Spirited Away: John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring

Dean Budnick on October 14, 2017

Photo: Pepe Gomes

When Miles Davis offers career advice, it’s best to heed his words. This was the conclusion that guitarist John McLaughlin reached in 1971 when Davis suggested that the time was right for him to go off and explore his instincts and vision as a songwriter and bandleader. The British guitarist had arrived in America a couple of years earlier to join the Tony Williams Lifetime, recording two pioneering fusion albums with the drummer, a veteran of Davis’ Second Great Quintet. This led to McLaughlin’s own stint with Davis, which included classic releases such as In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew (which features a track titled “John McLaughlin”), A Tribute to Jack Johnson and Live-Evil.

The project that McLaughlin formulated drew on all of his musical antecedents, while remaining forward-thinking. The Mahavishnu Orchestra propelled fusion into new realms, with complexity, energy and danger (long before the descriptor became associated with lite jazz). McLaughlin enlisted drummer Billy Cobham, keyboard player Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman and bass player Rick Laird to record the startling and revelatory The Inner Mounting Flame. This was the first of five studio albums that McLaughlin would release with Mahavishnu through 1975, with the guitarist as the lone mainstay.

Starting in November in Buffalo, N.Y., McLaughlin will revisit this material for what is billed as his final U.S. tour. “The Meeting of the Spirits” will team McLaughlin with Jimmy Herring, a Mahavishnu fan since his teenage years. Back in 2012, Herring recorded a version of “Hope,” which originally appeared on the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s second album, Birds of Fire for the Widespread Panic/ Aquarium Rescue Unit guitarist’s own Subject to Change Without Notice. The two musicians were soon introduced and began a friendship that reflects their common enthusiasm and character.

The “Meeting of the Spirits” tour—which is named after the opening track on The Inner Mounting Flame—will feature sets by Herring’s latest project The Invisible Whip and McLaughlin’s own 4th Dimension before the two groups take the stage together for a final set in which they will explore the Mahavishnu catalog. McLaughlin envisions these dates as a thank you to the American audiences who first embraced the group back in 1971.

When McLaughlin and Herring make time for a phone call in the weeks leading up to the tour, Herring has just wrapped up a series of gigs with his band, while McLaughlin has started sharing some of music that he hopes to delve into when these spirits finally meet again.

As the call begins, McLaughlin acknowledges the challenging nature of the material: “We’re all doing a little shedding getting ready for the tour. A lot of that music from the early ‘70s is not exactly the easiest music to play. When I’m looking at it, I’m thinking ‘What was I on when I made that?’ But I was on nothing at all when I made that crazy music.”

Herring responds with a laugh, “It’s just so amazing to hear you say that, to hear you say, ‘Oh man, I made some pretty hard music back in those days.’”

When I heard that you were doing this, the first thing that jumped into my head was the tour that Mahavishnu did with Jeff Beck in 1975. I’m curious if you see this as analogous to that in any way?

JOHN: Of course, there are some analogies. I love Jeff. He’s been very good to me—and what a wonderful guitar player. The idea of the structure of what Jimmy and I will do stems directly from that experience. Because with Jeff, every night we each had a set and then we had a big jam at the end with both bands: two drummers, two bass players, two keyboard players and two guitar players. And there’s something nice about that, but you need the special spirit in there. It can only work with certain people who are tuned into that vibe, like Jeff. God bless him because he’s still playing so great, even today.

And I feel the same way about having the opportunity now to do this with Jimmy. I’m so impressed and grateful that both Jimmy and Jeff have looked to Mahavishnu and done versions of some of those tunes that I would give my back teeth to be a part of. The first time I heard Jimmy play, I think it was a version of the tune “Hope” from 1972–73. I heard it and was like, “Why didn’t I play it like that?” It was wonderful, just wonderful. And Jeff, over the years, has also taken some of those old tunes and put his mark on them.

I saw Jeff recently in the audience when we recorded Live @ Ronnie Scott’s [McLaughlin’s latest release with his band the 4th Dimension]. He’s such a sweetheart. Whenever I play, he comes to see me. But that whole idea of the jam was such a great experience. Having played with Jimmy, and having known his playing for years now, that we’re going to have a lot of fun. We’re suffering right now, but I know we’re gonna have fun.

