Friday, September 1, 2017

Mahavishnu Orchestra - 1973 - Technically Brilliant

Mahavishnu Orchestra
Technically Brilliant

July 21, 1973
Lenox Music Inn
Lenox, MA

101. Introduction
102. Birds Of Fire
103. Miles Beyond
104. Stepping Tones / Sister Andrea
105. Dream
106. Sanctuary
107. One Word

October 28, 1973
Yale University
New Haven, CT

201. Meeting Of The Spirits
202. Trilogy

301. Sister Andrea
302. I Wonder / Awakenning

Bass – Rick Laird
Drums – Billy Cobham
Guitar – John McLaughlin
Piano – Jan Hammer
Violin – Jerry Goodman

When John McLaughlin formed the initial Mahavishnu Orchestra, the personnel included Jerry Goodman, a classically trained American rock musician; Jan Hammer, a Czechoslovakian keyboard player with a strong jazz background; Rick Laird, an Irish bass player with both jazz and rock experience and Billy Cobham, a powerful and technically brilliant jazz drummer from Brooklyn whose style would completely redefine his instrument. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, this globally and musically diverse group brought elements of Far Eastern music, R&B, Blues and Classical music to the table. The Mahavishnu Orchestra created music that was intricate and complex, performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences and critics alike. The group had a firm grip on dynamics and was equally adept at dense, aggressive flights of feverish intensity as they were at creating moments of passionate spiritual contemplation.

This legendary performance, from the summer of 1973, is significant for a number of reasons. First, it captures the group playing material from "Birds Of Fire," when it was sharply in focus. Second, it was the unveiling of a new custom designed stereo sound system, which provided the Mahavishnu Orchestra with a greater ability to communicate with each other and an entirely new level of sound reinforcement clarity for the audience. Third, John McLaughlin plays his custom made Rex Bogue double-neck guitar for the first time in concert. And most significantly, this was the era when the band was beginning to headline concerts, allowing them considerably more time on stage. This allowed the group to further explore the possibilities for improvisation, creating a more spontaneous and exciting experience for the musicians and audience alike. Put all these factors together and it's not surprising that this was a truly magical night.

Musicians who recorded with Miles Davis during his early explorations into electric instrumentation inevitably went on to form bands of their own, but few were as adept or as influential as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a globally diverse group formed by legendary English guitarist, John McLaughlin. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, the group also brought elements of Far Eastern, R&B and Classical music to the table. The Mahavishnu Orchestra created music that was often intricate and complex, performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences and critics alike. The group had a firm grip on dynamics and was equally adept at dense, aggressive flights of feverish intensity as they were at creating moments of passionate spiritual contemplation. This diversity and technical ability dazzled audiences the world over and helped to expose jazz and world music to a younger audience. The initial "classic" lineup of the group lasted barely three years and only released two studio albums and one live recording during this era, but these recordings had a profound effect, redefining the jazz/rock fusion movement in the process. By early 1973, the Mahavishnu Orchestra had firmly established their reputation. Their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, had mesmerized musicians and listeners alike and with more than a year of live performing behind them, they had arguably become the most exciting live band on the planet. The material from the group's blazing sophomore studio effort, Birds Of Fire was now fully integrated into the live repertoire, additional new material was in development and they were consciously taking a more improvisational approach in their performances. 

One of the most immediately surprising things about the New Haven  performance is the complete absence of Birds Of Fire material. On this performance the band opens and closes with highly improvisational takes of "Inner Mounting Flame" material, but otherwise focus entirely on unreleased material, destined for their ill-fated third studio album - all new to the audience. At first glance at song timings it appears that the first two songs are far too long to be just those two songs, but they are! They begin the set with the track that kicked off their debut album, "Meeting Of The Spirits." The band is obviously in a highly improvisational mood as here the composition is expanded to three times the length of its studio counterpart, possibly the most expansive version ever attempted and a prime example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity.

The next hour of this extraordinary set is primarily devoted to new material, beginning with "Trilogy." Beginning with Cobham's gong, McLaughlin's phase-shifted guitar washes gradually increase in volume until the band kicks in to state the melody. Cobham and Laird anchor a 7/8 time signature while McLaughlin and Hammer explore "The Sunlit Path," its initial sequence. The introspective middle section, "La Mere de la Mer," is a stellar display of the group's command of dynamics. McLaughlin plays delicate 12-string arpeggios, Hammer interjects bird calls from his mini-moog as Goodman and Laird begin a tranquilizing duet. This gently weaving second section serves as a tranquil prelude to the pummeling third section, "Tomorrow's Not The Same." Just when one least expects it, Cobham signals the sudden transition with a monstrous snare roll that propels the band into a blazing jam, featuring mind-bending improvisations. Goodman, Mclaughlin, and Hammer all take opportunities to solo, while Cobham and Laird firmly anchor the jam. Possibly the longest version of "Trilogy" ever attempted, this is another example of the group at its most exploratory.

The improvisational abilities of the group were at the most astonishing level during the latter part of 1973. All of this music burns with an intensity few groups have ever matched in live performance. The Mahavishnu Orchestra's tempestuous mix of jazz, rock, and Eastern influences is at its peak here. This is a vivid example of the band taking improvisation to the extreme. All of the musicians are clearly challenging themselves to push the envelope here, with constantly surprising and utterly compelling results.

