John McLaughlin Talks Retirement, His North American Tour and the Late Paco de Lucía

Jordi Vidal/Redferns
John McLaughlin performs at Sala Barts on July 20, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. 

"You know, musicians never die. They just decompose. So I'm on my way."

That's John McLaughlin's way of explaining his decision to retire from touring as he prepares for the start of his final North American run, The Meeting of the Spirits Tour with his band the 4th Dimension that begins Nov. 1 in Buffalo. McLaughlin isn't quitting music, mind you; He just released a new album, Live @ Ronnie Scott's. But the Mahavishnu Orchestra mastermind and band member for Miles Davis and Tony Williams Lifetime says simple aging has made it time to put the suitcases away.

"God bless mother; I inherited music from her but I also inherited arthritis, so it's creeping up on me," McLaughlin tells Billboard. "I think one of the most catastrophic things that could happen would be to go on tour and have a really bad hair day where I'm not really able to play. That's a nightmare for me. I don't want to get confronted with that situation, so I told the guys in the band, and some months ago, that this is the goodbye tour." The guitar virtuoso adds that it's also appropriate that he take his final touring bows in North America.

"It's almost full circle in the sense that I arrived at the end of the '60s in New York to play with Tony Williams Lifetime, and I ended up playing with Miles Davis 48 hours after I arrived and continued to play with him until the last concert in Paris in '91. In fact, it was Miles who pushed me to form my own band in October of 1970; He told me straight it's time to form my own band, and that was Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Mahavishnu in America, the way it was embraced, I can't express my feelings about that, so I'm coming to North America because of my affection for America, the American people and public who just took me to heart, took my band to heart and my music. It's the only way I can really say goodbye and thank you."

McLaughlin and company have dates booked through Dec. 9 in Los Angeles, with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip on the tour and playing an encore set of Mahavishnu Orchestra material together. McLaughlin and Herring will also be playing a special show in memory of Spanish guitar legend Paco de Lucía on Dec. 1 at the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival in Mexico, which will have special meaning for McLaughlin. 

"I really miss him, so that will be very meaningful for me," McLaughlin says. "I talked to [de Lucía] the month before he died, on Mexico on the beach playing football with his kid. We'd already exchanged music and planned a duo album of new music together, from autumn of 2012 on. He sent me some pieces, I sent him some pieces. That record will never be made, of course, but one of the pieces I subsequently recorded ['El Hombre Que Sabia (The Man Who Knew)' on 2015's Black Light album] just as a homage. It's still hard after all these years. It's like losing family, isn't it?"

McLaughlin still expects to perform "isolated concerts" moving forward, and he has a number of recording projects in various stages of developments. In North America, meanwhile, he'll be playing a career-spanning show, and he expects the concerts to be "very personal" as he says farewell to the assorted cities he's visiting. 

"You realize as you get older that tomorrow is not guaranteed for anybody," McLaughlin says. "I've been aware of this for quite a while now, so I really consider every concert to be my last one since we don't know when we're going to be taken away and sent back to that wonderful place we came from. This really is my attitude. We're just going to play and have a lot of fun, and I'm excited. It's always a great feeling."


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