Bennie Maupin and John McLaughlin: A (Near) Meeting of the Spirits

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Benny Maupin and John McLaughlin were essential parts of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” band that would reinvent jazz, or really invent a new kind of music. On Friday and Saturday, respectively, each played a concert in L.A. dedicated to their own landmark works from shortly after they left Davis’ employ — a mere coincidence of scheduling, but a wonders-filled chance to compare and contrast two divergent, but related paths of visionary artists, and each show a marvel in its own right.

John McLaughlin & Jimmy Herring final concert of "The Meeting of the Spirits" farewell U.S. tour

(Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance)

By Steve Hochman

Friday night, Bennie Maupin addressed the audience at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater underneath Walt Disney Concert Hall, just after completing the first-ever full concert performance of his landmark 1974 album, “The Jewel in the Lotus.”

“It’s like a dream that continues,” the woodwinds maestro said, overflowing with gratitude. “But it continues with you…. You were worth waiting for.”

The next night, at UCLA’s Royce Hall, a beaming John McLaughlin echoed that as he concluded what he says is his last-ever U.S. tour with a set largely spotlighting the music of his revolutionary ‘70s jazz-rock-and-beyond Mahavishnu Orchestra groups.

“Good vibes!” the guitarist exclaimed at the start of his set, and later at the end he thanked the fans for getting to be there “with you.”

That coursed through both performances. Maupin, switching between flute, soprano sax and his signature instrument, bass clarinet, led a 10-piece band with palpable joy and appreciation for the fans there to see it. McLaughlin was just as buoyed as he strapped on his custom-built Paul Reed Smith double-neck electric12-and-6-string guitar as his 4th Dimension quartet was joined by opener Jimmy Herring’s Invisible Whip quintet and started the shimmering arpeggiated chords opening his “Meeting of the Spirits.”

It was mutual. It seemed many in both audiences had waited, well, decades to hear this music performed like this. REDCAT bristled with anticipation before that concert, the album’s nuanced power and crackling sense of invention and exploration having gained stature in jazz legend over the years, at least among a diverse array of fans and artists, including L.A. percussionist-composer Alex Cline and writer-director Cameron Crowe, both in attendance this night.

And at Royce, many exchanged memories of seeing the original Mahavishnu Orchestra back when, some in 1974 in this very same room, as life-changing events. This writer saw that group in spring ’73, nearly 45 years ago, at the Granada Theater in Santa Barbara, taken by a high school friend without ever having heard a note of the band before. It still stands as a profound moment, ears opened, head turned around by the power and mystery of the music, unlike anything I’d ever heard before. But this weekend it wasn’t just old folks reliving their youth. In both settings, younger people in attendance were eager to be part of something they’d heard about as history but for which they were born to late to experience themselves.

They were not disappointed.

Both Maupin and McLaughlin approached their classic music with all the verve, vibrancy and imagination that brought it about in the first place. These were not mere recreations of cherished recordings, but re-creation, the acts of creative artists still inspired by great music of the past but also still adventurously seeking new routes, new combinations, new expressions. A title of one of the pieces from the Maupin album serves as a nice motto for the approach of both evenings: “Past + Present = Future.”

Now, astute fans of the particular pasts represented here will get the significance of this two-night sequence — not that each alone merits anything less than adulation. Maupin and McLaughlin were each part of one of the most significant, and perhaps controversial, turns in modern jazz: the band that helped Miles Davis realize new approaches to his music, to music in general, with a series of recordings that included the, uh, milestone “Bitches Brew” album.

So here, through an accident of fortuitous scheduling, it was possible to see these two key figures present their own most profound statements, to compare and contrast. Maupin’s “Lotus,” coming on the heels of his work in Herbie Hancock’s electric Headhunters and Mwandishi outfits, was a largely acoustic exploration, airy yet grounded and restlessly meditative, which is not really such a contradiction in terms. Mahavishnu Orchestra was a largely electric hybrid, loud and raw, yet also centered in a spirituality at once calm and searching.