Mahavishnu Orchestra - 1999 - The Lost Trident Sessions

Mahavishnu Orchestra 
The Lost Trident Sessions

01. Dream (11:06)
02. Trilogy (9:30)
- a. The Sunlit Path
- b. La Mère De La Mer
- c. Tomorrow's Story Not The Same
03. Sister Andrea (6:43)
04. I Wonder (3:07)
05. Stepping Stone (3:09)
06. John's Song (5:54)

- John McLaughlin / 6- & 12-string electric guitars, acoustic guitar,
- Jan Hammer / electric piano, synthesizer
- Jerry Goodman / electric violin, viola, violow (custom viola with cello strings)
- Rick Laird / bass
- Billy Cobham / drums

Recorded at Trident Studios in London, 25-29 June 1973, for the band's meant to be 3rd album;
"lost" tapes until 1998, and previously unreleased (although the compositions were recorded Live)

This is the album by which we hold the end of MO's first line-up's end. Indeed, recorded just like the previous two albums in a rush (four days in late June 73), Hammer and Goodman opposed to its release, this time being helped by Laird, usually not choosing sides between the two camps, while McLaughlin and Cobham wanted to release it as such. So for once, Mc had not his way in his project, which was a first, another being that three tracks of this album are not from him. Indeed the other three come from the rebellious camp. Those having seen MO in concert always noticed that this was John's ship and he was alone boss on it, which in the long run was not a good idea. A mistake he would repeat with the MkII line-up as can be evidenced on the Montreux Performance. Anyway, Columbia finally stumbled on the tapes (that had migrated from London to LA) and released the album with the group's (full, I think) consent, and what a brilliant idea it was, but I just wish they would've given, it a more project-type of artwork instead on this relatively cheap photo montage.
Starting on the gigantic epic track called Dreams, the album quickly lets you climb aboard the spaceship returning to 73, so much easier so that the track exists inan extended version of the live BNaE album. It would be pointless to start picking the differences here, but I like the studio better, due to better recording conditions. The following Trilogy is also a track that has graced the Live 73 album, and here we get in full force with a much-needed conciseness, quality lacking in the live album.

Among the new tracks heard for the first time is the particularly superb Goodman-penned I Wonder, which has a slight déjà-entendu descending riff, but the track is so very lovingly enamouring that it could last twice its length. The Rick Laird-penned Steppings Tones is an ascending riff being worked upon to great affects, but like Goodman's composition, it's fairly repetitive. But most interesting is the Hammer-penned Sister Andrea, a very accomplished track that concentrates not only one Hammer's keyboard work, but allows a full spectrum of the group's possibilities. Most likely Hammer's Czech origins made him most likely to pull some Stravinsky-like songs that John Wanted for MO, and Sister Andrea is this album's highlight. Closing up the album is a fantastic version of John's Song #2, and shows the unbelievable power this group had and the mastery in their restraint from exploding their powers all over the sonic spectrum, Goodman's violin again underlining magnificently the rhythm section, yet allowing itself all the space to expand. Clearly the group was still quite together back then even if a spat between John and the rest of the group (with Cob abstaining, thinking of his own album to come Spectrum) about writing credits has etched the varnish.

A posthumous album that I wouldn't file anywhere else but sandwiched between BoF and BNaE, LTS is a pure gem that every MO fan simply must have. Just as difficult not to give it a full rating as with its shelf neighbours

Almost 30 years after its original recording, producer Bob Belden came across the master tapes of what would become The Lost Trident Sessions. Belden had been working on the remastering of Birds of Fire when he discovered these tapes, and the rest is history (so to speak). At long last, the aborted final studio effort of The Mahavishnu Orchestra saw the light of day.

Since this studio effort was never finished, the live Between Nothingness and Eternity was released instead, featuring several numbers from the failed recording sessions. McLaughlin apparently felt the studio efforts had not been fully realized. In hindsight, he was probably right. After all, if the vibe wasn't right and he was less than pleased, so be it. But just because McLaughlin didn't think the sessions were up to his usual standards doesn't mean they don't bear interest. They sound great and have historical significance. That's justification enough for their delayed release.

Apparently all of the old band members were contacted and asked for permission to release the recording, warts and all. This was probably done as a courtesy from Belden, because as far as any one can tell, the musicians had absolutely no control over their Columbia Records output anyway.

At any rate, The Lost Trident Sessions provide us with the future direction of the MO. That is, the band was about to break up. This is evidenced by three tunes penned by members other than McLaughlin. Jan Hammer's piece "Sister Andrea" may be familiar from Between Nothingness and Eternity. Jerry Goodman's "I Wonder" and Rick Laird's "Steppings Tones" [sic] also appear. In addition, the Trident Sessions feature the McLaughlin originals "Dream," "Trilogy," and "John's Song #2." Both "Dream" and "Trilogy" are also included on BN&E , while "John's Song #2" is new to McLaughlin's recorded output.

"John's Song #2" is the album's standout. It serves as a precursor to the style to be heard on the new Mahavishnu Orchestra's Visions of The Emerald Beyond a year later. The rapid-fire starts and stops and ever-changing themes make it a fusion treasure. It also serves as a particular showcase for Goodman. His violin soars here to much greater heights than on his earlier efforts.

The tighter versions of tunes from BN&E are welcome. "Trilogy" in particular is a taut composition which would later be fleshed out on the live album. Hammer's "Sister Andrea" sounds pleasing and includes enough distinction to render it distinct from the live performance. Hammer's soloing is also more impressive on the studio effort.

"I Wonder" and "Steppings Tones" present a problem. Both tunes are somewhat simple, but catchy. Although enjoyable, they just do not belong on a Mahavishnu Orchestra album. One can understand the musical tension developing at the time after listening to these two cuts. In fact, strict Mahavishnuites would also point a crooked finger at Hammer's "Sister Andrea," which gives early indications as to where the fusion movement was moving. Unfortunately, it was moving out of touch.

The most surprising aspect of the recording is the fine, up-front performances from Goodman and Laird. We all knew by this time how great McLaughlin, Cobham and Hammer were. Laird and Goodman, although clearly talented, seemed earlier to be along for the ride. This recording corrects that misconception in a big way. Both players make strong statements, and surprisingly, these statements do not appear on their own compositions. Listeners who still seek to validate Laird's playing should step back and appreciate "One Word" from Birds of Fire.

The sound quality is great given the fact that these tapes were gathering dust for all those years.

The Lost Trident Sessions is an important historical find that contains some awesome music, and it also gives some hints as to why the band was running into problems. The record is a must for any fusion fan; critics who insist on dismissing its quality or importance should be court-martialed post haste!

