McLaughlin influenced an entire generation of guitarists, including Widespread Panic's Jimmy Herring.
ArtsATL > Music > Guitar masters John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring talk Mahavishnu and joint tour

Guitar masters John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring talk Mahavishnu and joint tour

John McLaughlin, with his band, the 4th Dimension, and Atlanta’s Jimmy Herring, with his band, The Invisible Whip, are joining forces for the “Meeting of the Spirits” tour that will touch down on Thanksgiving Eve at Symphony Hall. It is billed as McLaughlin’s final tour in America.

McLaughlin is a guiding force behind jazz fusion, first with Miles Davis and then with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. McLaughlin and Mahavishnu influenced musicians worldwide, and one fan, in particular, not yet even in his teens, would be captivated. For that young boy, Jimmy Herring, the Mahavishnu Orchestra offered clarity about the direction his own musical path would take.

Herring, now lead guitarist for Widespread Panic, first came to prominence with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Recognized as one of rock’s premier guitar players, Herring jumped at the chance to tour with one of his heroes. The two will perform sets with their own bands before joining forces on stage for a meeting of two guitar giants from separate generations.

ArtsATL caught up with the two guitarists prior to the beginning of their tour to discuss how their musical paths brought them together.

The joining of two guitar giants prompted a cover story in Guitar Player magazine.

ArtsATL: John and Jimmy, can you tell me how you’re each feeling about touring together?

Jimmy Herring: Oh man, touring with John makes me feel like I’ve got to get back to the woodshed.

John McLaughlin: Well, we’re all shedding. I’m so excited. I’m thrilled about this whole thing. Everybody’s excited.

Herring: There’s no doubt about that. I can hardly sleep at night. There’s no lack of enthusiasm, no lack of excitement. I still have goose bumps about this.

McLaughlin: Jimmy has such an appreciation for the original tour I did with Jeff Beck and the Mahavishnu Orchestra back in the ’70s, so that also makes touring with him great.

ArtsATL: I can only imagine how incredible that original tour must have been. Do you feel this one – though different – is destined to also be incredible?

McLaughlin: I do. It’s all a complete thrill to me. To be bringing up this music from like 45 years ago is blowing my mind. And I’m not even on drugs, man. It’s all about the spirit. It’s this spirit that has me so excited. Without the spirit, it’s just notes in the end, isn’t it? It’s about heart and soul because music feeds from our being. The music has its roots in our very being. And the music has got to be imbued with all of that. When that atmosphere is there, it’s more real than unreal, and it gives rise to the possibility of what we don’t know about.

When you talk about this tour being incredible, Jimmy’s the perfect candidate to tour with. And I’m not trying to flatter you, Jimmy. It’s just exactly what I feel and how I see it. Jimmy’s authentic, and he plays from his heart. What more can you ask? You know, in the past 10 years, or so, we’ve been given smooth jazz and cool jazz and funky jazz, but there’s no blood on the floor. I want the real feeling. When I go to a concert, I want that music to take me in that world and see and feel that world. When that’s happening and the musician is letting you into their world, you can feel what the musician feels about their music. The music is our story, the story of our lives. So, it’s definitely going to be incredible when the spirits from my band come together and contribute to Jimmy’s band and the spirits from Jimmy’s band come together and contribute to my band.

ArtsATL: How did it come to be that the two of you decided to do this tour together? Did it take a while for it to evolve since you’re both so busy?

Herrings says McLaughlin helped him find direction when he was a budding guitarist. (Photos of McLaughlin and Herring by Ian McLaughlin.)

Herring: Well, this is an epic thing for me. John’s music changed my life. It truly gave me direction and showed me what I wanted to do. John came to the Variety Playhouse with Chick Corea to bring Five Peace Band, and, fortunately, I was able to go see that show. I finally got to meet John and talk to him at that show. And it wasn’t long after that, we started talking about the possibility of doing something like this together.

McLaughlin: I got interested in doing something with Jimmy going back quite a long time ago when [a mutual friend] called me and said, ”John, you’ve got to listen to Jimmy. He’s recorded one of your tunes.” And so I listened to it [chuckles]. And I said, “Why didn’t I play it like that?” It was outstanding, truly outstanding. I was so impressed. And, right after that, Chick Corea called me up, and I told him he had to get Jimmy, and I sent him a link to Jimmy playing, and, right away, he wanted Jimmy. But Jimmy’s a busy guy and couldn’t do it. But just the fact that Chick heard Jimmy one time and he wanted to hire him says it all.

Herring: And, you know, I so wanted that to work out, and I tried to make that work. But they needed me for a year, and I had commitments and couldn’t do it.

