Is there a “greatest guitarist”? Would that be possible to qualify or quantify? Jeff Beck once opined that John McLaughlin is the greatest guitarist alive.
It may be impossible to determine who is the greatest guitarist alive, but McLaughlin is certainly in the upper stratum of guitarists according to any metric: technical ability, style, artfulness of solo composition, and entertaining listening.
He ended what he called his “Farewell US Tour” with his band The 4th Dimension and Jimmy Herring & The Invisible Whip at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday night.
The tour is (also) called The Meeting of the Spirits, after the first tune on the first album of McLaughlin’s seminal fusion jazz band Mahavishnu Orchestra. Herring and company co-headlined—and joined McLaughlin and company for a nine-man electric orchestra of Mahavishnu Orchestra material. The tour was advertised as celebrating the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s music, a somewhat uncharacteristic nod to the past by an artist who typically avoided nostalgia and focused on the present. Perhaps due to this concession to his famous quondam band, the rest of the set was relatively new and obscure (and certainly mostly unknown to this correspondent). For whatever reason, some of his best and best known solo, post-Mahavishnu Orchestra compositions were absent. His seminal classic Electric Guitarist (Columbia/1978) was entirely unrepresented. But in a decades-long career that has encompassed just about every important style of music, it is impossible for an actual artist to include everything. The three hours and seventeen minutes of sui generis live jazz were a stunning, stylized, near-stupendous retrospective summation.
Royce Hall is an ornate, opulent little venue that seats 1,800 and has the look of a modern musical cathedral. (Ironically, Frank Zappa recorded his first “classical” album there in 1975.)
Herring and his band (keyboardist Matt Slocum, keyboardist/violinist Jason Crosby, bass guitarist Kevin Scott, and drummer Jeff Sipe) started the proceedings with a fifty-five minute set. According to setlist.fm, they have opened every (or nearly every) show with Miles Davis’s “John McLaughlin”. The jazz maestro named a tune after the other on his 1970 double album Bitches Brew (Columbia). Despite McLaughlin’s performances, Bitches Brew has never been a personal favorite, and I was unable to recognize the arrangement of their opener. As of this writing, setlist.fm has no setlists for this event, and I can’t confirm that Herring and the Invisible Whip played it at Royce Hall. What I can say with certainty is that their set was virtuosic, relatively loud, and complex—too complex for someone unfamiliar with their music. Herring stood in one place behind a pedal board which, along with the force and volume of the set, emphasized the rock theories of fusion more than anything that would succeed the first set. Drummer Jeff Sipe’s overhanded grip was also a reminder that this was fusion (not “jazz”), but his economy of motion, along with the Invisible Whip’s skillful, improvisational delivery of their lengthy instrumental tunes, reminded that it was not exactly rock either. (Nothing about the concert was congenial to the attention spans of twenty-first century Progressive education victims.) Slocum’s setup consisted of Hammond B3 organ and clarinet. Crosby’s was limited to a Fender Rhodes. He occasionally accompanied on violin, the only acoustic non-percussion instrument onstage all night, but would save his best and most affecting violin for later. Scott, something of the frontman, introduced the band at the end instead of the physically and vocally unassuming Herring.
Following a twenty-one minute intermission, McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension (longtime keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband, bass guitarist Etienne M’Bappé, and drummer/vocalist Ranjit Barot) took the stage. For one hundred twenty-eight minutes, the quartet mesmerized the sold-out audience with artfully sculpted sound. McLaughlin began the set with band introductions. The elder statesman of jazz guitar, who will turn seventy-six in January, played a custom Paul Reed Smith designed for the tour and defied the years in many ways, from set length to physical movement. By themselves, Herring’s band and McLaughlin’s band are studies in contrasts: Herring’s stationary playing vs. McLaughlin’s limber mobility; Herring’s effects board vs. McLaughlin’s less modified tone; volume and youthful punch vs. calm and venerable reflection; Sipe’s linear motion economy vs. Barot’s sideways spraying of his drums. (All three drummers played overhanded.) Barot occasionally added scatting to his compositions (it was not quite scat singing) with a voice McLaughlin accurately described during his introductions as “like a voice you’ve never heard”. Later, it would incongruously mar the Mahavishnu Orchestra classics, but it was listenable (if a bit odd) during the solo material. After a performance of “New Bruise Old Blues” from Industrial Zen (Verve/2006), McLaughlin dedicated “El Hombre Que Sabia” (“the man who knew”) to the recently departed Paco de Lucia. McLaughlin, not a “star” or showboater, would frequently stand stock still on a side of the stage when he wasn’t playing, listening intently to his fellow soloists. During one piece, Husband (who played both drums and keys on Industrial Zen) left his keyboard setup and joined Barot on Sipe’s drum set. This alternating drum solo, with some vocal interjections from Barot, was actually a highlight of the end of the first part of the set.