John McLaughlin And Mahavishnu - 1986 - Adventures In Radioland

John McLaughlin And Mahavishnu
Adventures In Radioland 

01. The Wait (5:35)
02. Just Ideas (2:00)
03. Jozy (For Joe Zawinul) (5:25)
04. Half Man, Half Cookie (2:56)
05. Florianapolis (5:21)
06. Gotta Dance (4:18)
07. That Wall Will Fall (6:00)
08. Reincarnation (2:57)
09. Mitch Match (3:58)
10. 20th Century Ltd (2:31)

- John McLaughlin / electric & synth (Synclavier II) guitars, producer
- Mitchel Forman / keyboards
- Bill Evans / saxophones, keyboards (4)
- Jonas Hellborg / Wal double-neck bass
- Danny Gottlieb / drums, cymbals, Simmons SDS7 electronic drums, Sycologic PSP drum interface

- Max Costa / drum & computer programming


Recorded and Mixed in Milan, Italy - Jenuary, February 1986 at Psycho Recording Studios
Acoustic Guitar created by Abraham Wechter.

Yet another revamped Mahavishnu emerged in 1986 and released Adventures In Radioland. McLaughlin was having a hard time in the 1980's obtaining a decent record contract. He eventually found a home at Relativity. Relativity, being a minor label, did not do a good job of distributing Adventures in Radioland. Due to this fact, it is one of the least known albums of McLaughlin’s career. At any rate, although now dated a bit because of the use of electronic drums from time to time, this disc is still a superb piece of work. 

The new Mahavishnu was a powerhouse of a fusion band and featured, along with McLaughlin, the overly talented keyboardist Mitchel Forman, former Miles' sideman saxophonist Bill Evans, former Metheny drummer Danny Gottlieb and the amazing bassist, Jonas Hellborg. This album cooks. McLaughlin plays guitar synth, less so than on the previous comeback release of Mahavishnu (recently re-released on Wounded Bird Records). He also employs electric and acoustic guitars and burns through the upbeat, elevating tunes. McLaughlin, Forman and Evans all contribute compositions to the mix. This allows for a variety that is more than welcome. 

Highlights include “Florianapolis,” “The Wall Will Fall,” and “Mitch Match.” The interplay between McLaughlin and Forman is a particular pleasing affair. Forman is a near genius. Every effort should be made to obtain his solo recordings, especially his earlier releases. But, all the players are strong and confident. This album proved that FUSION could be good music again! 

A sloppily produced reissue was released by Verve. The sound and the tunes are the same but it lists Abraham Wechter as playing the acoustic guitar. Come on Verve, you dummies! Abe made the guitar - he didn't play it!

Mahavishnu - 1984 - Mahavishnu


01. Radio-Activity (6:53)
02. Nostalgia (5:57)
03. Nightriders (3:49)
04. East Side, West Side (4:49)
05. Clarendon Hills (6:05)
06. Jazz (1:45)
07. The Unbeliever (2:49)
08. Pacific Express (6:32)
09. When Blue Turns Gold (3:22)

John McLaughlin - Synclavier II, Digital Guitar, Les Paul Special
Mitchel Forman - Fender Rhodes, Yamaha DX7, Yamaha "Blow Torch" Piano on "Clarendon Hills"
Jonas Hellborg - Fretless Bass Guitar, Fretted Bass Guitar
Bill Evans - Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Flute
Billy Cobham - Drums, Percussion

Additional Personnel:

Danny Gottlieb: Percussion
Hari Prasad Chaurasia: Flute on "When Blue Turns Gold"
Zakir Hussain: Tabla on "When Blue Turns Gold"
Katia Labeque: Synclavier II with Velocity/Pressure Keyboard (VPK), Yamaha DX7, and Acoustic Piano on "When Blue Turns Gold"

1984's Mahavishnu was supposed to mark the return of drummer Billy Cobham to John McLaughlin's side, in an attempt to recreate the spirit of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. Although business disagreements led to the reunion ending badly behind the scenes, the record did manage to display some of the historic interplay these musicians had shared in the past. 

The album does suffer from a lack of focus that should be blamed on McLaughlin's new guitar synthesizer, which he uses way too often. Many times the listener is not even aware McLaughlin is playing because his damn synthesizer didn't sound like a guitar at all! It can be quite maddening, really. John was in the forefront of the technology at the time, and so his indulgence should be forgiven. He would eventually employ synthesizer patches to good effect on his acoustic Trio recordings several years later. 

Mahavishnu consisted of ex-Miles' sax man Bill Evans, outrageous bassist Jonas Helborg, brilliant keyboardist Mitchell Forman and an ever-developing drummer Danny Gottlieb, replacing Cobham on tour. This band would not realize its full potential until its next album, Adventures In Radioland.

Since McLaughlin’s unprocessed electric guitar is rarely heard here, the highlights of Mahavishnu can be found in its compositions. "Clarendon Hills", a tune authored by Evans, is a full-out sonic attack and stands among the best compositions McLaughlin has ever recorded. Katia LaBeque, McLaughlin’s ex and a wonderful pianist, once again effectively adds her talents on the Indian piece "When Blue Turns Gold," which brings the album to a droning close. Recently rescued from the fusion scrap heap by Wounded Bird Records, Mahavishnu even features a talking camera. Remember, “Too Dark. Use Flash.”

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.

Mahavishnu Orchestra - 1974 - Apocalypse

Mahavishnu Orchestra 

01. Power Of Love (4:13)
02. Vision Is A Naked Sword (14:18)
03. Smile Of The Beyond (8:00)
04. Wings Of Karma (6:06)
05. Hymn To Him (19:19)

- John McLaughlin / guitars, vocal composer
- Gayle Moran / keyboards, vocals
- Jean-Luc Ponty / violins (electric & baritone electric)
- Ralphe Armstrong / bass, double bass, vocals
- Michael Walden / drums, percussion, vocals, clavinet (?)

