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.