Mahavishnu Orchestra

“The ultimate religion for me was going up on stage with that band and playing.” - Billy Cobham

Using rock instrumentation (and volume) to elevate improv and composition to fiery levels, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was one of the strongest fusion groups of the early 1970s. Leader and guitarist John McLaughlin came out of Miles Davis and Tony Williams’ Lifetime group to pursue his own vision. The Orchestra made complex music, with plenty of unusual time signatures, chords/modes, and forms, the sheer execution of which can bowl someone over on first listen. But it also has qualities of aspiration, attaining, and intense focus.

The original Mahavishnu Orchestra lineup featured McLaughlin on guitar (often a double-neck 6 and 12 string), Jerry Goodman on violin, Jan Hammer on keyboards, Rick Laird on bass, and Billy Cobham on drums. Each player came with various amounts of jazz pedigree, and each could also play electrified fusion with authority. As colossal as this group was, external pressure and internal conflicts tore them apart only a couple of years after their 1971 inception. Among the problems were compositional credits - how much did McLaughlin want to let the others write, and how much did he acknowledge their contributions to his own material? On top of that, most of the other members didn’t really buy into Johnny Mac’s metaphysics, which were front and center in the song titles, album notes, etc. McLaughlin was dismayed by the “lack of mutual spiritual consciousness” (as he said in a later interview), and his playmates were soon out the door.

McLaughlin reinvented the Mahavishnu Orchestra thereafter with a new supporting cast, first making the symphonic album Apocalypse and then the hybrid Visions of the Emerald Beyond. (And also an unconvincing album called Inner Worlds, which I’m going to ignore.) After unplugging Mahavishnu in the mid-70s, John McLaughlin went acoustic with Shakti, continuing his ever-evolving career.

I first encountered the MO’s music in my early twenties, and it was one of those big door-opening experiences. Not for all the “guru” business, which I don’t subscribe to anyway, but for the formal and emotional charge of it.

The Inner Mounting Flame
1971 / Columbia Legacy

The power and restlessness is evident right away in the eruptive chord sequence that begins “Meeting of the Spirits”, building towards sinister arpeggios, a counter-riff, a scorching guitar solo, and perilous ensemble passages. Sure, Inner Mounting Flame is well known for its impressive technical chops, but “Spirits” asserts that the music is more about structure and conscious improvising. The many notes signify intensity, not athleticism, and the raw energy is captured by the studio recording.

First things first, the players are as potent and well matched as any other fusion outfit of the time, if not more so. Not even in Tony Williams’ Lifetime did John McLaughlin’s guitar come to the fore with such presence. (Partly because those early Lifetime records weren’t that well recorded.) Amplifier cranked, McLaughlin blends rock, blues, jazz, and Indian components into a visceral, “aspiring” soloing style, while his rhythm parts often take the shape of unusual arpeggios. I still say that McLaughlin’s facility is best appreciated on an acoustic instrument (try 1989’s Live at the Royal Festival Hall), as the loud amplification here sometimes obscures his precision, but then again, it adds much sustain and force, and his work in Mahavishnu clearly took electric guitar to a new level.

Violinist Jerry Goodman has the tough role of doubling and sparring with McLaughlin’s guitar lines. His more soulful soloing is a good complement to the guitar’s acerbic tone. Jan Hammer would go on to be one of the most notable synthesists of the decade and beyond, but at this point, he mostly plays electric piano, switching on a ring modulator when he wants to get freaky. The rhythm team of bassist Rick Laird and drummer Billy Cobham handles all types of rhythms and time changes. Laird usually takes the anchor role within each piece; not being a standout bassist, he instead holds everything together.

Much could be written on the multi-layered compositions; Mahavishnu doesn’t just slap a riff, some chord changes, and a melody together. In a nutshell, the prototypical MO piece features odd-time arpeggios by the guitar, topped by a secondary melodic phrase that modulates upward with the chord changes, topped again perhaps by another half-time melody. The result is a cycling system that indeed has orchestral depth, with room made for modal solos. A few of Inner Mounting Flame’s pieces follow this course, while others have more straightforward arrangements.