- London Symphony Orchestra
- Hugh Beau / orchestra leader
- Michael Tilson Thomas / piano (2), orchestra conductor
- Michael Gibbs / orchestration
- Marsha Westbrook / viola
- Carol Shive / violin, vocals
- Philip Hirschi / cello, vocals

With the first line-up of MO now gone, McLaughlin instantly went back to work, recreating a group, which had yet to reach its goals of mixing Stravinsky and jazz-rock. So recruiting Ponty and Gayle Moran in the forefront, and adding Narada Walden and Armstrong in rhythm section behind him, technically MO was no worse off. If Ponty and Armstrong were better than Goodman and Laird (this is debatable and certainly not flagrant), he was losing out on Hammer and Cobham being replaced with Moran and Walden (and anything but that obvious) but the group was still top notch, especially adding a small string section.
This fan once dismissed this album a tad because of the heavy string arrangements it contains, but with age, Apocalypse is probably becoming THE album that MO had set out to make right from the start: it is probably the one closest achieving the Stravinsky realm and not just because of the orchestra, but in its writing concept. A fairly long album (over the 50 minutes), Apocalypse is a bold and daring move, especially risking the "Orchestra and group" thing, missed by Deep purple and but almost transformed into a touchdown by Caravan and Procol Harum, here still more convincingly so, even if Sir George Martin botches up the job, much the way he's done it with Stackridge's Bowler Hat album. Indeed, if Sir George was indisputable in the 60's with the fab four, he was not quite up to par in the following decade: he's responsible for the cheesiest moments of this album.

After the slow-crescendoing Power Of Love, where strings of all kinds are echoing the same feeling than on Carlos and Alice's Illuminations album, the album plunges deeply (and darkly) with the impressive Vision Is A Naked Sword, where the Orchestra is magnifying the exploits of the group and Narada's drumming is wowing everyone. The 14 minutes of this track are simply awesome, changing perpetually, alternating group, orchestra and both fused passages and a solid Mc solo. The first side closes on the very slow and cheesy intro with strings accompanying Gayle Moran's very average singing, before the track finally jumps into shape halfway through, Gayle getting some help from Narada and apparently Armstrong as well in the middle section. But as quick as it came, the group disappears to leave the orchestra to close up cheesily.

Just two tracks on the flipside with Wings Of Karma starting on very Stravinskyan orchestra (Spring's Rite comes to mind) before Ponty leads the grouping a wild fusion of molten lava, the orchestra enhancing the group's depth of sound. The huge epic Hymn To Him is the centrepiece of the album and one of the main achievements of Mc's MO, all line-up considered. Indeed the Hymn is more an ode as to how to fuse classical jazz and rock music together and somehow it manages the feat in a way that very few others managed (if at all). There are moments when the over-powering strings are laying it a bit thick and a certain lack of finesse can be seen, but this is a very minor gripe.

Apocalypse was a bold move, one touchdown, but the conversion kick bouncing off the poles, but the point totals were enough for MO to have won the bet high-handedly. I'd say the album's best moments are when the orchestra is at the service of the group or when parts of the group help out the orchestra, but when the orchestra is left to do the majority of the music in a given moments, it sounds too awkward for this listener. Nevertheless an essential album that represent fusion at its best.

Well, there's not much to say about the new release of Apocalypse. Well, not as much as many Mahavishnu fans had hoped; rumours of a long awaited and much needed remastering of this legendary album, making the rounds of the mailing lists were alas, premature. So what is this CD? Answer: it's the exact same, level-for-level digital copy as Sony (né Columbia)'s previous release—slapping the audio files into your favourite audio comparison remastering detection software, and positioning the track profiles in parallel, it's immediately obvious: they are identical. Frilly twin horizons, spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table, to coin an expression. A bit-by-bit comparison confirmed it, these two were of the same spawn. Wanting to check them from another angle, I spun them through 90 degrees, as you do, to stand abreast, next to one another, and suddenly it was as if twin sister phoenixes had burst forth, vertiginously souring into the Nethersphere, screeching their eldritch caw, drawn from the infernal lungs of Tartarus. Don't you have an app for that? 

So, a remastering it isn't, but that doesn't mean it's off the agenda. There are very skilled experts queuing up to do it, but it would help music labels like Talking Elephant, who (re)produced this version, and are genuinely passionate about the music and its legacy, if Sony would be so kind to slightly remove their talons from the flesh of some of the greatest music ever made. If they're doing nothing with it, then it would be very nice indeed if they would please share the original track recordings with people who will, and NOT JUST THE FINAL MASTER TAPE, which is like asking a brain surgeon to operate on a brick. Set the music free, their vibrations to find new ears in augmented reality. Go on, please release the beast. 

That said, if you already have the 2009 Sony release, then you already have this music, and if you don't, are you mad? This is only awesome made audible, more so by the great feat of marrying disparate musics. Bringing together modern and classical, amplified and acoustic instrumentation, must be the hardest fusion to accomplish where you don't just end up with band with orchestra, or Rondò Veneziano. There are some great successes: Emerson, Lake & Palmer obviously, Rick Wakeman, and a personal favourite, Caravan who used the New Symphonia superbly to stratify the climax to "For Richard." I'd add Deep Purple's unsophisticated, but quite endearingly beautiful, early efforts on their 1969 Concerto for Group and Orchestra, which in parts used the rock group to augment the orchestra, rather than the more typical other way round. But, like putting a sitar in a pop tune, or adding strings to a rock anthem, they are just arrangements, and it's not really fusion, until a new form emerges from the elemental mixture. 

One effort that does feel fully integrated is Mark-Anthony Turnage's Scorched with John Scofield, Peter Erskine and John Patitucci. Easily on a par with Herbie Mann's Concerto Grosso In D Blues and Duke Ellington's more orchestral pieces like The Afro- Eurasian Eclipse, it's really very clever, in avoiding the usual pitfalls of marrying disparate musicians rather fiendishly. On the whole, it gets around the problem by mostly avoiding it. Instead, motifs and themes are played through in classical style by the Radio Symphony Orchestra Frankfurt, stretching the orchestral range, using percussive plucking from the first violins, cellos and basses to create a language for call and response between orchestra and jazz trio, a shared pulse, who follow back-to-back, with highly similar interpretations of the same pieces. Trio and orchestra do meet on the same score page, but when they do a basis for their communication has already been established through recognition of their differences, as much as of their harmonic potential. It's a hard act to accomplish, and it's certainly one of the best. 