Both brought expanded lineups, and expanded concepts, to the new performances. Both brought levels of vitality and energy that belied the passage of years. Maupin for Friday’s concert assembled a little 10-member chamber group, including several faculty and alums of CalArts, where he teaches, adding viola (Eyvind Kang), cello (Shana Tucker) and vibes/marimba (David Johnson) to the septet format of the album. The very nature of the music involves the players having space and encouragement to experiment, to stretch, but always in concert with the others. All told, the performance doubled the length of the original album version, not a note seeming wasted or less than essential.

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(Photo by Steve Gunther)

It was jazz, sure, but also more. This was explicit in the title piece, which started with young pianist Lindsey Hundley, seemingly undaunted to step into a spot originally held by Hancock, beautifully evoking Debussy impressionism. From their flowed elements ranging from Indian classical music (percussionist Eric McKain creating tabla sounds with an electronic pad) to cool jazz (Johnson’s vibes and the guitar of Jeff Parker, formerly of the band Tortoise, putting personal stamps on traditional sounds). And  the strings brought in experimental/classical music, at times percussive, at times elastic, at times transcending or confounding attempts to fix time signatures and tonal centers, and wondrously so. The leader, generous to a fault, switched between flute, soprano sax and, his signature instrument, bass clarinet, at times joyously parrying with alto saxist Steve Lehman.

The sounds throughout called forth images meteorological — flurries, breezes, roiling storms — as much as musical, though the pioneering global perspectives of Yusef Lateef and Eric Dolphy are clear touchstones, with perhaps the most profound presence being Alice Coltrane’s unclassifiable musical universe, where borders between musics and cultures simply don’t exist. And all this with just one full rehearsal the day before.

On Saturday, the audience had already been treated to full sets by jam ’n’ jazz veteran guitarist Herring and band and McLaughlin’s band before the two units joined forces for the bracing 90-minute finale of this collaborative “Meeting of the Spirits” tour. What preceded was wonderful,  Herring’s combo combining the worlds of jazz-rock a la ‘70s Jeff Beck and the flow of the Allman Brothers (including a fine version of their “Les Brers in A Minor”), and McLaughlin drawing from his very wide-ranging scope (Indian, Iberian, jazz classic and modern) and incomparable talents and touch in electric and electrifying joy. But this last portion was why everyone was here, and expectations were more than met.

While doubling up nearly everything — two basses, two drum sets, two keyboard and, of course, two guitarists, with Jason Crosby’s violin the lone loner — would seem a recipe for a mess, the result was anything but. The drummers (McLaughlin’s India-born marvel Ranjit Barot, who also engaged in some Indian konnakol vocalised percussion, and Herring’s Jeff Sipe) and bassists (Etienne M’Bappé and Kevin Scott, respectively) have developed remarkably intuitive rapport in the course of the tour. One or the other of each pair sat out at various points, and when they all played together they complemented without over-complicating each others’ playing and then, at times, locked together in mixes of power and grace.

It was not as raw and rough as the original Mahavishnu Orchestra could be, but it drew on that and added new aspects and insights, past + present. “Birds of Fire,” the soaring title track of Mahavishnu’s 1973 second album, sported an exhilarating duel of McLaughlin and Crosby trading sparkling improvisations in a quick exchange. (See video below.) There was true beauty in the power as well, with “Lotus on Irish Streams” and “Dance of the Maya” allowing all the musicians space to add their own stamps. And with the “Eternity’s Breath” suite, originally done by a second Mahavishnu lineup after McLaughlin disbanded the first, this 2017 grouping stripped off some of the slicker sheen of the recording to reveal depths.

Judging from a scan of set lists from previous shows on the trek, this was an expanded set, as if McLaughlin and crew didn’t really want it to end. Neither did many of us. But a closing encore two-fer proved a perfect summation, a perfect end to a remarkable two days of concerts: “You Know You Know” and “Be Happy.” We do. We are.

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