Q&A: John McLaughlin & Jimmy Herring

Readying for his final U.S. tour, John McLaughlin reflects on his life in music, with co-headliner and fellow guitar virtuoso Jimmy Herring

John McLaughlin (right) with Jimmy Herring (photo by Kim Allegrezza)

For the past 30 years, John McLaughlin has made his home in Monaco. Even if you didn’t know that, you could probably tell right away that his apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village isn’t his primary residence. The giveaway is its abundance of open space, kept in a hotel-like state of cleanliness and populated by only the bare essentials: small couch, simple bed, a handful of tables and chairs. It’s clearly the property of a road warrior. But that road, or part of it, will soon be coming to an end. Forty-eight years after he first entered the United States, McLaughlin will embark this November on what he swears is his last American tour.

“My 75th birthday is right around the corner,” the guitarist, composer and bandleader explains, sitting in the living room of his Manhattan crash pad on a cloudy, cool afternoon just before Christmas. Trim, healthy and vibrant, he speaks with a distinctively cosmopolitan accent that glides from France to America to his native Yorkshire within a few syllables. “I’ve been on the road since I was 16. I want to do less traveling now.”

Joining McLaughlin for coffee and a chat today is the man who’ll be sharing the bill on his final U.S. go-around, fellow guitar virtuoso Jimmy Herring, 55. Although his work with veteran jam bands Widespread Panic and the Aquarium Rescue Unit can be filed primarily under adventurous rock, Herring shows jazzier proclivities on his solo recordings. He’s been a McLaughlin fan since high school, and the two have much in common: a record label (Abstract Logix), a fondness for and relationship with Paul Reed Smith guitars (they first played together at PRS’ 30th-anniversary concert in 2015) and a deep fascination with both Indian classical music and the blues. Dubbed “The Meeting of the Spirits,” the upcoming tour will include separate sets from McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension band and Herring’s working group, plus a third set featuring both guitarists on classic material by McLaughlin’s seminal jazz-rock ensemble, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The main reason John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring are in Manhattan at this time is that Chick Corea is celebrating his 75th birthday with a multi-week series of gigs at the Blue Note. McLaughlin, whose friendship with Corea goes back nearly five decades, is one of the many special guest performers, and Herring flew up from North Carolina to check out a show. Since they’re both here, it only makes sense that they’d get together to talk about their upcoming tour. Over the next hour they do discuss that, and much else. McLaughlin comes off as a more expansive storyteller, while Herring, ever the Southern gentleman, tends to politely defer to his hero. But each man has plenty to say about his formative influences, the nature of improvisation and, of course, the undying allure of the guitar.

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JazzTimes: So how was the gig with Chick last night?

Jimmy Herring: I was there for both sets, and it was wonderful. What was really incredible to me was to hear you [McLaughlin] play Return to Forever music and then hear Chick play some Mahavishnu tunes. That’s never happened before, right?

John McLaughlin: Never, and we’ve played I don’t know how many times together. Generally speaking, we’ve always played standards. The plan this time was to do one duo night and four nights with a band [featuring bassist Victor Wooten and original RTF drummer Lenny White]. Chick’s the birthday boy, so he’s calling the shots. We did the duo night, and the next day there was a four-hour rehearsal because that was the first time the band had actually gotten together.

JH: On the day of the show?

JM: Yeah. And then, already that night—during the night—Chick was sending us new music to play the next day. I’m like, “I’m OD’ing here!” But the attitude onstage was that this is a party, and we’re not 100-percent together. Sometimes the endings would get messed up, so we’d redo them. Publicly. [laughter] Two nights ago, we played “You Know You Know” [off the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame], and we had to do the ending three times before we got it right.

John McLaughlin and Chick Corea

JH: And that’s why you said yesterday you thought you knew. [laughter] To see them that relaxed and just having fun … I mean, the intensity was still exploding, but it wasn’t the kind of intensity where people are getting angry or uptight about anything.

JM: No, it’s a celebration. You know, Chick is like an older brother to me. When I arrived in New York in January ’69, I came to play with Tony [Williams, in Lifetime]. And Tony had this last week with Miles at Club Baron before he left the band. My friend in that band was Dave Holland, and so I was waiting at the bar for him and Tony to come by. I didn’t know Miles, I didn’t know he was looking for a guitar player, but he knew I was there to join Tony. It was bitter winter, a lot of snow, and when Miles came into the club … [rises from his chair] Jimmy, you want to stand up?

