PARIS – It was 1973, in Ottawa, and I had recently discovered Jimi Hendrix and was looking for another guitarist of equal genius. Perhaps it had to do with Hendrix being dead, perhaps it was because Hendrix was so good that I could not accept that one man alone have that level of talent. In any case, it was through a neighbour who was a little older than me, who passed on a few records of potential Hendrixes, that I found another guitar genius of a completely different kind. Among those records were Santana, which I liked but did not fall in love with, and this other guitarist with his album of the amazingly strange, almost psychedelic cover; this was no Hendrix, but in his own way, with something stricter, more ordered, and yet chaotically, bizarrely ordered, I discovered John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the album “Birds of Fire.”
Having been raised with jazz – from my father’s vast record collection – and having actually attended concerts by bands called The Duke Ellington Orchestra, or The Count Basie Orchestra, the idea of an “orchestra” that had nothing to do with symphonies was not foreign to me, despite my chest-length hair and hippie sensibilities. In fact, the clearly Eastern sound to the name of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was as intriguing as Hendrix’s hallucinogenic covers.
Then, as soon as I heard the first notes of the first piece – “Birds of Fire” – I knew I would go right out and buy that album. It was probably the only one of those that my friend lent me that I did buy. The Santana was far too soft for me, but while John McLaughlin was not at all like Jimi Hendrix, and could never “replace” the reality – or rather, irreality – that Hendrix offered me, this was clearly one of the coolest guitarists I had ever heard. His style was unmistakably his. The frenetic, manic, super fast playing was a wonder to listen to, but the songs also made up a world of their own to which I felt like some kind of initiate allowed to step in to a world that sounded to me like my own generation’s Bach.
John McLaughlin at New Morning fourth
In a time, now, when all of the heroes of my generation – and in fact, the heroes of all the popular music of the second half of the 20th century – are dying what seems like almost at a daily rate over the last couple of years, that a hero like John McLaughlin, is not just still alive, but playing as if he was still 30, at the age of 75, is not just an incredible gift, it is a wonder and an inspiration. It took me 44 years before I ever got to see McLaughlin in concert, but seeing him Wednesday night in Paris in the intimate New Morning venue, was like being invited into one of the local practice studios neighbouring this legendary music venue, and hearing and seeing this hero of my youth.
John McLaughlin at New Morning seventh
And it was fitting that almost immediately, McLaughlin and his latest band, the 4th Dimension, played “Miles Beyond,” from that very album, “Birds of Fire.” Unlike at so many concerts by heroes of the past, though, I found myself equally mesmerised and carried away by songs that I did not even know of, some of them from the most recent recordings of this amazing guitarist. McLaughlin is a treasure, and if you get a chance to go and see him on his upcoming tour in Europe, or his later tour this year in the U.S., which will be his first there in something like a decade or so, just don’t miss it. And take music lovers from the current generation, since McLaughlin is not just a jazzman, he is a rocker.
drummer scat stuff with John Mclaughlin at new morning eighth
He may have come of age with his jazz rock fusion, but the fabulous thing about McLaughlin is that anyone who studies much about the history of rock music will find that he came out of the same England that produced so many of the rock stars of the 60s, playing at one point with Alexis Koerner’s band, actually giving lessons to Jimmy Page at one point, and performing as a session musician for a vast swathe of other musicians-
John McLaughlin at the New Morning first
And then, of course, he played with Miles Davis and others, including segues into projects like his Band of Doom with Jaco Pastorius.
And then there was John McLaughlin’s Incredible 4th Dimension band
Not only is it worth seeing and hearing him now because he is in more than full control of his instrument at age 75, and still looking like a supercool dude from the rock generation rather than any kind of sit-down old fart bluesman – he stood up for the whole show while playing, and took just one minute break on a stool to take a drink, in a more than 2 hour show – but he also has accompanying him three outstanding musicians who all look like they are enjoying themselves as much as McLaughlin is.
John McLaughlin at the New Morning third
On bass was the fabulous Étienne M’Bappé, originally from Cameroon, who has a bass playing style equally aggressive as McLaughlin’s inimitable guitar playing. M’Bappé is the first bass player I have seen play with gloves, by the way. But his playing is so percussive that I’m not surprised he wants to protect those fingers – I just can’t figure out how he does it!
John McLaughlin at the New Morning again
On drums was Ranjit Barot, and Indian drummer who grew up in the tradition of Indian classical music, but has vast CV playing in numerous styles, and also has scored films, composed, arranges, everything. And he sings fabulously well too, and loved his sort of scat stuff.
John McLaughlin at the New Morning second
And on keyboards, and occasionally also on drums, was the incredible Gary Husband, who to my ears sounded equally as good on drums as on keyboards. Husband has played with Mike Stern, Jack Bruce, Robin Trower, Billy Cobham, Spectrum 40, Level 42, Andy Summers and Quincey Jones, among many others.
Some of the most touching moments of the evening were his pieces that Mclaughlin wrote for moments that clearly filled him with great emotion, like the song he wrote during the bombing of Gaza, or the song for his friend Paco de Lucia. The duelling drum moments between Husband and Barot were also a hugely entertaining bit that gave spectators a little of everything through the night in the intimate room for a band that could fill Paris’s biggest theatres.
Birds of Fire
What was really most inspiring about this show, aside from just listening to great music, was to think of a man of 75 playing as if he was 30, no impediments from age. He spoke in French most of the evening, too, by the way, as he lives in Monaco since the late 80s, and he said at one point that he had a broken collarbone on the mend. Having had my collarbone break on three different occasions as a slightly perturbed child, I know just how painful that is. And for a guitarist of 75 to stand up and move around and play with his guitar strapped over his shoulder with an injury like that, there’s nothing to say but that McLaughlin, in addition to everything else, is a real trouper.