McLaughlin, and his famed double-neck guitar, with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

ArtsATL: Several years ago, when I first interviewed Jimmy Herring and asked him about his musical influences, the name at the top of his list was John McLaughlin.

McLaughlin: Wow, I’m honored.

ArtsATL: Jimmy, I’ve heard John say that Miles Davis was his musical hero since the age of 15 and it was a dream come true to play with him. Is playing with your musical hero, John McLaughlin, a dream come true for you?

Herring: It absolutely is. You know, all the things in my musical career have really happened rather late for me. Like, by the time I got in a real touring band I was 27 or 28. Although I’d been playing a long time, it just happened late for me. And then other things started happening but not until I was deep into my thirties. I finally started getting these phone calls from people. And now I’m 55, and John McLaughlin wants to tour with me. John is royalty. I’m just thrilled, and all I can say is, “I’ll take it, I’ll take it!”

ArtsATL: Jimmy, has John got you playing the double-neck guitar, yet?

Herring: Not yet.

McLaughlin: But there’s going to be double-necked guitars. Jimmy and I both have some beautiful guitars. I just got a picture of the new guitar Paul Reed Smith built for me and it’s unbelievable. It’s simply beautiful. This double-neck guitar he has built for me is taking me back to the Mahavishnu period.

ArtsATL: John, can you tell us what the Mahavishnu period was like for you back then?

McLaughlin: That was a critical period for me personally, musically, spiritually. The music was pouring out of my head. I couldn’t stop it. And the way that it was accepted and embraced by the general public was just mind-blowing.

Herring: No one had ever heard anything like that before.

McLaughlin: I know. And I had never heard anything like that before.

ArtsATL: John, was that success startling to you? Did you not expect your music to hit mainstream audiences and be received so well?

McLaughlin: First of all, I had no idea, just no idea, how it would be received. But this brings me to a consideration I did take into account. Coming to America, I was a studio shark. I’d been playing jazz and R&B for like five bucks a night. And, finally, in ’66, I became a studio musician. I was playing with some top British pop stars as well as some American pop stars. And I thought I was, literally, dying. In fact, I remember pulling up to the studio in my car. I had two sessions of commercial jingles to go in and do. For the first time, I had money in my pocket. But I sat there in my car looking at the studio, and I said to myself, “If I go in there, I’m going to die.” I felt that so deeply that I just hit the gas.

I became poor again that day, but I was happy. So this attitude was already part of me. Therefore when the success hit again with Mahavishnu, I hadn’t been thinking in terms of it being a success or not. The only reason I even started Mahavishnu is because after I’d been touring some time with Miles and was very comfortable doing so, he walked up to me after a show one night and said, “John, you gotta start your own band.” So I did. That’s how much thought went into it. But Miles was my ultimate hero, my idol in every sense of the word. And since he had faith in me — as I couldn’t even imagine it myself — I had to do it because it was him telling me I had to do it. And that was Mahavishnu. And remember, I had just been playing with Miles for the past two years, and two years prior to that, I’d been playing in Lifetime, and we were radical. I mean radical. We were tearing down form and rebuilding it. This was the end of the ’60s, and the way the atmosphere was, it was a wild time. It was a beautiful period.

ArtsATL: What do you think made it so beautiful?

McLaughlin: There was not this fear around it like there is now. It was wide open. It was “Hippie Land.” And, we were all hippies. And music could go anywhere. The Tony Williams Lifetime was a little misunderstood because we were just too radical. But it paved the way, musically, for Mahavishnu Orchestra because Tony [Williams, the legendary jazz drummer and leader of Lifetime] was always getting me to write. He’d say, “You have to write.” And this just served as splendid preparatory work for Mahavishnu. Miles really just wanted R&B and funk and some wild chords on top of it. But Tony, he really paved the way to the birth of Mahavishnu Orchestra.

ArtsATL: You just described the beginning or “birth,” and this is now the goodbye tour, in America. Is it truly going to be your final tour here? And have you come full circle?

McLaughlin: Yes, I’m frightened of continuing to tour at this point because if something happens in the middle of touring and I’m not able to make it due to health or arthritis or whatever — because it’s coming, I know that it is — this would be the greatest tragedy of my career. In this, I would betray myself, I would betray the musicians and, most importantly, I would betray the audience. And I owe everything, absolutely everything, to the audience. The audience always knows what’s going on. And that’s why I’m so excited about the meeting of the spirits with Jimmy. The audience knows what’s going on. You cannot lie in music. If it’s real, the audience sees it and they’ll let you know. And, yes, that’s another reason why I’m so excited about this tour because I have, indeed, come full circle.