JH: Yeah. [stands up and walks over to McLaughlin]

JM: OK, you’re me and I’m Miles. So he comes in wearing this cape and this beautiful hat, and he walks by me like this [brushes Herring with his shoulder as he passes] and says [adopts pitch-perfect Miles whisper], “John …” [continues walking across the room without looking back]

JH: [laughs] Welcome to America.

JM: I was 3 feet off the ground. And the very next day he hired me to do In a Silent Way. But the point of this story was really about Chick. I was sitting at the bar at Club Baron, and after the first set, Chick came over to me and said [another spot-on imitation, this time of Corea’s Massachusetts accent], “Hey man, how ya doin’? I hear you’re comin’ to join Tony, man. That’s cool, wow.” [laughter] I hadn’t even had the chance to say hello to him, and he was so gracious and friendly. And to this day he’s the same. He’s just a lovely person and a wonderful musician. You played with him a couple of times, didn’t you?

JH: I saw him at a show in Atlanta and he invited me to sit in. It was like I was out of my body. We were trading fours and I was like, “I’m trading fours with Chick Corea!” After that he wanted to hire me on the spot, and I didn’t know what to say. When Chick wants you to go, he wants you to go for a year, and I couldn’t do that without affecting 30 other people. So I bagged. [laughs]

JM: We’ve all got commitments, and if you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it right or do it some other time. I recommended you to Chick. He came to me one day and said, “John, I need a guitar player.” And I said, “You need Jimmy Herring in your band.”

JH: [laughs] Oh my God.

JM: Chick said, “Really? I’ve never heard of him.” And I said, “It’s time you did.”

JH: [more laughter] Aw, man!

JM: No, it’s true! [to JazzTimes] You’ve heard him play, right?

Yes, and I believe you’re on record saying that he and Jeff Beck are your favorite living electric guitarists.

JM: Absolutely.

How did you first hear Jimmy?

JM: I think it was from Souvik [Dutta], who runs Abstract Logix. He said, “John, you’ve got to hear this guitar player.” We’re going back maybe 10 years now. And I said, “Send me something.” So he sent me some MP3s, and that was it. I already was thinking, “This guy’s great.” But then Souvik sent me a piece I wrote for Mahavishnu that Jimmy re-recorded.

JH: Are you talking about “Hope” [which appears on Herring’s 2012 album, Subject to Change Without Notice]?

JM: Yes. Not only does he play it like he wrote it, but he does a solo on it that I would have given my back teeth to have played.

JH: Thank you. I’ve always been intrigued by that piece. I’d put on Birds of Fire and listen to it over and over again. It’s like a mantra, I suppose, in that it doesn’t have a B section, it doesn’t have a solo section per se. Before we recorded it, I told Souvik I wanted to do the piece. But I wanted to make sure John was OK with it, because we did a reharmonization of the progression, and even though the reharmonization was minor, I wanted him to hear it. I’m so grateful that you were OK with it.

JM: I don’t like it, I love it.

Jimmy, when and how did you first hear John?

JH: I first heard The Inner Mounting Flame when I was 17. It was ’78 or ’79. My brother played it for me. The reason I picked up the guitar was Jimi Hendrix, Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, but it was impossible to find anyone to sing the music that I loved. My brother was like, “You need to listen to some instrumental music.” I didn’t know what that was. I feel so embarrassed to say that, because by 17 I should have known that. But man, that album changed my life before the first song was even into the fourth bar. It was like sticking your finger in an electric socket. It jarred me, and it made me realize that I wanted to get serious about playing.

Before that, it was all about long hair and rock ’n’ roll. And some of that’s still hanging around—my hair’s falling out, but it’s still long in the back [laughs]—but at that point I knew that this was going to be a lifelong commitment. When I heard the passion in the music, and not just in the solos but in the compositions, I was highly motivated. Of course, depression sets in too, when you delve into it, learn a couple of lines, and then you hear a passage and go, “I’ll never be able to play that ever.”

JM: What you learned is one of the first things musicians learn. You realize you don’t know anything. You’re so incompetent. But that’s a very good lesson.