Jimmy, you recorded “Hope” for Subject to Change Without Notice. Talking to you around the time it came out, I remember you mentioned that one of your older brothers first turned you on to Mahavishnu. Can you talk a little about that?

JIMMY: Oh yeah. He had The Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire and some Miles  Davis records. And that was my first exposure to hearing instrumental music. I was a teenager, and some of my friends and I were playing tunes with vocals that nobody could sing. I went into the music of that time for my generation. There was Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith and stuff like that and when I heard Mahavishnu Orchestra, it was like a lightbulb went on. I’d never heard musicianship like that, and it was an immediate change with what I wanted to do with my life. I knew immediately.

I didn’t even try to play any of the music until maybe two years later, but I just listened to it all the time. Then, with some of the riffs, I might start to think, “That’s an open string there. Wow, that’s supposed to be an E.” None of those riffs are easy, but I started to find my way towards some of them. And then I went into the rabbit  hole. That changed my life.

After hearing The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire, that led me down a path, asking, “What else did John listen to?” So I found Coltrane, I found Miles Davis. My brother had some of those too, and he was pushing me towards that music because we could never find anybody to sing. It’s weird how it happens. And I’ve been in that rabbit hole ever since. Even though I’ve done a lot of different things, that music is what really drives me to work.

JOHN: Well, I’m with you all the way, Jimmy. After all these years, I’m still in the rabbit hole! Still shedding after all these years.

JIMMY: That’s what’s so inspiring. To hear John say that, I mean he’s forgotten more than most people ever know.

JOHN: Jimmy, don’t forget that I did little things prior to being  invited to New York. It was two years with Tony Williams. And at the same time, through all those things with Miles, who was my all-time hero since I was 15 years old. How lucky can you get? We’re all on the same boat, eventually. It’s just a different time. I got so much inspiration from these people, that kind of encouragement.

With Miles, it was the end of 1970. I was just sitting in a little club in the band room, and it’s just me and Miles. We just finished the gig, and he turns to me and says [in a raspy, Miles Davis voice], “It’s time to form your own band.” Just out of the blue like a lightning bolt. I thought, “How can I refuse this guy? I gotta do it just to justify it.” That was the impetus for starting Mahavishnu. But I couldn’t have done it without someone like Miles saying, “Go ahead and do it. You gotta do it.”

So I’ve got gigantic debts and it’s very sweet; I feel humbled by Jimmy’s statement that he’s getting a similar thing from me. But, in a sense, I feel that my life’s fulfilled. If you can just give a little inspiration to somebody in your life, then you pass on the spirit. So I feel fortunate.

JIMMY: Well, you’ve had that effect on millions of people, man. It’s so heavy and it goes back so far. It’s not just one period of your career, either. It’s the whole thing. And it’s everything you did before, after and during the Miles period and all the other things.

JOHN: When I heard Trane for the first time, I was 15. I was already a fan of Miles but when I heard Trane, I thought, “What is he doing?!” And then in 1964, A Love Supreme comes out. He didn’t play guitar, but what a man and what an inspiration. Miles brought him to the world, really. He’s just carrying on the story of the spirit. Talk about inspiration and encouragement—it took me a year of listening to A Love Supreme every day before I could finally hear what he was doing. But at the same time, I knew that there was something magical and beautiful. You just have to read the poem on the back of the album. I knew the music corresponded to the beautiful poem, prayer, whatever you want to call it. I think about my young twenties and how frustrated I was looking for my way. Even just finding your way in life is hard. To find your way in music, I needed all of these people and, without them, I would have died, I think. I would have died musically, that’s for sure. I’m just carrying the banner, that’s all. Jimmy’s picked it up and he’s carrying the banner because this is really my last tour. I’m not able to accept tours anymore. I’m hoping to take gigs from time to time, but I’m nervous about taking tours in case I have a bad-hair day and drop everybody in the doo-doo. It would be catastrophic for me. So, Jimmy, it’s all on you!

JIMMY: I’ve been having bad hair days every day lately.

JOHN: We all have bad-hair days. I had one the day before yesterday, and it was terrible.

