Article and photos by Hambone Sparklewell
John McLaughlin‘s band, The 4th Dimension, performed at the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville on Friday, November 25, marking the legendary guitarist’s farewell tour of the United States before arthritis grounds him.
At the risk of engaging in dusty history, when a star-struck young John McLaughlin recorded with Miles Davis on the title track of In a Silent Way, Miles told him to “play like you don’t know how to play the guitar.”
So McLaughlin’s 1969 sound drew on a mutant version of blues, the western musical language based on the pentatonic scale and 4/4 time patterns, earthbound timbers as sturdy as any log cabin. But Bitches Brew followed, and Jack Johnson, and Live-Evil and On The Corner. By the time McLaughlin graduated from the University of Miles and became Mahavishnu, a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, he was studying traditional Indian music and meditating, and his music was more of a Taj Mahal, with swooping Hindustani and Carnatic speed and synthetic modes, i.e., scales that don’t exist in western music, and crooked meters like 7/4 and 11/4.
Imagine that a silver haired-composer from Vienna had meditated for 20 years in a Himalayan cave, using as his mantra the sounds of Coltrane’s saxophone, Paganini‘s violin and the sarod of Ali Akbar Khan. The resulting music left the blues far behind, except for a whisper of Hendrix. McLaughlin became the leader of a brutally virtuosic strain of intricate jazz that often frightened and confused western audiences, unsure how to hear dissonant angular cathedrals of frightfully fast jet-powered electrical ragas that roared off the ground and whispered into orbit.
On Friday, Jimmy Herring’s band, The Invisible Whip, opened the show and at least gave us a bluesy toe-hold with the Allman Brothers’ famous “Les Brers in A Minor,” but the majority of his set burned with the authentic fusion fuel to be used by Mahavishnu’s machine. (Several spun Widespread Panic fans were reportedly injured trying to dance.) A well-deserved ovation followed, and Jimmy’s jazz bonafides were undeniable, but the best was yet to come.
John McLaughlin then led a set by his quartet (including superlative drums, bass, and a triple-threat musician who played keys, violin, and drums over the course of the night), which he conducted with hand gestures, chopping time, cupping and throwing dynamic cues to each soloist before launching himself into orbit. This music was built for transformation and transportation of experienced listeners. Resistance to or fear of the maelstrom can bury the uninitiated under the waves. By riding the waves instead, like a Sufi spinner in a trance, we were carried on birds of fire.
Herring’s band joined The 4th Dimension for the long final set, and the audience — including almost every intrepid local musician who wasn’t out working, it seemed — travelled far on the spaceship. (A few Deadheads recognized the Indian chant that punctuated a drum solo, tak-a-takata-tak-tak, etc, because they remembered the end of Mickey Hart’s drum solo in Berkeley on 9/20/68.) Like a good leader, Maestro was generous, dishing out solos, dancing to the merged bands, and providing the brightest holy spark of all.