JH: It is. It’s funny how it seems like the more you know, the less you really know. I think it was Allan Holdsworth who said, “I think I’m OK now that I’ve realized I don’t know anything about music.” [laughter] Because it’s infinite, and the beauty of that is that’s what keeps you coming back.

Photo of John McLaughlin w/the Mahavishnu Orchestra
John McLaughlin in the early 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Sony Music)

John, can you think of anything that had the same kind of impact on you that The Inner Mounting Flame had on Jimmy?

JM: Well, I’m the youngest of five kids, and I can tell you categorically that without my three older brothers I’d never have been a guitar player.

JH: Oh man, I have two older brothers, and I feel the same way.

JM: Because I was playing piano.

JH: And your mom played violin.

JM: Yeah. And these are the things we have no control over; they’re beyond logic. My brother Alex was already in university when I was 9, and when the blues boom hit the U.K. like a tsunami, he picked up a cheap guitar. After a while, he got bored with it and it went to the number-two brother. Then he got bored with it and finally it ended up in my hands. My brother showed me how to play a D chord, and when I strummed it, this thrill went through me. I’d been playing piano for years, and I loved it, but I’d never had that feeling before. The guitar’s got a sensuality about it that just swept me away. And that very first night, I took that five-dollar guitar to bed with me. I was only 11 years old.

JH: You just had to keep it with you.

JM: My brothers saw right away what happened to me, and they said, “OK, we’ve got to take care of our younger brother, because he’s in love.” So they started to bring home their blues albums. First was Big Bill Broonzy, second was Muddy Waters, third was Lead Belly, and those three just blew my mind. I’d had the same kind of feeling when I was about 5 years old, sitting with my mother and listening to the end of Beethoven’s Ninth and getting goosebumps all over my body. And strangely enough, the next time I had a similar revelation was when I was 14 and heard an outstanding Indian nadaswaram player named Rajarathnam Pillai. I didn’t even know where India was.

JH: It’s hard to believe, to me, the similarities between Indian music and Appalachian music. Did you ever hear Ralph Stanley’s a cappella version of “O Death”?

JM: Who’s this?

JH: Ralph Stanley, a famous American bluegrass cat. John, you’ve gotta hear this! On that one piece, you can hear all the intervals where you can’t go, the notes that don’t exist on the page. The similarities intervallically to Indian music are so striking. It’s like it doesn’t matter where it’s from …

JM: You feel the depths.

JH: Yes. It’s an ancient sound. And he was old when he sang it, but his way of singing is like when you hear [Pakistani Qawwali singer] Nusrat [Fateh Ali Khan], the stuff that you can’t put your finger on and say, “It’s this” or “It’s that.” No, this is the divine, that’s what it is.

JM: That’s the power of music. Almost every night after a show, people come up to me and say, “You changed my life.” I’m thinking, “It was the music that changed your life; I’m just lucky to be a part of it.” But I know exactly what they mean, because music totally transformed my life.

JH: Absolutely. And with all the work you’ve done studying rhythms from Northern and Southern India, not to mention jazz or blues or anything else, you were just preparing yourself so you can get out of your own way and let the music come right through you. I know I feel that way. I don’t want it to be something I’ve thought about.

JM: The way of improvisation is a way of liberation. I think we can agree we’re looking for freedom. But the question remains: Freedom from what? And the answer to that is freedom from your little self. The minute you get out of the way, that’s when things can start to happen.

I gather that on this final U.S. tour, you’re planning to play a lot of that inspirational old Mahavishnu material.

JM: Yes, and we want to get both Jimmy’s band and my band together onstage for a couple of tunes. It’s exciting to think about. I’m not the same person I was when I wrote [those Mahavishnu compositions], but they’re still a huge part of my musical and personal history, and the idea of bringing them up to date is very attractive to me.

JH: It’s an honor for us to help you reinterpret them.

Any chance we might hear some 12-string on these dates?

JM: Now there’s a thought. It was the double-neck with Mahavishnu, wasn’t it? Just perfect for those arpeggios. Jimmy, do you think Paul [Reed Smith] would make me a double-neck?

JH: I think he’d jump at the chance.

JM: That would be a heavy boy.

JH: Yeah, but it would be so classic. Can you imagine having a double-neck PRS?

This could be a new frontier.

JM: It would, wouldn’t it? Let’s get Paul on the phone! [laughter]