Jimmy, in talking to you over the years, I know that you’re someone who puts a lot of pressure on yourself to deliver the music in a way that feels right to you, so you put in a lot of practice time. Can you talk about working on the songs for this collaborative set?

JIMMY: I put pressure on myself, but I never feel forced to practice. I just wanna play when I wanna play. So I’ll come down off a tour and I listen to this music. I listened to it for so many years, and I’m having a full-circle moment with this music because it goes back to when my brother played it for me for the first time. And now, when I look back, one of the most important things I  learned from the music was the honesty it had. I want to hear the person, hear their spirit and not just be listening to notes. I hope that comes with me through whatever period I’m going through with music, whether it’s a rock band or a jazz-fusion band, or anything I might do.

It’s so much fun to just dive back into it again. Although, I put a lot of pressure on myself, as I think any musician does because there are expectations. That drives me to work harder and try to prepare. But this is music that I would be listening to even if I wasn’t playing it with John.

JOHN: Jimmy has dedicated his life to his instrument and to music, and it’s not really like work. Because, same with me, there’s a certain sense of responsibility when you go on stage—people pay their hardearned money to sit in front of you and they want you to be on top of it. They want to feel that spirit and they don’t want to be concerned with your problems. They’re not interested in hearing you say, “Sorry, I couldn’t make that articulation.” They want to hear you hit it. And so we work. But it’s not work because after all these years— I’ve been playing guitar for 60-something years—I play every day not because I need to, but because I just love to play.

And to add a little to what Jimmy said about the full circle, this is really what the tour is for me. We’re going back 45–46 years, since the first Mahavishnu album. It came out after this wonderful experience with Tony and continued with Miles. But when Mahavishnu came out, I did not expect this music to be accepted in the manner that it was by the listening public, the American public. The most surprised person of all was me. And so because this is my last tour—it has to be in America. I wanna play Mahavishnu music because it’s my thank you to the American listeners who embraced Mahavishnu before everybody else. And it’s a very personal thing.

It’s full circle for me because, I’m coming back and saying goodbye, and I want to say goodbye with the music that exploded with me in the middle of 1971. If that isn’t full circle, then I don’t know what is. I’m just thrilled that Jimmy’s going to be a part of it.

JIMMY: And it means the same to me, absolutely. It means so much to us because you brought the world so much great music, John, and you’ve done it in so many different ways and in so many different forms.

JOHN: That’s very sweet, Jimmy. But the thing is, I’m still a total student. I learned something this morning already on the guitar that I’ve never done before.

JIMMY: That is so inspiring.

JOHN: Can you ever get to the end? I mean, who can get to the end? You get to the end of life, you keel over and that’s it. But until then, every day is a new day and, every day, we learn something.

John, you mention that the reaction to The Inner Mounting Flame surprised you. Even to those people who were familiar with what you were doing prior to that point, it had to be quite striking. Can you talk about the journey that led you to write and record that music?

JOHN: I spent the entire ‘60s in the U.K., pretending to be a jazz musician but, most of the time, I was playing R&B and funk. I was playing it not just to survive—I was playing it because I love it. If you take the R&B out of jazz, you don’t have any jazz left. You certainly don’t have any blood and guts left. It’s just kind of tra-la-la. And from The Beatles on, I was a rock-and-roll fan. And then, of course, there’s people like Stevie Wonder. And I also got to play with the Four Tops in the U.K.

So after all of this R&B stuff and the rock experiences of the ‘60s, I arrived in New York and Miles wanted a guitar player. I didn’t come to join Miles; I came to New York to join The Tony Williams Lifetime with Larry Young. That was just such a thrill because I’ve been listening to Tony since 1965 and he was it for me.

But Miles kept inviting me to his house after recording In a Silent Way. He’d say [imitating Miles Davis], “Bring your guitar” and I’d go there once or twice a week. He would pick my brain and say, “What do you hear if I play this chord?” I’d say, “It could make a nice riff, Miles,” and he’d say, “Play it.” He was pushing me and, at the same time, I was playing with Tony.

I have two totally different relationships, musically, with Tony and Miles. Miles wanted all the R&B and funk stuff that I’d been doing in the ‘60s. The thing is, I’d been listening to everything from Monk to Mingus to Trane and Miles during the ‘60s period. And The Beatles, of course. And Sly & the Family Stone and a whole gamut of what was going on in the ‘60s, which was a real musical explosion.

