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John McLaughlin's American Farewell Tour with Jimmy Herring

Alan Bryson By

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Of course I asked each of them about the other. Here is Jimmy Herring on John McLaughlin as a person: "He's unbelievably generous and he's really gregarious, and he's so comfortable in his own skin. He's incredibly fun to talk to, and of course he is an idol to me, and it is hard to dodge that. You know, I never imagined I would meet John McLaughlin, much less play with him, he was always going to be that guy to me who was up on that pedestal, and he still is of course. Believe me, you couldn't find a better role model. The discipline and the Zen. Look at his career, it makes me feel lazy when I look at everything he's done. My discovery of John was in the Mahavishnu period, but that had already happened. He'd moved on, that had happened in the early 70s and this was in the late 70s. He wore all white, and he was Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, a supreme being who dedicated his life to beauty, passion and music. And he did everything for the right reasons, and drugs were not a part of the equation. He was on a spiritual plane, and he was high on life. There was a mystique surrounding it. It was before the Facebook age—I'm sorry, but I just love that period. You'd hear the spirituality just pouring out of him, and it was so intriguing and mystical, and you could hear in every note that he played—it was sacred. That image of him is still with me, so when I met him, I had no idea what he was going to sound like when he spoke. So when he spoke I was baffled, because he's British, but he doesn't sound British, and I find that fascinating."

When asked about Mclaughlin's rhythm: "He's like a drummer on the guitar. It becomes clear the more you listen to him, that rhythm and melody are equals parts of his being. Rhythmically I would consider myself just a "B" you know, just a fledgling. I've played with a lot of people who are deep into rhythm, but I've never gone all the way in. Another reason why I said I felt lazy before. Have you seen the Gateway to Rhythm DVD that he did? He lays out his rhythmic concepts on a silver platter for anyone who is interested. Obviously he absorbed Indian classical music and it's gone through his filters, and he's done his thing within those parameters. It's mind-blowing."

I hardly got a chance to ask John McLaughlin about Jimmy Herring, but just as his wife told him his next interview was waiting I asked him about Jimmy's version of his song "Hope." Impassioned he responded: "Did you hear the solo he played on that? I heard that solo and I said, holy shit! (Laughing) Why couldn't I play that! I called him up right away, and I said you just nailed it Jimmy, you nailed it. He played that song like it's his, he made it his. It's unbelievable, and what he did so endeared him to me, I really felt like he was family. He'd taken that piece of music that I wrote all those years ago and he turned it into something magnificent and then he soloed on it—I mean, like to die for, amazing."

I mentioned it was a shame George Harrrison didn't have a chance to hear Jimmy's version of his song, "Within You Without You": "I wrote to him last week and I asked are you going to play "Within You Without You," and he said, oh man, you know I haven't done it in a long time. (Laughing) Maybe I've got to brush it up. But you know, it's amazing, amazing. A little bit like Jeff (Beck) doing "A Day in the Life." And Jimmy's got that thing, and that tune, he does the perfect George arrangement—you know with the strings (sings) da da di da, da da di da. I'm really excited that we're going to be playing together."

Just as Ronnie Scott had evoked a flood of memories for John McLaughlin, asking Jimmy Herring to explain Bruce Hampton to someone who's never heard of him, caused a similar flood of memories: "His true genius was in giving musicians an outlet to discover their own voice. He never told you what to play, he didn't work that way. He might make you listen to music you've never heard before that he loves. When I got with him it was all about Howlin' Wolf and Bobby Blue Bland, and also he loved bluegrass, he loved Bill Monroe and all this classic stuff. He loved Ornette Coleman, he loved Cecil Taylor, he loved anything real, and people who didn't just practice on stage."

"That was one of his pet peeves, he didn't want to hear you practice on stage. It's hard to explain his genius to someone, I guess I would take someone they know, like if they know Miles Davis, Frank Zappa or John Coltrane. Miles Davis is a good person to look at, because he was constantly searching, and he was open to everything, and he recreated himself more times than anyone can count... So we view Bruce as a father figure to a lot of young musicians who could bring things out of them they didn't know was in them. We viewed Bruce kind of like an Alabama football coach version of Miles Davis."

