite to the extent of that, but there was a great vibe at Ronnie's, largely due to him. He announced everybody, and he had such a droll sense of humor. (Laughing) If he didn't like one of the musicians he'd let everybody know. I'll never forget, he had a thing with Stan Getz, he didn't like Stan Getz. Stan Getz was a marvelous saxophonist, we've gotta tell it like it is, I've been a fan of Stan Getz since the 60s. But he was (laughing) very demanding to Ronnie. I remember one night he came on stage and said (imitating Ronnie Scott) 'Oh man I've got such a sore back from bending over backwards for Stan Getz!' "

To give him another chance to plug is live recording, I asked him if he saw Wes Montgomery at Ronnie Scott's when he was there recording an album in 1965: "Oh yeah, Wes was there all the time. I never met him, I was one of the young kids around, but of course I saw him and heard him play, because he was a great guitarist. He was very well known, he was a guitarist and he kept coming back to Ronnie's. Actually he was on his way to Ronnie's when he passed away, that was tragic. He had some kind of malady, illness, and he had the wrong medication or something and he died on the plane coming over. He was going to do another week or two weeks at Ronnie's."

Then came a great memory of playing with Rahsaan Roland Kirk: "Here's a nice little anecdote, Rahsaan was there (Ronnie's) and there were two bands. The band that I was with was a Hammond Organ Trio with Mike Carr, a British organ player, and you know that Hammond organ trio—in the 60s you had a lot of great trios: Jimmy McGriff, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Jimmy Smith of course, Brother Jack McDuff, a lot of Hammond organ, guitar, and drums. It was more of a R&B funky jazz, it was swinging, don't get me wrong, because I love the Hammond organ, you know, playing with Tony Williams and the great Larry Young. In any event, we were playing a more R&B jazz. And Rahsaan would be playing with the regular trio with the classical chang chang a lang, and Rahsaan was supposed to play with them after us. But one night he comes over and says, (imitating Rahsaan) 'Man I gotta play with you guys.' So the next night he came in early, and he sat in with us, to the great surprise of Ronnie because he had to play a set afterwards. But what a thrill that was for me. A one point I had my solo and he's standing behind me, and he's playing the three horns, and he sounds like a one man big band. Wonderful, wonderful."

Earlier I had asked him about Bill Evans because I so love John's tribute album to him. He remembered the question and fortunately tied it in quite nicely to his lucky break with Tony Williams: "In fact, you mentioned Bill Evans, that's really how I got the gig with Tony Williams, because Jack DeJohnette was playing with Eddie Gomez. Dave Holland was in the other house band, and I was staying with Dave because I was living in Belgium at the time playing with a kind of free jazz group. But every time I came back to London I was playing with Dave, and Jack loved to jam, and he said to Dave, 'Hey man let's jam tomorrow.' So Dave told me, we're going to jam tomorrow with Jack at Ronnie's in the afternoon. And Jack had one of these Mission Impossible tape recorders, (laughing) 1968—not the ones that explode. And he recorded the jam. And two months later when Tony was talking to Jack back in New York saying that he wanted to leave Miles and get a Hammond organ trio, but he was looking for a guitarist. So Jack told him, 'Listen, I taped this guy when I was in London.' And I got the call when Tony heard the tape. Luck right, being in the right place at the right time."

In order to give him another chance to plug the album I asked him to imagine, if I could somehow go back in time and play his latest album for the John McLaughlin of 1971, how did he think the young John would react? However, the question evoked memories of just how hard life had been as a struggling musician, and how strong his affection for Miles Davis has remained: "It was difficult just getting by really. The only time I got by financially was when I spent 18 months in the studios. At that time there was this big boom going on with recording, and there were all these American artists coming to Britain to record, and for the first time I had some money in my pocket. After 18 months I was dying Alan, it was terrible. I got to play with some nice people. I got to meet Mick Jagger, I did some things with the Stones, I used to do Donovan's records, I used to do Tom Jones records, but (laughing) I did a lot of schlager tunes you know! After 18 months I quit and I became poor and happy."

"It was touch and go for the first couple of years. Tony, Larry, and I were playing clubs making $20 a night. It was actually thanks to Miles that I got by. You know Miles took me under his wing right after In a Silent Way, which was two days after I arrived in America. He used to ask me over to his house, because he was really interested in having a guitarist in his band. When he would see me, every time he would say, 'Are you eating okay?' And he'd stuff a $100 bill in my pocket. Every time, I mean, what a genial man he was. So it was really thanks to Miles that I got by. And of course when I would do record sessions he would just pay me in cash, and he's say, take care of yourself, make sure you eat, pay your rent. When I think about it, it was wonderful really. It was about at the end of 1970, and I was with Miles at a club called Lenny's On the Turnpike. And he turned around and said, it's time you formed your own band—which was the last thing on my mind."

"But because he said it, I kind of had to justify his belief in me, and that was before the beginning of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But I was in a very lucky situation, because with Miles he wanted that R&B thing. And that's what I'd been doing, R&B and funk in the 60s, just to survive, and he wanted all of that stuff—which is what happened with Bitches Brew, he was moving out of that kind of classical 60s thing—in a way he had got to the end of it, he's done such a perfect distillation of that classical quintet he'd been running for ten years."

"But with Tony, whom I loved and I miss dearly, such an amazing musician and a drummer —he constantly encouraged me to write music, which was wonderful for me. In fact, the majority of the first Mahavishnu music I had prepared when I was with Lifetime, and I'd run ideas by Tony, and we did, in a way, preproduction versions of those tunes while I was in Lifetime. I got really lucky from both sides in so far as Miles wanted one side of me and Tony wanted another. But economically nothing really happened for me until Mahavishnu came out, and it went ballistic didn't it?!"
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