“Meeting of the Spirits”: The opening chord sequence gives the feeling that something important is about to happen, and it does - McLaughlin initiates a swaying arpeggio riff, the drums enter, a bass and violin counterline emerges, and then the guitar leaps to the top of the spectrum with a sustained melody that spills into a frenetic solo. Flagship extraordinaire.

“Dawn”: Starts off almost like a ballad, but it still uses the approach I described above, where a nine-note melodic line ascends alongside the chords. This leads to a guitar solo, and then the track shifts gears to a funkier, more common chord sequence for a violin spotlight.

“Noonward Race”: McLaughlin and Cobham engage in a furious duet in the beginning, then the bass and drums lock into a grooving riff under a violin solo. (Amplified violin is not an easy setup to control, so credit to Goodman for his efforts.) Jan Hammer takes over next on electric piano, distorted by a frequency shifter. Along the way, a lead motif appears, not really a melody but more of an extended signal between chord changes. After a guitar solo, the group plays again with the melodic signal, and the track concludes as it started with drums and guitar. A high-energy performance. By the way, the duet jam at the beginning includes a sped-up riff that McLaughlin had used on the Miles Davis track “Right Off”. It’s in a different key and much faster, but it’s the same lick.

“A Lotus on Irish Streams”: The only moment of peace on the album is this etude where guitar, violin, and piano assume their acoustic forms. What else can I say, except that McLaughlin, Goodman, and Hammer didn’t require electric instruments to make inspiring music.

“Vital Transformation”: Based on a killer uptempo riff in 9, this track might be my favorite of the bunch. Billy Cobham does some tremendous drumming, and Jan Hammer adds cool touches of organ alongside the electric piano. The group almost burns the riff/bassline into the ground, but the bridge breaks into a pensive idea, once again with a modulating chord/melody approach.

“The Dance of Maya”: The first part explores a grim (and somewhat ugly) chord sequence, then the second part goes into an odd-time bluesy shuffle. McLaughlin plays well and really makes the guitar howl at the end.

“You Know, You Know”: Another favorite, and at last, another dose of relaxation, with a calm guitar line and tasty musings from Hammer. Just in case the listener lets their guard down, jarring accents start to appear. This track indicates that the group can conjure atmosphere from even the barest of premises.

“Awakening”: The finale jacks the intensity back up to 10 with a fast unison line. The funny thing is that the notes are just the same minor pentatonics that countless other bands have used, but in the hands of the Orchestra, they become something else. Entertaining solos follow, and then the group stamps the program to a close.

I remember being overwhelmed when I first heard Inner Mounting Flame; it took me a while to get around the intensity of the playing to appreciate how the music was put together. I’d never heard anything else that uses the main arpeggio/melody ascension idea, outside of classical music, and I think it’s significant that most of McLaughlin’s arpeggio progressions move upward, with slightly unresolved notes - reflecting his spiritual thoughts, I suppose. It brings a nice emotional charge to the otherwise assaultive music. An essential fusion landmark.

Birds of Fire
Aug. 1972 / Columbia Legacy

Birds of Fire clarifies some of the ideas found on Flame, increases the precision, and even finds the group playing more quietly when necessary. Amongst the new elements are the soulful flavors of “Miles Beyond” (Jerry Goodman’s pizzicato break and Jan Hammer’s electric piano comping), the violin-section majesty of the ever ascending “Hope” (one of my favorite Mahavishnu tracks ever), and the folkish guitar chords that frame “Open Country Joy”. Jan Hammer also starts using a synthesizer on this album, and though he hasn’t found his trademark solo sound yet, it does let him bring another distinctive voice to the front line.