"You know, he was Southern, and being around him was infectious—there was a lot of laughter, great stories, but there was never any academic music talk. He was an intellectual, but he didn't feel that music was the place for that. He saw music as a more primal thing that was not something to be studied. He wasn't against it, but his thing was helping you to find your true essence. He would give you an outlet, and if you played long enough with him, you would stop sounding like your heroes."

"When I first got with him I was totally into Steve Morse of the Dixie Dregs, John McLaughlin, Scott Henderson, and I was just starting to get deep into the horn players—Michael Brecker, and of course John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Charlie Parker. I was just starting to learn about phrasing. You know, guitar players don't have to take a breath, but horn players do, and I was starting to become enamored with that and the way they phrase. Bruce was great because he'd say, you need to stop listening to guitar players. I did for a while and he was right, and I knew he was right. I'd been so influenced by the guitar players I mentioned and also John Scofield. Bruce turned me on to horn players who were playing from the other side of the brain."

"I can remember people on the Atlanta music scene saying to me, what are you doing playing with that guy! People who were concerned about me going down the wrong path. You know what it is, it's like John Gilmore in Sun Ra's Orchestra. I remember a video of him being interviewed and they are asking him, what makes you stay with Sun Ra, and he said, 'Well, one day I just heard it, and after I heard it, I just couldn't go back.' That's what it was like playing with Bruce... He wanted you to get out of your own way, where it's not 'you' doing it. But he warned us that freedom can be a prison, and that was one of the heaviest things he ever said to me."

"When you're living it, and you're on the road eight weeks at a time with four other guys who are of the same mindset—they don't want to hear what you played the night before. So you'd better come up with something new. So when you're doing it every night you get better at it, and when you're playing with four other people who are of the same mind, and they're doing it too, you really do get better at it. But when you go back to playing regular music, it's not like riding a bike—you can lose it, and I know I've lost some of that, just because I'm not in that outlet every night anymore. It's a different kind of thing, and I'm a big believer that you shouldn't sound the same with every band you play with."

"Music is so infinite, and there is always something to work on. And for some of us, it's simply learning how to just serve the song, get your ego in check, and not feel you've got to show everything you know in one solo. Or you can work on playing lyrical things instead of chops."

"With this new band Invisible Whip I'm trying to reflect upon everything I've learned up to this point. The music I started out with, and the music I made with Bruce —I want that to be a factor in what we're doing. That's really important to me because that's the place where I found a voice, and the people I shared that with like Jeff Sipe, are always going to be the people I want to play with. All the people in the band have played with Bruce at one time or another. Then there's also what I've learned in my time since my experience with Bruce stopped being a full time thing anymore. Then there's also what I've learned after playing with Bruce stopped being a full time thing. Playing with these jam bands like the Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, Phil Lesh's Quintet, and Widespread Panic—I've learned so much from all these people, it's different, but there is a thread that connects them. It's real, it's in the moment, and it's all about opening yourself up to try and get out of your own way."

John McLaughlin shares his reasons for the farewell tour: "I'm 75 and I've got an older brother who's ten years older, and he's fit as a fiddle, so I'm lucky to have gotten good genes. I'm still here, I'm ready to play. But at the same time, I inherited music from my mom, but I also inherited arthritis, so that's another element in the game. But it's kind of under control at the moment, but it's part of the reason why I'm not taking any tours next year. The idea of being on tour and having a bad hair day and saying 'Sorry guys' that would be a calamity, that would be catastrophic—a kind of betrayal, and I could never let that happen. So we'll see what happens, I'm taking a year off."

"There are some great people around and I'm working with them, so you never know. It may all work out, you know miracles do happen. Because the day I stop making music will be the day I keel over, and that would be it. (Laughs) Wherever I may be, on stage, off stage, that will be the day because, how can you stop? I cannot stop, and musically I've never felt better and I'm looking forward to this tour, especially with Jimmy."
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