But, the best? Without a doubt, it is this: Apocalypse is a huge musical statement, that draws upon monumental creative energy, to make itself heard, including, the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, with George Martin producing. When Zen Guru Miles Davis told John McLaughlin it was time to find his own path, and Guru Chinmoy had provided him the moniker Musician to the Gods, Mahavishnu must have felt his life had led to that exact point within the eternity of time. No doubt mustering the lessons learnt from his myriad of past musical experiences, he conceived this new band as an orchestra, something that proved not possible for the original lineup, but when time came for reincarnation, in the form of Mahavishnu Orchestra II, the avatar on Apocalypse is the closest McLaughlin ever got to that original concept. 

Given McLaughlin's past in skiffle, pop and jazz, one might wonder where the Orchestra bit did come from? The answer is probably, that classical sensibilities were seeded early on, Happily, my mother was an amateur musician; she was a violinist and there was always music going on in the house. We got a gramophone one day, and someone had Beethoven's Ninth, and on the last record, which is at the end of the symphony, there's a vocal quartet in which the writing is extraordinary ... the voices and the harmonies. I must have been about six or seven when I distinctly remember hearing it for the first time. I suppose that's when I started to listen. Because when you're young, you're not paying attention. What do you know when you're a kid? It was unbelievable, what it was doing to me was tremendous. I began to listen consciously to music and I started taking piano lessons when I was nine. 

Likely, as a consequence , classical music has been integral to McLaughlin's repertoire throughout; a German article refers to him as, the Paganini of the jazz guitar. Irrespective of his legendary precision virtuosity, his classicist leanings permeate straight into the succeeding album, Visions Of The Emerald Beyond which was released in February 1975. Straight off, Jean-Luc Ponty's violin is cleverly double-tracked, for fuller, choral layering, and a truly immense sound. While this vast, sweeping string section drapes itself across the music's broad shoulders, a rising allegro of determined, piano ostinati skips through the central tumult with similar colourings to a Rachmaninov concerto. While many jazz artists favour the acerbity of Stravinsky, especially his Rite of Springs: Hubert Laws, Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke (also with Jean-Luc Ponty); McLaughlin clearly has an empathy for the Romantics, from Beethoven to Scriabin, but also the grandeur of Nationalistic American composers, especially Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. 

McLaughlin's aptitude for writing in the classical form is unsurprisingly most evident from his compositional mastery, attested to by the Mediterranean Concerto (For Guitar & Orchestra), also with Tilson Thomas, and Thieves and Poets, but look further afield, for example, his arrangements and writing for classical pianists, the Labèque sisters, plus Shakti which was also built upon classical foundations. 

The rhythms of Hindustani and Carnatic classical styles at the heart of each Shakti piece, identified a basis for mutual understanding, towards a fusion of Indian classical music and aspects of Western jazz. Its language provided a means of communication: the vocalisation of these rhythms using the syllable system of Konnakol, whilst counting off beats in the taal, and incorporating a khali wave to mark the first beats, for example, Dha Dhin Dhin Dha | Dha Dhin Dhin Dha | Dha Tin Tin Ta | Ta Dhin Dhin Dha, fits a Teen Taal of 16 beats. Hindi and English are of secondary value, when you're fluent in music. 

One of the most amazing features of McLaughlin's composing is that, not only does he effortlessly fuse classical and jazz, but there are also phrasings and measures from various sources dotted throughout, from Blues phrasings, to signature bends and vibrato, cultured while learning vina. Classical leanings can be heard through his penchant for the Phrygian dominant scale. It's an adaptable choice, regularly appearing in Flamenco, Indian, Arabic and European musics, it can also be found in many classical pieces, by, Bach, Bartok, Liszt, Rimsky Korsakov, Vaughan Williams, Ravel, Philip Glass, and, Paganini (the Mahavishnu of the violin?). As with Konnakol, finding a building block fundamental to more than one musical genre must be a bonus when looking for common threads to entwine, There were certain principles I applied to the Mahavishnu Orchestra that were certainly derived from Indian, maybe mathematical concepts, rhythmic concepts or even melodic concepts, since it is fundamentally melodic and rhythmic music in India ... I don't believe one can talk about east-west fusions in music. One can only speak in personal terms - that's people ... For me, that's where the fusion takes place. It's not in the music. If you try to make a, east-west fusion, you're going to be a miserable failure right away.

McLaughlin has united apparently disparate musics, time and time again: Indian, Flamenco, Jazz for the Trio and Que Alegria; Classical, Jazz and traditional folk songs, for the soundtrack to Molom, A Legend Of Mongolia; Flamenco, Blues and Jazz for the Guitar Trio; and, well worth finding a copy, the unreleased John and Eve McLaughlin disk that was going to accompany a side of Shakti, creating a double album to follow Visions in mid-1975, which brings together Indian, folk, jazz, classical, spiritual, and a whole host more. 

One track in particular, the Burt Bacharach & Hal David-penned, "Share The Joy," is a return to playing with Tilson Thomas and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. With Carlos Santana mooted to be on second guitar, there are no hints of the raw power of the previous Love Devotion Surrender, but instead a wonderful tour through stage show musical, lush romantic strings and stirring brass, into a hypnotic cello and acoustic guitar motif, that builds in flurries; McLaughlin's rapid solo bursts merging into a bank of horns, accenting the refrain. A drone picks up, and the sweetest delicate interplay, between ethereal voices, cascades of guitar notes, punchy chords, whispered woodwind and solo trumpet, has all the haunting marks of Gil Evans and Davis, and the futurism of Palle Mikkelborg and Aura. 