The title track I would rate evenly with “Meeting of the Spirits” as an opening anthem; they’re nearly dead ringers for each other, with the same entrancing arpeggios, counterpoint, off-center rhythms, and burning guitar. “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters” is an angular rewrite of an older McLaughlin tune called “Binky’s Beam”. It’s a fun track, but I don’t think it stands up to the forceful cuts found on Flame. “One Word” starts out very well, including some fine bass work from Rick Laird, but after the main soloists have their say, there’s a clinical drum solo and a unison riff section that I can only call excessive. The somber etude “Sanctuary” doesn’t fully succeed, in my opinion; I understand the mood it’s going for, but I don’t find it especially engrossing. On the other hand, the closing “Resolution” is another favorite of mine, a slow, chugging groove underneath the “rising motif” idea, which builds in short order to a stirring climax.

The group is still on top of their game on Birds of Fire, breaking ground in style. The overall variety might make this the most accessible of their records, but after living with it a long time, I think it lacks consistency. As mentioned, a couple of tracks are a bit weak or excessive, and for another example, the friendly components of “Miles Beyond” are overlaid with a not too friendly melody. That being said, this album has just as much merit as Flame.

The Lost Trident Sessions
Rec. June 1973 / released 1999 Columbia Legacy

Called “lost” because the group didn’t agree on the quality of these recordings. Instead, three of the new pieces were featured on the live Between Nothingness and Eternity (recorded soon afterward in NYC), and these sessions were left to hibernate. This would have been the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s third studio album, and for the most part, it would have been worthy, as could be heard when it was released a quarter of a century later. First of all, the sound is as good as the preceding records. And the performances are fine, too - not subpar, as one member said in hindsight, or empty, as another member had thought the tracks needed extra strings added. No, it’s basically in fine shape, if a tad uneven.

“Dream” is the eleven-minute apotheosis of what McLaughlin had been striving to achieve in the Orchestra - dynamic ensemble passages, exciting group interplay, and some scene-setting atmospherics. The middle section is more “jam” oriented than anything the MO had yet done (especially so on the live Eternity version), and the group handles it well. I like the way they superimpose two different rhythms to return to the main theme. I guess you could find a couple of rough edges in this performance if you were really nitpicky, but “Dream” seems to me to be one of their strongest works. “Trilogy” is another McLaughlin composition, divided into three segments, as you would guess. The opening section features chiming 12-string and a beautiful melody, and the second section is a light yet sophisticated interlude with subtle drumming from Billy Cobham. The final section rages in with an overt rock riff and intense solos, followed by a slight return to the opening “Trilogy” theme. Another good piece.

The Trident sessions were where the sidemen started to explicitly compose for the group, a point of contention leading toward their breakup. A couple of those members insist that they had already made significant creative contributions to the previous albums, but Mr. Selflessness didn’t see fit to share writing credits. Anyway, the third track is Jan Hammer’s “Sister Andrea”, and it’s absolutely terrific. It starts with a groovy vamp, then McLaughlin takes things down and back up again in a dramatic solo. The rhythm turns to a funky R&B vibe for Jerry Goodman’s violin statement, and the finale moves into a minor-key vamp for Hammer’s synthesizer solo. Here is where Hammer discovers his patented, guitar-like Mini-Moog tone, manually warped by the filter and oscillation knobs and whatnot. Fantastic, that’s all I can say.

“I Wonder” and “Steppings Tones” are contributions from Goodman and Rick Laird; both utilize repetitive chord cycles and run to three minutes each. Ironically, they sound like sketches McLaughlin might have written, but that only demonstrates that other members besides the leader were tuned to the group’s ethos. The last track, “John’s Song”, is a droning piece with lighting fast phrases, solos, and fine stickwork from Cobham. None of these three are close to being classics, but they contain good ideas, and in the case of “John’s Song”, impressive playing.

I’m sure the tracklist on this CD was designed to put the best selections up front (“Dream”, “Trilogy”, and “Sister Andrea”), which leaves the other tracks sounding like afterthoughts. Here’s how I would structure a proper album: “Trilogy”, “I Wonder”, “Sister Andrea”, “Dream”, “Steppings Tones”, and “John’s Song”. That’s more balanced, and you could split that across an LP, too. In any case, I’m curious how the album would have been judged had it been released at the time. I think it upholds the previous standards for the most part and uncovers a couple of exciting new areas. Anyone who enjoyed Flame or Birds really ought to check it out.

