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Spirited Away: John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring

Dean Budnick | November 06, 2017
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.’”