Friday, September 1, 2017

Mahavishnu Orchestra - 1975 - Visions of the Emerald Beyond

Mahavishnu Orchestra 
Visions of the Emerald Beyond

01. Eternity's Breath Part 1 (3:10)
02. Eternity's Breath Part 2 (4:48)
03. Lila's Dance (5:34)
04. Can't Stand Your Funk (2:09)
05. Pastoral (3:41)
06. Faith (2:00)
07. Cosmic Strut (3:28)
08. If I Could See (1:18)
09. Be Happy (3:31)
10. Earth Ship (3:42)
11. Pegasus (1:48)
12. Opus 1 (0:15)
13. On The Way Home To Earth (4:34)

- John McLaughlin / 6- & 12-string guitars, vocals
- Gayle Moran / keyboards, vocals
- Jean-Luc Ponty / violins (electric & baritone electric) (10 solo)
- Ralphe Armstrong / bass, double bass, vocals
- Michael Walden / drums, percussion, clavinet, vocals

- Bob Knapp / flute, trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals
- Russell Tubbs / alto & soprano saxes
- Steven Kindler / 1st violin (5 solo)
- Carol Shive / 2nd violin, vocals
- Phillip Hirschi / cello

Keeping the Apocalypse line-up intact (minus the orchestra, of course) and adding a brass section, which will be playing the whole of Apocalypse at the Festival of Montreux in 74 (now available on DVD); VotEB is more a return to the fiery force of the debut album, even if we could call this album jazz-funk, rather than jazz-rock. Indeed with Miles' Big Fun, Weather Report's Mysterious Traveller, the jazz rock thing had now shifted to jazz-funk, partly because of Vitous' departure (replaced by Afro-American Alfonso Johnson) from WR and in MO's case Laird's replacement with another Afro-American Ralph Armstrong. Sooooo, keeping the Apocalypse quintet, plus the small string section also present on that album, Mc also hired a brass section, that had played in concerts previous to this album, among which the Montreux Festival of 74 (on DVD), where the full Apocalypse was played and the brass had to invent their own role. Graced with a superb artwork, reminiscent of BoF, this album returns to more sober form of jazz-rock, consisting of shorter tracks (except for the opener conveniently split in two), but does often fray into funk territory as well, which was not only keeping with the times but also suggesting the next album.
One of the most striking feature in this album is the presence of much singing, done by Gayle Moran, backed mostly by Narada (he would sing he Inner World) and to a lesser extent Armstrong and Mc himself. The opening 8-mins Eternity's Breath certainly contains loads of signing (all things considered for MO), but retains the same great spirit of their previous works, the only negative remark I have is for Ponty's too strident violin parts in the closing minutes. Lila's Dance starts on an ascending riff, again reminiscent of MkI, but soon drifts into bizarre (at first) break where Ponty rules, then Mc takes over with a Hendrix passage before both take up the opening ascending riff in unison answered by the brass section, before slowly segueing into Can't Stand Your Funk, where the brass section and strings make this track something grandiose, much like Papa Was A Rollin Stone. With evocative bird singing and Ponty's violin, backed up by the string section (Hirsh's cello works wonders in setting bass drones when needed), Pastoral is almost a rip off from Stravinsky's Rites of Spring and Beethoven's Sixth. The same birds lead us into the guitar arpeggios of Faith, before Armstrong and Narada take the debate up to Ponty's violin and a weird ending.

The flipside, which is something I consider a side-long suite, not only because of the space-theme track titles, but songs melting into each other, the flipside starts on the funky Narada-penned Cosmic Strut, which directly shows the funk of its mood, with again a great brass section underlining and strings backing up, but I find nothing cosmic into it. The atrocious but thankfully short If I Could See (where Moran's soprano vocals are cringey) leads into the 200 mph Be Happy where the group is obviously so through the many chord changes in the closing section. Earth Ship is a very calm track, sung by Gayle over her electric piano and accompanied by a lovely flute and Mc's gentle guitar, shares a pure ethereal beauty and leading us into the short Pegasus and its almost Gong-like space whispers, complemented by the ultra short Strav-like Opus 1, before Mc's mean guitar sends us light years away aboard his spaceship, shooting the hell out of interfering path-crossing asteroids, before landing us back into our seats, where Cosmic Strut had torn us from.

Partly because of the increase in vocal content, shorter tracks and the funk element, I had long seen this album as a lesser ingredient of MO's oeuvre and the first signs of decrepitude, but this album is grower on me of late. While not of IMF, BoF, BNaE, LTS and Apocalypse's calibre, VotEB remains a jewel in MO's crown of king of progressive jazz-rock.

Visions of the Emerald Beyond is the most-overlooked and under-appreciated recording John McLaughlin has ever made. This album, released in 1975, features an expanded Mahavishnu line-up that went beyond a horn and string section to include the dynamic Narada Michael Walden on drums and fusion superstar Jean Luc Ponty on violin.

This album is drenched in a new sort of funkiness that McLaughlin had not explored in previous Mahavishnu recordings.

"Eternity's Breath" opens the album, and right away you know you are in for a sonic treat. McLaughlin's notes are fat and strong. Walden's drumming is powerful and propulsive. Ponty's violin literally soars to heights he has never attained on his own recordings. The strings and horns do not have that superfluous quality found in many other "third-stream" efforts. They are relevant to the musical event. Vocals even pop up now and then, and although they can be somewhat "holier than thou", they too add to the orchestral milieu of Visions.

Many listeners wanting to hear a clone of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra never accepted this band. That is too bad, because MO2 had a lot to say. The band has a full and engaging sound, plus the balls to present it in a grandiose fashion.

Michael Walden's "Cosmic Strut' opened up side two of this album on the original vinyl release. Talk about FUNK! This tune envelops you in it. Walden, who has gone onto to become a superstar producer, was a great fusion writer.

"Lila's Dance" is another gem. When Branford Marsalis served as the musical director of America's Jay Leno Tonight Show, his band, also featuring the fine jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks, would regularly perform the tune, along with "Meeting of the Spirits." Even two decades years later these tunes were too much for the establishment to take. Management told Marsalis to stop playing this type of music. That attitude, along with some other issues, convinced Branford that he no longer had a job. Eubanks has the gig now, and although he's a huge McLaughlin fan, he doesn't play any of these tunes. He wants to keep his job. That's how dangerous this music can still be.

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