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Rewind to March '74, and I think I'm right in saying that there was only once when a track from Apocalypse was performed live with full arrangement, rather than, say, the parred down ensemble that lifted the roof off the Montreux Convention Center later in the year. The difficulties of holding it all together, the synchronisation despite volume differentials, touring with so many people and their equipment, created simply too big a barrier. Except, for one gig, a few weeks before recording the album, an impromptu outing to fill a gap left by Isaac Stern who had been booked to play with the Buffalo Philharmonic. Tilson Thomas happened to be already working on the Apocalypse music, along with Michael Gibbs, an old London friend of McLaughlin's, who greatly assisted with scoring the orchestral arrangements, and provided the serpentiform introduction to "Wings of Karma," closely based on Schoenberg's Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene (Op. 34, 1929). Anyway, so when Stern dropped out, Tilson Thomas offered McLaughlin the slot, which was keenly accepted to try out the band's first rehearsed piece, "Hymn To Him." Narada Michael Walden remembers, 'It was about 20, 25 minutes long, a very triumphant piece ... I didn't want to leave the stage, it was a standing ovation and I just couldn't believe what was happening. It was phenomenal. And I guess not long after that we were told we would be working with George Martin ..., and Michael Tilson Thomas would be conducting the London Symphony. 

The experience was also profound for Paul Sorgule, Musicians depend on interplay, the electricity of being on the same page, trust, common vision, and all types of communication as well as talent. I could distinguish, quite easily, between musicians who were conditioned to the structure of reading music vs. those that felt the music, were connected with others in a band, and were locked into the audience that they played for. There was (is) an energy that certain musicians are able to tap into, an energy that others seem to miss. When that energy is tapped into—the music is magical ... I remember watching John McLaughlin, by far one of the most incredible guitarists to emerge through the mentorship of Miles Davis, lead his group—The Mahavishnu Orchestra, in a concert backed by the entire Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. I watched McLaughlin and his violinist, Jean Luc Ponty, rip through some incredible music as the enormously talented philharmonic musicians looked on in amazement. The band was tapped into the energy.

An encouraging outing for everyone, no doubt, but I think the inspired decision that makes Apocalypse so good, was McLaughlin choosing to record it in London. This must have been predominantly to bring in Martin on production. Their admiration was mutual, although, it must have snubbed a few Buffalo Philharmonic noses, to whisk their conductor away, to work with another orchestra half way around the world. Depending on whom you ask, Martin was, or wasn't, very involved, but going by his previous track record, he was an ideas man, and they can be cannily elusive, and allusive. 

Martin had previous experience with everyone from The Goons to Gershwin (his Desert Island Disk of choice was Bess, you is my woman now, soloist Willard White with the Cleveland Orchestra). Famously recording for Parlophone at Abbey Road Studios, he bought the studios for Associated Independent Recording, to offer licensed recordings to labels, that he had produced freelance, where, despite his achievements elsewhere, he wrote in his autobiography, that Apocalypse was one of the best records that he had ever made. Elsewhere, he's also commented it was one of the most difficult. In a discussion on improvements in microphone technology, especially in tolerating loud volumes, Martin, used those sessions to describe the difficulties of recording extreme audio ranges, Simply in terms of decibels it's a very different technique from recording a string quartet. This was never more in evidence than when I recorded the Mahavishnu Orchestra for Columbia. The album was called Apocalypse, and was, I think, one of the best records I have ever made. Mahavishnu was a rock-jazz group led by John McLaughlin, and they were backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson-Thomas. Since it was what I would call a very live sort of work, I said at the start: 'Let's try and record this live. It's very extreme, but let's see if our techniques can cope with it.' So I got the LSO into our big studio at AIR and put the Mahavishnu group in the corner. It was all fairly cramped. 

I got a good sound balance on the orchestra. I got a good sound balance on the group. But when they started playing together, Apocalypse wasn't the word for it-It was impossible. I was standing beside Michael Tilson-Thomas on the rostrum and, after three or four bars, he flung down his baton, and said in desperation, 'George, I can't even hear the first violin down here.' Although the group were way over in the corner, you could hear nothing else; the difference in sound level must have been about sixty decibels. So I changed tack quickly. Working in a studio of one's own design was an advantage. I decided to use two studios in harness, linking them by audio so that they could hear each other, and it seemed to work. I wanted to avoid overdubbing if possible, so the result was pretty well all live. A little repair work was done by overdubbing, but not much.

Perhaps it's easy to see how Sir George would have been enchanted by the broad brushstrokes of "Smile of the Beyond," Gayle Moran's voice floating above the swell of strings below. It's a melody not dissimilar to Martin's own melodic layering, written for the orchestral film score to Yellow Submarine. 

At other times, when the expanse of the music comes to the fore, filling every corner of your auditory range, perhaps that evocation of Copland's prairie vastness occurs. Then there's that gorgeous meander to open "Hymn to Him" : along pretty paths, lined by lotus flowers, dripping their aphid visitors' honeydew into the mottled sunlight cast betwixt golden leaves, overlapping to forming an exquisite lattice like the most delicate jali in a faraway Rajasthani princess's palace. A casual glance over shoulder to see a ruddy great big tiger bearing down on you! The guitar licks flutter faster, the heart strings quicken, and it's a bolt for safety, like the clappers straight into that explosive middle section, to make it to the other side, collapsed on your charpoi, the pulsatory strings scratching on the air, as lungs rasp for breath. That sudden cliff edginess, the sudden Hitchcockian chill, only a string section can muster. And all the while, band and orchestra complementing, and working harmoniously. For me it's the most exemplary piece to come close to a true fusion of electric and orchestra. My only problem with it, is that I love it so much, I never hear the catastrophic message suggested by the title that it is meant to bring. If the end of the world is going to be played out to Apocalypse, then it's not all bad. 