With Tony, we were a radical band. You can hear it on Emergency! or Turn It Over. We’re talking about early ’69, where anything would go. When we’d be playing music, Tony would start singing a Brazilian song, and I’d start reciting poetry at the same time because we were looking for new ways. And after a while, Tony started to see the music that I was writing and he encouraged me from that point: “John, write as much music as you can and we’ll play it.” So I can say, quite categorically, that a lot of the Mahavishnu music that came out later with the Orchestra, the foundations were done with Lifetime and Tony because of all that encouragement and the opportunity to be able to do that live with someone like Tony Williams and Larry Young who was, to me, one of the greatest of all Hammond organ players.

So after all that experience, you can see how I would come up with some crazy stuff. Monk was a big influence on me. Mingus was a big influence on me. And you listen to their records—the whole arpeggio thing, I actually got that between Monk and George Harrison. How about that for a combination? Is that weird or what?

So I had an agent and I said, “I’m gonna put a band together.” I really believed in this band and, in fact, that’s how I signed with CBS. I had done two records with Alan Douglas’ Douglas Records and, one day, Nat Weiss, who was my manager, said, “We’re gonna go see Clive Davis.” I said, “Clive Davis—CBS? Wow, fantastic.” So we went to see him, and we’re in Clive’s office, and he knew me only from what I’d been doing with Miles. He said, “So, John, Nat told me you’re putting a band together. You wanna tell me about it?” I said, “Well, it’s really hard to explain what it’s gonna be. But I can tell you the band will be amazing, Clive. Amazing.” And he said, “John, you know, I like the way you talk. Let’s sign!” The record industry was exploding and Clive was one of the greatest record men. He heard the enthusiasm that I had in my voice, and he was just ready to take a risk on it. [In his autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life, Davis characterizes this as one of his“more meaningful signings” at the label, adding, “I was struck by the beauty and ambition of the music he was making.”]

It’s not quite the same situation today, but it was a different world in the very early-‘70s, wasn’t it? I think “Lucky” is my middle name.

Since the music had all those antecedents that you describe, Mahavishnu Orchestra opened up for a range of artists during those early tours, including the Allman Brothers Band, who Jimmy toured with for a short stretch. John, you became friendly with Duane Allman, but you never actually played with him.

JOHN: No, we never played together. What a beautiful man he was. What a sweetheart he was. And could he play. Oh, my, that slide guitar. We never played together, but we did gig together. Mahavishnu would open for them.

We opened for a lot of different people. We opened for the Allman Brothers a number of times. We opened for Blue Öyster Cult. We opened for James Taylor. Who opened for us? God bless him forever, George Carlin. That was a trip. We’d be on the side of the stage. His loss was such a tragedy, but we’ve lost a lot of people from that time. We lost Jimi—that was terrible. There was also Janis Joplin, but I’ve got George on my iPod—I still listen to him regularly.

Jimmy, do you see any common reference points between Mahavishnu Orchestra and the music of the Allman Brothers?

JIMMY: One similarity would be total dedication, openness and willingness to go into the unknown with those improvisations. Mahavishnu was pulling from more sophisticated areas of jazz and Indian classical music, but another thing would be that the Allman Brothers had two guitar players who would sometimes play lines together. Sometimes they’d play in unison, and sometimes they’d harmonize the line. And Mahavishnu did the same thing, but they did it with violin, and when I hear two people playing a line together, it really grabs me.

JOHN: That’s the real jazz tradition, Jimmy, isn’t it? I grew up with that, whether it was Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, or Miles with Trane, or Miles with Cannonball Adderley or Miles with Wayne [Shorter]. It’s that thing—it’s that unison, sometimes harmony, sometimes unison— it’s that thing. You’re absolutely right; it’s got a thing. But that, for me, goes back to the old jazz traditions, so there’s no way I can get away from that.

