John McLaughlin is reminiscing about Miles and Paco and Zakir and dodging school as a teenager to hear flamenco. He may be regarded as one of the world’s greatest guitarists – the best alive, according to fellow guitar hero Jeff Beck – but he still talks about his formative experiences with a palpable sense of excitement.
McLaughlin is an improbable-sounding 74, but there is absolutely no resting on his laurels, as the Festival Theatre audience will witness tonight, when he plays the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival with arguably his most dynamic line-up yet, his 4th Dimension quartet. As their current album, Black Light, demonstrates, in the company of keyboard player and percussionist Gary Husband, drummer and Indian konnakol vocalist Ranjit Barot and electric bassist Etienne M’Bappe, McLaughlin is generating the kind of fiery, virtuosic jazz-rock that is at times reminiscent of his iconoclastic Mahavishnu Orchestra of the 1970s.
“They’re marvellous,” the Yorkshire-born guitarist says of the band, speaking from Monaco, where he has lived for the past three decades. “There’s a great spirit there, that the old Mahavishnu had back in the beginning.”
He talks in terms of “a complicity that can develop between the musicians on a human level that communicates itself through the notes,” a complicity he adds, that also creatively informed his long-running but currently dormant acoustic Indo-jazz fusion band Shakti.
“With 4th Dimension, especially with the addition of Ranjit four or five years ago, it’s been marvellous and I’m very happy that – he puts on a cod Scots accent – “I’m comin’ up to bonnie Scotland to play for ye.”
He recalls a visit to the 1990 Glasgow Jazz Festival to perform his Mediterranean guitar concerto with the Scottish National Orchestra. Also at the festival was Miles Davis, the year before he died. The legendary trumpeter had been good to the young Englishman when he had first arrived in New York in 1968 to join The Tony Williams Lifetime. McLaughlin ended up playing on such classic Davis recordings as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. He wrote the second movement of the concerto for Miles, he says, “because Miles was crazy about flamenco and Hispanic music. He was always close to the blues, of course, like a true jazz man, but with the flamenco influence.”
He enthuses about Blues from Pablo, from the 1957 album Miles Ahead, which had a considerable impact on him during his early listening. This was at a time when the young McLaughlin, already absorbing the blues records his older brother was bringing into the home, started skipping school and hitching to Manchester once a month to stay with his brother, who was at university there, and who would smuggle him into a pub to hear the flamenco guitarist Pepe Martínez.
Talk of which inevitably leads us to his friend and collaborator, the flamenco virtuoso Paco de Lucía, who died suddenly in February 2014, days after McLaughlin had spoken to him on the phone. He’d also just sent de Lucía a demo of a tune he’d written for their next joint venture, El Hombre que Sabia, which now appears on the Black Light album. “Paco was very attached to the piece, which was why I wanted to record it,” he says.
McLaughlin’s other abiding involvement has, of course, been Indian music – and the philosophy which underlies it, particularly through the acoustic high-energy of Shakti, which has gone through various incarnations since he formed it in the 1970s. Not only did 2014 see the passing of de Lucía, but also the death of Shakti’s virtuoso mandolinist U Shrinivas at the age of just 45. “We played together for 14 years and I miss him terribly, the same as I miss Paco. But at the same time, I do hope that Shakti could get back together.”
He and Shakti’s renowned tabla player, Zakir Hussein, have known each other since the end of the Sixties – Hussein threw a Bollywood style party in Mumbai to celebrate the guitarist’s 70th birthday four years ago. “And he wants me to go back there next January because it’s my 75th, and I’ll be there, oh yes.”
The apparently ageless McLaughlin says he simply lives from day to day: “And at 74, well, I’m still getting up there. Inside I still feel 29.” He chuckles. “Just an old hippy. My body doesn’t always totally agree with me, but I’ve been lucky; since I began doing yoga and meditation in the late Sixties, it’s had a very beneficial effect.
“Musically, I’m very happy. But you never know whether that’s light at the end of the tunnel or a train coming. Whatever it is, I’ll accept it because I’ve had such a marvellous life.”
• John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension play the Edinburgh Festival Theatre tonight. The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festvial runs until 24 July, www.edinburghjazzfestival.com