ArtsATL: John, I read in an interview that you weren’t sure why you were so drawn to India — to its music, its teachings, its very culture. In Hinduism, the sound “Nada” represents creation and “Om” connects humanity and is its universal sound. Could these ancient spiritual roots help explain your undeniable attraction to India?

McLaughlin: I have to back up for a moment to answer that. My mom was a classical violinist, and so, there was always classical music in the house. When you’re at a very young age, I think you hear the music, but I don’t think you have a perception of what it is. But when I was five years old, I remember listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and it giving me goose bumps. I said, “Mom, what is it?” And she said, “It’s wonderful. It’s the music. That’s the music you’re feeling.”

That experience marked me. I think it was this experience that really caused me to become a musician. Then, when I was 13, I was listening to the BBC every week and one particular show; they brought on music from South India with this reed instrument and the drums. I got goose bumps all over again. Don’t ask me why because I have no idea how to explain it. But, fast forwarding, I began this psychedelic phase and that caused me to ask big questions and led me to meditation. So it was the meditation which took me to India first and then I heard the South Indian music and that was it.

I realized that the Indian music is all-inclusive and it integrates the spirit of the human being. I saw right away what John Coltrane was doing on A Love Supreme. I had been following Coltrane for about seven years because of Miles, and until that moment, I couldn’t figure it out. I listened to that record every day for a year and I understood the music. I heard. The music spoke to me. I understood. It took me a year to get to that point, but I got that. And Coltrane was heavily influenced by South Indian music. So, this all-inclusiveness, coupled with my strong desire to know who I am — which is the question of life and what I’d been seeking to understand with my meditation guru — all manifested into my music with the Mahavishnu. All of these elements came together.

But why India holds such an attraction for me, I cannot say. This is the best way I can attempt to describe it, though. I don’t know why I love India so much, but when I went to India, I wanted to kiss the ground. There’s no logic to it, but I think the fact that in India they’ve been delving into the questions of existence for so long, that is powerful to me. We all desire to understand who we are. We’re all looking for liberation . . .  from what? I have wanted to get out of the way of my little ego and allow in the stream of consciousness. It can be hard, but I do best when I just get out of the way and let the music say its thing. And when it happens, that’s real liberation. God bless it, man.

ArtsATL: When you’re playing, how do you find the balance to think enough about what you’re doing but not get stuck on “your” thoughts and, instead, allow the music to flow and channel through you?

McLaughlin: Love knows how to let it flow. Once you’re in that environment — and I’m sure Jimmy would agree — we don’t have any control over that. Nobody in the universe has control over inspiration. The thing is, for me, for Jimmy, and the rest of musicians, is we just have to be ready when it happens.

Herring and McLaughlin with Col. Bruce Hampton in 2013.

ArtsATL: Do you know when you’re getting in your own way?

McLaughlin: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s when I’m playing like a dog. It can be so difficult, at times. And it’s the same for me with meditation; sometimes I can go right where I want to go and other times my mind is turning and turning. So there’s no mythical answer. The thing is to just be open and be ready, that’s all. I don’t mean to monopolize the conversation, but you’re asking me important questions.

ArtsATL: Well, John, we know how much Jimmy loves and admires you. I think it’s safe to say that he’s digging hearing you talk and share your thoughts.

Herring: Oh, man, completely! Listening to John talk has just got me wanting to ask John so many questions too.

ArtsATL: Jump in here, Jimmy. Ask John a question.

Herring: I have so many, but I would love to ask one. John, in America, rock and blues is the thing. You brought jazz and rock together in a way that no one had ever seen before. It was undeniably jazz harmony, but the presentation was like rock. It was bold and sophisticated, and that’s what drew so many people, including young people, to it. When did it occur to you that you could bring the Indian rhythms to the Western harmonies?

McLaughlin: I had so many jazz influences. Coltrane and Miles and Tony and Billy [Cobham] all gave me so much. And they were all just monsters. From Eric [Clapton] and Jimi [Hendrix], I heard the sound of rock with guitars. But without the passion, none of it means anything. Since the beginning, I wanted to play jazz because jazz is so intellectually satisfying to me. You have the richness of harmony, and I wanted freedom because we all place restraints on ourselves. And when I play guitar, it’s going to be loud. So with Mahavishnu Orchestra, I wanted the intellectual side of harmony. I also wanted almost the sensual satisfaction of the rhythm. All of this went into the soup pot, and that’s how it all came out. It came out on its own, a little hybrid baby.