And you and I have talked about this: We’re gonna be playing lines together, sometimes harmonies. But I want to hear  that sound, that unison harmony. For me, that’s a jazz tradition of playing because it’s an art to play the melody with somebody. To play a solo is one thing. But to play with somebody, that’s what’s beautiful about the collective. Because, yeah, we can all have individual experiences of liberation sometimes when we’re playing solos. But you can have a collective experience of playing together—playing lines together, playing harmonies together. This collective experience is very important to me, and I feel that it’s part of the jazz tradition too. So whatever people call the music, we’re all bringing our own traditions up-to-date because they’re part of what we are and how we play.

JIMMY: Absolutely. To me, it was—and it still is—church. It brings people together; it’s the collective John’s talking about. I think there are a couple of similarities between the Allman Brothers and Mahavishnu. And then the Dixie Dregs were huge Mahavishnu fans. The violin and the guitar were such a unique voice, and I’d never heard it before. Sure, you hear two guitars, or you hear an organ and a guitar, or you hear trumpet and saxophone, or any other kind of combination. But a violin and a guitar? You had Django [Reinhardt] and Stéphane Grappelli, but in a rock context, John, what you and Jerry [Goodman] did together, that may have been the first pairing on that electrifying level.

JOHN: Yes, with that fusion level. But you know what it is? The Allman Brothers— they had a vibe, they had the spirit. When I go see a band, if that thing isn’t there, I know it and I’m really not interested. I have to feel that vibe, and that’s what I call the spirit. It’s undefinable, but when it’s not there, I really miss it. And the Allman Brothers, God bless them all. They had their thing and Duane was a killer; he was wonderful. And that’s it.

There are so many different bands and different genres now. But in the end, does a band have that thing? It can be rock, it can be jazz, it can be a lot of things— but does it have it? The Beatles had it, Sly & the Family Stone had it. One of the greatest experiences I ever had was seeing Sly in 1969 at the Monterey Jazz. I was in the audience dancing my ass off. Unbelievable. One of the greatest concerts I ever went to. And they were not playing jazz, but who cares? What’s jazz? We’re looking for freedom, we’re looking for the experience, the liberation. And hopefully, in a collective manner along with the audience, who can never really be underestimated because once that thing is there, they know it. Everybody knows what that thing is, even though they don’t have a name for it. And they know if that thing isn’t there.

JIMMY: They do know. They can tell if somebody is faking it.

JOHN: Hashtag fake! Hashtag fake jazz. [Laughs.] Listen, jazz has suffered a lot. Some of the smooth jazz, funky jazz, cool jazz, it’s shallow—it’s not even an inch deep. It’s full of clichés, and jazz is about getting some blood on the stage. That’s true of rock-and-roll, too. It’s got to have depth to it. It’s a total thing in music.

But the way the world is at the moment, if you go into a café, they might be playing some jazz in the background, but it’s not disturbing. It’s just wallpaper. A computer can create that kind of music. It’s got nothing to do with real music. But you hear it everywhere. Even in classical music, you hear it. And in a way, it’s not sincere. It’s missing that thing we live for.

You mentioned audience reactions, and we’re currently in a period of anxiety and acrimony. When you perform, is it your aspiration to elevate and maybe take people away, or do you think an artist should speak directly to the politics or social conditions of the day?

JOHN: Personally, I don’t take into consideration what the audience may want because, as a man and as a musician, when I go onstage, the only thing I speak about is my life. And the thing is: How deep do I express it? How eloquently do I express it? And with how much love do I express it— the love that I have for music, for myself, for the people around me and for the world at large?

That’s all I really have. That’s all any musician has. He goes to the stage and he tells the story of his life and how he really feels about what’s going on with himself and around the world. I think everybody picks up on that. So I don’t worry about what people want to hear because, in the end, they want to hear a story. They want to feel the story—they want to feel how deeply you care about what you’re doing, and about how you’re playing and about the love that’s in the band. And really, that’s it.

I don’t worry about what the public will want because what I want when I go to a concert is: I want to feel that person’s life and how deeply they feel about what they’re doing because that will come through the music and that’s what will take me away.

JIMMY: That’s it for me, too. I think people wanna hear a story, but also, as an improviser, you go out there and you don’t have it preconceived, what you’re gonna do. All I can hope for is that I can get out of my own way. I pray that I can open up enough and not just string licks together. JOHN: We go onstage and our trousers are down by the end. We just hope everything’s gonna be OK.