While leading the jazz-rock fusion trailblazers Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early ‘70s, John McLaughlin created a new language on the electric guitar. His free-spirited and often frenetic, flamenco-influenced improvisations on albums like 1973’s “Birds of Fire” inspired countless musicians. Virtuosic rocker Jeff Beck and jazz master Pat Metheny have both named McLaughlin the world’s best living guitarist. Other acolytes include former “Tonight Show” bandleader Kevin Eubanks, and McLaughlin’s sound echoed to the top of the pop charts through players like Andy Summers of the Police.
The English guitarist’s work outside of Mahavishnu scaled similar peaks, and graced some of the cornerstones of recorded jazz. Within a month of recording his own debut album “Extrapolation,” McLaughlin was working with Miles Davis on 1969’s “In A Silent Way” and helping to launch the legendary trumpeter’s electric period. McLaughlin continued with Davis on notable albums including “Bitches Brew.” McLaughlin also broke ground combining jazz and Indian classical music with the band Shakti.
Now 75, McLaughlin has performed steadily for more than 50 years. Though it seems unlikely that he’ll ever retire completely, the guitarist’s current tour with his seasoned band, the 4th Dimension, is being presented as his final run through North America. The group performs Nov. 17-18 at the Vic Theatre.
McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension are supporting a new live album recorded at venerable London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s, where a young McLaughlin served as a member of the club’s house band in the ‘60s. The “Live at Ronnie Scott’s” album includes the languid melody of “Gaza City” from 2015’s “Black Light” album, featuring keyboardist Gary Husband. Bassist Etienne Mbappé and drummer Ranjit Barot dazzle on “Here Come the Jiis.” The set also includes the stunning technicality of “Vital Transformation” from Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1971 debut “The Inner Mounting Flame.”
Billed as the Meeting of the Spirits Tour, the Vic shows will include a set by American guitarist and McLaughlin favorite Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip. Herring’s band will join the 4th Dimension for a concert-closing jam session built upon classic Mahavishnu Orchestra compositions. “I was into my yoga, my meditation, no drugs, but I wrote some weird music in those days, man,” McLaughlin told Rolling Stone last month.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.