After the solo tunes, Herring and company returned for the Mahavishnu Orchestra celebration. There were two, arguably three, phases of Mahavishnu Orchestra music. The original band of McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, Rick Laird, and Billy Cobham released three albums in as many years before parting ways somewhat acrimoniously. McLaughlin would later reuse the name and concept twice with other musicians (sometimes including Cobham) with results that are not generally as highly regarded or canonical as the original quintet and their tenure. The final sixty-eight minutes of the show included both phases. McLaughlin used another custom PRS, a double-neck with twelve- and six-string guitars, for much of this part of the set. “Meeting of the Spirits”, from debut The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia/1971) was first. Herring took a rhythmic, angular solo that sounded like a certain Johnny Rivers rock and roll standard at first. Whether intentional or not, it was an apposite reminder that the Mahavishnu Orchestra synthesized the best of everything, including the energy and accessibility of rock. But it was the epic sweep, scope, and grandeur of classical and extemporaneous joie de vivre of jazz that set them apart from most of their “peers” in the arenas the original quintet toured in the Seventies. (Barot’s scatting was out of place here.) “Miles Beyond”, from Birds of Fire (Columbia/1973), which garnered a current Grammy nomination in a new live incarnation with the 4th Dimension, was unfortunately absent. However, the album’s title track was a highlight, with McLaughlin trading off virtuosically with Crosby, who filled Goodman’s spot on violin effortlessly. At times, certain instruments would tacit and the respective rhythm sections would interlock, with M’Bappé joining Sipe or, alternately, Scott fusing with Barot. McLaughlin’s semi-classical compositions from this period do not need nine pieces to sound larger than life, but the extra musicians didn’t hurt. No words can quite do the music justice, but it can be described as an electric, contemporary romanticism (the puissance of Wagner without the malevolence is a start of a description). Other highlights of this part of the show included “You Know You Know” and “The Dance of Maya” (also from the debut) as well as “Trilogy: La Mere de La Mer-The Sunlit Path-Tomorrow’s Story Not the Same” (from a 1973 live album). McLaughlin played some astounding electric twelve-string lead guitar on “You Know You Know” et. al. Curiously and disappointingly, “Trilogy” was missing a double-time section near the end that floored 1973 audiences, but it ultimately didn’t matter much. Some second-wave Mahavishnu Orchestra pieces, including Barot actually, fully signing wordlessly to impressive effect, also rounded out the latter part of the program. Other than a somewhat anticlimactic encore and Barot’s misplaced scatting, it was a superlative evening of music and culture at its apogee.
McLaughlin once said that music was the face of God. Whether or not He could exist, the universe, humans, and humans’ relationship to the universe are awe-inspiring phenomena deserving rapturous reflection, confrontation, and celebration in sacred, spiritual art and music. Sacred and spiritual can have secular meanings. McLaughlin has devoted much of his life to Eastern religion, and he may object to the categorization of his work as secular. But on Royce Hall on Saturday, these glorious mini-symphonies rang out in a sacred and spiritual way that was not exclusively religious.
Onstage at The Roxy in 1973, future Royce Hall luminary Zappa said that jazz wasn’t dead, it just smelled funny.
Regardless of the state of the rest of the culture, jazz wasn’t dead or odoriferously comical in Royce Hall on Saturday, December 9th, 2017.
The maestro will be missed on tour, but his recordings will be cherished as long as recordings are audible. Hopefully Saturday’s performance will be among them.
John McLaughin and the 4th Dimension/Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip
The Meeting of the Spirits
Royce Hall @ University of California at Los Angeles
Saturday, December 9th, 2017
John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension set includes:
New Blues Old Bruise
El Hombre Que Sabia
Meeting of the Spirits [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]
Birds of Fire [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]
You Know You Know [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]
Trilogy: La Mere de la Mer/The Sunlit Path/Tomorrow’s Story Not the Same [with Jimmy Herring
and the Invisible Whip]A Lotus on Irish Streams [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]