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John McLaughlin: 'Now Here This'

Virtuoso guitarist John McLaughlin has reigned at the top of the charts for the past 40 years and continues to astound his peers. British guitarist Jeff Beck calls him "the best guitarist alive" and jazz pianist Chick Corea credits him with "setting the world on its ear."

Now the Yorkshire native celebrates his 70th birthday on a tour of jazz festivals in this country and Canada that brings him to Washington on Sunday for the Howard DC Jazz Festival. The centerpiece of his concert is "Now Here This," his latest studio recording.

"The title is related to the state of awareness, very important in jazz and all improvised music," he said, speaking from Monaco. "It all has to do with the environment. Being in the moment is important to jazz musicians. We spend time living in yesterday and tomorrow, but collective improvisation can only take place in the moment.

John McLaughlin
» Where: The Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW
» When: 8 p.m. Sunday
» Info: $45 in advance, $50 day of show; 202-803-2899; thehowardtheatre.com, dcjazzfest.org

"I don't see myself as a composer. I can't sit down and expect it to happen. Inspiration might come under the shower, in a restaurant, or even in a plane. When it comes at inopportune moments, I have to write it down. I remember one time when it came on a plane and the only thing I had to write on was the barf bag."

McLaughlin's newest recording brings back the electrified fusion that marked his two Mahavishnu Orchestras in the 1970s and 1980s. His early fascination with Indian classical music merged with a mix of genres that drew musicians from varied backgrounds and put a stamp on their fusion of jazz, rock and Eastern influences. McLaughlin has always worked with some of the best musicians in the business. The 4th Dimension, his current ensemble, features drummer Ranjit Barot, Etienne M'Bappe on bass and keyboardist Gary Husband.

"I think they're the best I've worked with since Miles Davis and John Coltrane," he said. "Miles Davis is my hero. When I heard the Miles Davis in Europe album, I decided that Tony Williams was the greatest drummer in the world. My greatest thrill came the day after I arrived in New York in 1965 and was invited to appear with them.

"I became the guitarist in Tony Williams' Lifetime and then with the Miles Davis band. One great lesson I learned from Miles is that musicians must be themselves. He left room for everyone. My Mahavishnu period led from a conversation with Miles at a club in Boston. Out of the blue he told me it was time I focus on my own band. I wasn't even considering it, but I had to justify him and figure out what to do next. He gave me time and space to develop and work things out. I'm trying to follow his example.

"Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton changed the direction of the electric guitar with jazz fusion. Until then, we had the smooth sound of Wes Montgomery. After jazz fusion took hold, Miles was up in the stratosphere and Coltrane was looking for new notes out of the air."

McLaughlin has a dozen guitars, but his current favorite, one made by Paul Reed Smith, of Maryland, is heard on his latest recording. Likening himself to the 29-year-old hippie he once was, he travels with only one guitar on his back that he never lets out of his sight.

"I love festivals because there's a kind of fraternity in the jazz industry," he said. "Ten days ago at a festival in Istanbul, I had a wonderful experience sitting and playing together with old friends. We see less of them these days, so I always take the opportunity when it arises. I do gigs with lots of different musicians like James Taylor, the Who, the Eagles and others in our wide open confederation of bands, but festivals are a time of love, affection, admiration and hearing good music."