1974 / Columbia

Haven’t heard this in several years, so I’m going to delay an official review for now. What I do remember is that McLaughlin got himself a new crew and also the London Symphony Orchestra to go unhindered into his fantasy realm (“Hymn to Him”, “Vision is a Naked Sword”). I also remember some great guitar work, pleasant orchestral textures, and a couple of funky bits, although the small-large conglomeration completely detoured from the immediacy of the classic lineup. And who needed vocals?

Visions of the Emerald Beyond
Dec. 1974 / Columbia

This is the first Mahavishnu album I ever heard, and I still have a soft spot for it, even though it’s not the work of the classic quintet. The players aren’t shabby though - McLaughlin still plays brilliant guitar, Jean Luc Ponty knows his way around a violin, and the rhythm team of Ralphe Armstrong and Michael Walden can get down in any meter. Keyboardist (and vocalist) Gayle Moran doesn’t have Hammer-like virtuosity, instead taking a more supportive role. There are extra strings and horns on hand too, carrying over some of the expanded flavors of Apocalypse.

The record begins with the two-part “Eternity’s Breath”, the first part of which is quite theatrical, the second more rocking. There are some vocals in “Eternity’s Breath”, but I just accept them as another part of the orchestra, so to speak. Then comes “Lila’s Dance”, which employs patented McLaughlin arpeggios before turning to a blues-shuffle section very reminiscent of “The Dance of Maya”. It lacks the edge of the earlier Mahavishnu music (this new lineup sounds friendlier and less aggressive), but it’s nonetheless a fine offering, and the piano bookends are lovely. “Can’t Stand Your Funk” is two minutes of what you would get if you sobered up Keith Richards and told him to write something in 5/4; it’s just a little riff exercise, but I love it to death. The following “Pastoral” is as reflective as the title suggests. “Faith” I rank with MO’s finest pieces, even though it recycles chords from both “Meeting of the Spirits” and “Hope”. The first part climbs the arpeggio ladder, then McLaughlin takes a thrashy solo break, and it ends with a ridiculously fast string-led flourish.

“Cosmic Strut” begins the second half by proving 9/8 can be a very funky meter. The clavinet and bassline help the cause. After the guitar solo, the meters alternate for Ponty’s violin solo. He has a few more licks and tricks than Jerry Goodman, and they’re effective in this instance. “If I Could See” comes in with an operatic vocal jolt, but this extreme left turn is soon subsumed by an agreeable orchestral cadence, which crossfades into “Be Happy”. I’ll be darned if the bassline of this driving funk-rocker isn’t an offshoot of “Vital Transformation” - yes, there are several echoes of the past on this disc. McLaughlin and Ponty trade white-hot solos back and forth, and “Be Happy” rockets into whatever the happysphere is supposed to be. Then comes the slightly forgettable “Earth Ship” (a few more vocals, don’t worry, they evaporate quickly) and the spacy “Pegasus” sound exploration. “Opus 1” is a brief classical episode for strings, and finally, McLaughlin and Walden begin a wild duet in “On the Way Home to Earth”. This jam doesn’t have the same impact as those McLaughlin did with Billy Cobham, but regardless, a totally wonderful chord sequence creeps in, absorbing the guitar and drums and bringing the album to an emotional close.

I like this album a lot, despite the very few moments of unnecessary vocals and/or artificial grandeur. The bulk of it comprises well-arranged music and some cool funky diversions. Objectively speaking, there are redundancies in the recycled elements, although I shouldn’t hold McLaughlin accountable for reusing some of his trademark chords and patterns. More to the point, Visions should be credited for its journey-like aspirations, where the opening has all the chutzpah of “A Love Supreme”, and the finale indeed sounds like a grand return home. Recommended, but only if you’ve heard the “real” MO albums first.

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