The guitarist John McLaughlin, who helped pioneer jazz-rock fusion and became arguably its most important figure, is currently on what has been sold as his final U.S. tour. His packed-out performance at the Town Hall in Manhattan, on Friday, was even touted as his “final New York City appearance.” The culture of fandom around McLaughlin skews more rock than jazz—jazz tours don’t usually include commemorative T-shirts or middle-aged men obnoxiously shouting requests—and one can only hope that extends to marketing copy as well, as with those Who or Eagles concerts for which the word “final” means nothing. Both forward-looking and nostalgic, and showcasing an excellent and still-developing rapport with another, younger fusion virtuoso, guitarist Jimmy Herring, Friday’s show seemed to indicate a late-career renaissance more than a farewell. In his two hours of stage time, McLaughlin, who turns 76 in January, mostly played with the standard-setting virtuosity he first brought to the city from England in 1969.
Dubbed the “Meeting of the Spirits” and stretching toward three hours, the program took on a three-act structure. First, Herring and his working group, the Invisible Whip, established the jazz-rock m.o. over 45 minutes: guitar solos that made a point to put a lifetime of study on display; airy lines juxtaposed with tight riffing sections; speedy, labyrinthine melodies, some Eastern-tinged, shared among guitar and keys and violin; clavinet solos wherein Matt Slocum approached the keyboard as if it were a hand drum. McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension followed, and underscored the guitarist’s still-vibrant gifts and his music’s weighty South Asian influence, embodied in and extending from drummer Ranjit Barot and his konnakol vocals. Keyboardist Gary Husband opened the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Miles Beyond” with the percussive electric-piano riffing recorded by Jan Hammer in 1972, and the climax was foreshadowed. The crowd clapped and hollered even louder than usual, as only concertgoers hearing music from their adolescence can.
For the main event, the final hour-plus, the two groups joined as a nonet, propelled by the dual-kit attack of Barot and Herring drummer Jeff Sipe. It was a midsized rock ensemble that stayed nimble and interactive and flexible, very loud but aware of how its dynamics needed to remain in deference to McLaughlin. (Think smart, sprawling, musicianly rock bands like the Allman Brothers or King Crimson.)
Or maybe it was all in deference to the repertoire, consisting of Mahavishnu favorites that McLaughlin hasn’t exploited while leading groups under his own name. The guitarist has a wide-ranging discography half a century deep, but cultural memory has chosen those fantastic early Mahavishnu Orchestra LPs as his best-of, his entry in the jazz and rock canons. That music is being excavated throughout this tour with surprising thoroughness—compositions from The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire as well as Visions of the Emerald Beyond (“Earth Ship,” “Be Happy,” “Eternity’s Breath”) and Between Nothingness & Eternity (“Trilogy”).
Even if an Orchestra reunion has become something of a jazz chimera, there were many delightful invocations of the past at the Town Hall. Not the least of these was McLaughlin’s double-neck PRS guitar, whose very sight inspired whoops from the fanboy-men and brought to mind those classic early ’70s photographs of the guitarist clad only in white and playing his hulking Gibson EDS‑1275. (I can’t help but think JT’s Mac Randall had something to do with the making of this PRS instrument. Read the closer of this Q&A.) The double-neck includes an electric 12-string fretboard up top, which brought the requisite authenticity to “Meeting of the Spirits” and “Birds of Fire,” as did violinist Jason Crosby, who formed an acerbic frontline with McLaughlin à la Jerry Goodman. (There’s a lot in those ominous arpeggios and hard-angled melodies, which form a bridge from jazz-rock to psychedelia to Eastern spirituality.) McLaughlin reveled in the idea and power of this ensemble, facing it as if conducting or turning sideways to strengthen his hookup with Crosby, Husband or especially Herring.
Herring, 55, is best known as a member of the Southern jam-band Widespread Panic and post-Zappa rockers the Aquarium Rescue Unit—the crowd reflected these fan bases—but the music he chooses to record under his own name is more thoroughly within the fusion tradition. There’s a sense of totality about his playing that makes it easier to swallow than a lot of chops-focused guitar music. He connects even, smoothly executed lightning runs with polished bends; at other times his improvising is motivic, staving off monotony and giving his solos narrative signposts. There’s a reminder in his playing of how profoundly jazz-indebted the first generation of Southern-rock improvisers were. For hardcore jazz listeners, he might sooner evince the cleanly virtuosic lines and phrasing of contemporary horn players like Kenny Garrett. He never seems to be working too hard.
McLaughlin has maintained the kind of masterful abandon that he made his name with. Live, his attack is repetitive though its returns don’t diminish: Flurried phrases culminate in lengthy salvos that inspire awe before they’re punctuated with a waggle of the tremolo arm or a signature over-bend; the meters can be odd, but he charges headlong through them in a way that makes them feel straight. He showcased and parried with Herring generously in this final act, and the younger guitarist’s playing sounded rounder and more controlled against the maestro’s, and more rock-centered. McLaughlin still comes off like the world’s most impassioned bebop guitarist enticed by the spirit and technology of the late 1960s. In the end, Herring and the expanded ensemble proved better company than an all-star assemblage, providing matchless support without diverting focus from the man of the hour. The fusion-era celebrities will join in for New York Farewell Concert No. 2, hopefully.