As mentioned, Talking Elephant didn't have the wherewithal to carry out the much needed remastering, nonetheless, it's an appreciated dedication to the music to keep this album in circulation. However, it's a shame the aspects which they could have improved upon are left wanting. The printing is a little garish, where a touch less saturation and contrast would have recaptured the calmness of the original LP cover, on which, the yellow and white within Chinmoy's silhouette blend, but on the CD insert are too strongly defined. The track list appears at the rear of the jewel case. This leaves the insert as a single sheet, with the original poem nicely reproduced on the back, and inside, the group photograph, with outline and key naming the ensemble to the side. Here's where I have to have a gripe: if this release is going to be attractive to Mahavishnu fans, then it has it offer something new. The least I would have hoped for is a repair of that group photo. If you've ever seen it before, the top-right, with Ralphe Armstrong, Gregory Digiovine, Michael Walden and Philip Hirschi, was overexposed in the original, meaning they are washed out with a yellow light, and not as in focus as the others therein assembled. Half an hour fiddling with this in an image manipulating app made quite an improvement, so at least the whole photo looked balanced. It's a shame this wasn't thought of, or thought worthwhile. 

The second major oversight was not to have included any liner notes. There are many experts on Mahavishnu John McLaughlin residing on the web, any number of them with insights and details to share on this awesome album. It deserves more, and an essay on production and an update about the players would have been cool. Not least, a new photograph or two, of Martin and McLaughlin in the studio booth have come to light, and what a coup that would have been, to include them in new liner notes. If the chance arises again, more can, and should, be done for this most amazing Mahavishnu music. 

Mahavishnu Orchestra - 1973 - Between Nothingness & Eternity

Mahavishnu Orchestra 
Between Nothingness & Eternity

01. Trilogy Medley (12:01)
a) The Sunlit Path
b) La Mere De La Mer
c)Tomorrow's Story Not The Same
02. Sister Andrea (8:22)
03. Dream (21:24)

- Jerry Goodman / violin
- Jan Hammer / synthesizer, piano, keyboards, Moog synthesizer
- Rick Laird / bass
- John McLaughlin / synthesizer, guitar
- Sri Chinmoy / poetry
- Billy Cobham / drums

Recorded in August of 1973, in Central Park

Between Nothingness and Eternity was released in 1973 and proved to be the swansong of the first edition of The Mahavishnu Orchestra. While the band had produced two truly great studio albums previously, BNE was intended to showcase its legendary live performance. Disappointingly, this recording does not fully capture that experience. Despite that failing, the album remains a powerhouse of a recording and is a fitting testament to the driving force that was the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. 

Between Nothingness & Eternity was recorded live in NYC’s Central Park in 1973. (The stage was set up in an outdoor hockey rink, and tickets for the event cost a whopping two dollars!) The members of the Orchestra were not getting along at this time. In fact, parts of the studio version of this album, along with new tunes from Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird, were already in the can. However, due to creative differences, the album was never finished. In 2000, some 26 years after the fact, Columbia finally released this incomplete album as The Lost Trident Sessions. 

“Dream,” a long extended piece, is often cited as one of the best all-time Mahavishnu explorations. Extensive unison playing and a guitar-drum duel that very well may be the most exciting ever-put on record highlight this tune. McLaughlin and Billy Cobham may not have been getting along off stage, but they were damn telepathic on it. Over the course of 25 minutes, “Dream” sounds lush and ferocious. At several points during this performance, you will feel the hairs on the back of your neck stiffen. “Dream” is all about tension and release.

“Trilogy” emphasizes the amazing interplay of the band. Much of this interaction runs through Jan Hammer, who was featuring his Moog synthesizer. Conversely, this is also the main weakness of the album. The problem is not contained in Hammer’s performance. He was in top form. But for some reason, the recording does not capture his sound in an entirely pleasing way. One can only guess that the recording equipment or the sound equipment on stage was not up to the task. Simply put, there are passages in which Hammer can barely be heard! This is a very serious problem during the call and response sections. In fact, the overall sound quality of the album is not very good. We must remember that the Mahavishnu Orchestra played VERY LOUD and perhaps the technology at the time just couldn’t handle it. Some fans may actually enjoy the fact that the M.O. seemed to overpower it equipment; this is especially true of McLaughlin’s wailing and distorted guitar that over-modulates from time to time. It was as if no man made equipment could contain the energy produced by this band! 

All in all, despite the obvious sound issues, BNE is a fine production. This album and The Lost Trident Sessions are a must-have in order to appreciate how the group fleshed out their compositions in concert.

As I explained in the BoF review, the tensions between Hammer and Goodman on one side and McLaughlin and Cobham on the other, started destroying the group and taking into the abyss the third album's recording sessions with the group, Columbia decided to bring out as a third offering a live album, which consisted of brand new and unreleased material: the three extended tracks on the live album being found in their original dimension on the Lost Trident Sessions. What really happened is that Mc and Cobham wanted to release the LTS tapes as a finished album, while Hammer, Goodman and now joined by Laird opposed it. This led to an imminent break-up, but the group owing one more album to Columbia settled on recording their august 73 Central Park concert. The group would soldier on until New Year's Eve in Toledo. After which, McLaughlin build from scratch a new line-up of MO that would go on to record three albums of its own.

Out of seemingly nowhere gongs are chiming, but nowhere is there a spaceship (even if the album would have a very celestial artwork), so where back down to Mahavishnu planet and its superb Trilogy (not RGI, you potheads!! ;-)), Cobham being astoundingly virtuosi, while every other musician in the group works for great unity. The first movement Sunlit Path seems to be providing Goodman's violin some rays of exposure, the second Mère De La Mer (mother of sea) is more Hammer's moment, while the closing Tomorrow's Story is highlighting Mc's blistering guitar. The crowd is overwhelmingly enthusiastic as can be heard between trilogy and Sister Andrea, the only known MkI line-up track that isn't McLaughlin penned (until much later, when Lost Trident will be released), but by Jan Hammer. And unfortunately the live version does not stand much comparison to its studio version, but still remains a scorching beauty.