ArtsATL: It is miraculous that you created “world changing” music and it all began as a seedling of a feeling when you were only five.

McLaughlin: That’s the thing which is hard to believe because really all I ever did was play in clubs. So going to big theaters and graduating into bigger and bigger theaters was a shock. Although it was real to me, there was something very unreal to me. And I was already very deep into my meditation and yoga when it all happened with Mahavishnu. Of course, we all change and we all evolve. Fortunately, I had a fantastic manager, and the day he signed me he said, “John, failure is real easy to deal with, but success is much more difficult.” And, I still remind myself, this cannot go on forever.

ArtsATL: When you meditate and go into inner silence, does it help you to bring sound forth and bring your music to the audience?

McLaughlin: There are two ways to look at it. After I came out of the psychedelic thing, the question for me became, “How rich is your being?” And meditation is survival to me, like eating. I don’t do it because I think I’m going to be enlightened as much as I think it can offer insight to me about myself. We all want to find out who and what we are, but to that, there’s not an answer. I cannot say what I am; what I am is the greatest mystery to me [chuckles]. But what a beautiful mystery. Holy smoke! To be alive in this universe, in this fabulous infinity, it’s unbelievable. And when the magnitude of being aware of all of it surrounding you hits you, it’s stunning. But the music definitely plays off your being. When you play, what are you going to say? The only thing we have is our story and how deeply we feel about it — how much we care about our world and the people we care about. That’s all we can really speak about. If we really care — then, that’s good.

Herring rose to national prominence when he toured with the Allman Brothers Band before becoming a permanent member of Widespread Panic.

ArtsATL: Jimmy, you played with Allman Brothers Band — who approached jazz from a rock perspective — and you’re a jazz man who rocks. Is that easy to segue?

Herring: If your channels are open and you can, in fact, get out of your way, then, yes, you can let your inspiration lead you anywhere.

ArtsATL: John, I know you played with Jimi Hendrix, and both you and Jimmy value his contribution to rock music via the electric guitar. Where do you think Hendrix’s curiosity would’ve led him had he lived?

McLaughlin: He was a free spirit. He had his origins in the old Mississippi blues, but he brought it all up-to-date. It was stunning what he’d do. I mean, “The Star Spangled Banner” with one wah-wah pedal was just incredible. He was so creative. But love will find the way. Whatever you study and love will come out in your own unique way. He was about finding those unique ways of expressing himself. Geez, what a thought . . . if he had remained alive.

ArtsATL: On a final note and in the spirit of paying homage to a person who has been instrumental in your life and in your musical development, John, you just released a new album, Live at Ronnie Scott’s. What did he mean to you?

McLaughlin: Oh, Ronnie meant the world to me. What a man Ronnie Scott was. The way he supported all the young, struggling musicians and gave all of us a chance to play in his club back in the ’60s was amazing. He was especially good to me. When I got the call from Tony Williams to go to America and play with him, it was Ronnie who helped me organize the visa. Without Ronnie, I would’ve never made it. And the recording of me playing — which Jack made on a little Mission Impossible style recorder, and which was later played for Tony back in New York — and caused Tony to call me — was of course recorded while I was playing at Ronnie’s. So, I owe a big debt to Ronnie Scott.

ArtsATL: Jimmy, everyone in your band played with Col. Bruce Hampton at one time or another. He was your friend, your mentor. It has only been a few months since this world lost him. Do you feel his spirit with you?

Herring: Absolutely. We all feel his presence. Bruce cared about all of us for so long. We, literally, can’t get a mile down the road without telling a Bruce story [chuckles]. I know I’m still drawing from all the lessons I got from him every day.

ArtsATL: Widespread Panic will be doing a three-night run at the Fox Theatre for the New Year celebration. Most of Panic’s band members were on that very stage celebrating his 70th birthday at the moment that Col. Bruce collapsed and died. Can you anticipate how hard it may be to take that stage, again?

Herring: Well, I won’t know, exactly, until I’m there. And, sometimes, the most difficult thing can be the anticipation of an event. But all of us guys have in common that we knew him so well, and that’s cool. I’m gonna be emotional because with Panic I play stage right and will be playing right at the spot where he went. But we’re all going to be in the same boat because we all loved him. I’m going to try to remember that he frowned upon self-pity and the fact that I’m sad that he’s gone is a form of self-pity. So, I’m going to psyche myself up before I get there and hope that I can go in and get out of my way — just as he taught — and, look at that spot in front of me not as a bad thing, because he went just as he wanted to: playing. He told me many times that this was how he’d go. I hope I can do this and let the thoughts get out of my way and just feel being with him. I know he’s going to be there with us.

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