The flipside is filled by the gigantic Dream, which finds itself expanded to twice its original length. In the middle is an extended and delightfully slow violin-laced spacey session, until the track picks up for the last 14 minutes where the group climbs from one climax to another, soaring higher than the Himalayas, sometimes slightly over-stretching the track and solos, but nothing scandalous, either. Even at this final stage of the line-up's life, it's impossible to find the cracks in the varnish in their incredibly tight music; although the seeds were already sown, troubles would really blossom after McLaughlin's return from his Santana collaboration. .

Some thirty years later, we now know that the three gigantic extended tracks on this Live BNAE album were actually part of the LTS released at the turn of the millennium, recorded less than a month before the concert. On the downside of this album, we are still waiting for Columbia to reissue the remastered version of this album as TIMF and BoF have received it. On the plus side, though the very same Columbia label never destroyed the artwork with their red frame around the original covers as they had done for all the other MO albums as they did so with all of WR's repertoire. How not to recommend a MO MkI line-up? Simply impossible not to, but this album should be discovered after the studio ones, including the LTS album.

Mahavishnu Orchestra - 1973 - Birds of Fire

Mahavishnu Orchestra 
Birds of Fire

01. Birds Of Fire 5:44
02. Miles Beyond 4:41
03. Celestial Terrestrial Commuters 2:55
04. Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love 0:21
05. Thousand Island Park 3:21
06. Hope 1:57
07. One Word 9:56
08. Sanctuary 5:06
09. Open Country Joy 3:54
10. Resolution 2:09

Bass – Rick Laird
Drums – Billy Cobham
Guitar – John McLaughlin
Keyboards, Synthesizer [Moog] – Jan Hammer
Violin – Jerry Goodman

In 1973, hard rock ruled the universe. But Birds of Fire , a pure instrumental jazz-rock album, managed to crack into the Billboard Top 20 Rock Charts. This was unheard of. And so was the music. 

Birds of Fire advanced fusion into the modern age, a mere year after the band's The Inner Mounting Flame had given it its real birth. Rock and jazz fans from all over the world tuned into the Mahavishnu Orchestra and it seemed as if there was no end in sight. Jan Hammer now played the MOOG synthesizer, and the new voice it added to the band was elevating. Sure, by foregoing the roughness of the electric piano, some of the band's anarchy was gone. But in its place, the Mahavishnu Orchestra offered jazz-rock anthems. The band's tunes were carefully built, musical brick by musical brick. Fully fleshed-out themes filled the ears, and the rhythmic intensity was strangely comforting. This was despite the fact that at any second, the course of the music would change so drastically that you needed a seatbelt. This album was recorded LOUD. In a strange and wonderful way, the loudness of the music served as a shelter from all of the problems of the outside world. And believe me, there were plenty of troubling things going on at the time. 

The most outstanding piece is "One Word." "ONE WORD" is THE WORD. On no other tune ever recorded by the Mahavishnu Orchestra does each member contribute so much. This was the first MO tune I ever heard, and I will never forget the chill that went up and down my spine when the band kicked in after Billy Cobham's quasi-martial drum solo. 

"Birds of Fire," which opens up the album, is a fusion classic. John McLaughlin scares the hell out of his guitar with his melodic convulsions. If you ever want to frighten a musical neophyte, turn your stereo up really loud and play the cover tune - it's guaranteed to send him or her fleeing. "Resolution" and "Hope" ended side one and side two of the original LP, and this juxtaposition gave the record more meaning than the continuous play CD. You could take a much needed breath while you flipped the record. 

The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire set the standard for great fusion music in the 1970's. It is too bad commercial considerations eventually led many companies to "pimp" from their success. McLaughlin never did, and it cost him a lot of money.

How does one better perfection? How could MO possibly top their incredible Inner Mounting Flame debut album? Well for one, they didn't know that it couldn't be bettered and for two, they actually did it by fiddling and twiddling the tiny imperfections and an increase tightness as they were now well acquainted with each other after pulling 300 concerts over two years, whereas for TIMF, MO had been together a matter of weeks. So in the early fall of 72 came out Birds Of Fire with an outstanding artwork halfway between Rothko and Folon and incendiary music to match both the cover and the title. With an unchanged line-up, MO was now soaring so high that the air is getting thin.
Unlike the debut who had only one track under the 5 minute-mark, Birds Of Fire is made of a myriad of shorter tracks with the just two well over that same 5 minute-mark. One of those being the opening title track that sets the standard even higher than Meeting did on TIMF, with Hammer and McLaughlin trading riffs and links over a wild rhythm section, which violinist Goodman choose to accompany to great affects. This track is most likely imbedded in the vast majority of 40-something western music fans' subconscious mind, because it sounds familiar to almost everyone. A slower Miles Beyond (obviously dedicated to the man with the horn) crescendoes slowly until a huge riff takes the track upside down and once there, only Hammer and Goodman are keeping it alive until Mc and Cob come to the rescue and bring it back on its toes. An amazing trick that shouldn't let anyone

The rest of the tracks on the first side are short thingies insuring quick changes, starting with Celestial Terrestrial Commuting, which obviously influenced Steve Hillage's early solo works (Fish Rising to Open), Sapphire Bullets being just an electronic frenzy. A Spanish piano and guitar duo introducing a Flamenco ambiance where Mc's fiery guitar goes to extreme, while Laird's bass provide plenty of underlying drama and the needle lifts off another Meeting motif reworking, this time called Hope.

The monstrous 10-mins One World (an oldie from the Lifetime days) opens up the flipside, first gently under Cobham4S gentle drive morphing into a martial beat and bringing the track up to 200 MPH, with Hammer, Mc and Goodman trading licks, motifs and soloing away, before Cobham takes a solo (even if he's the best in the world, it's still a boring solo, no matter how overstretched it is) and thankfully closing up the track with some powerful instrumental interplay. Sanctuary is a slow-developing track, opening on Goodman's uber-absolute violin than the rest of the musicians slowly entering the track, in full restraint, the listener can hear the quintet containing their energies to avoid exploding and respect the superb track. Open Country joy is often a bit overlooked, with its pastoral violin line, then a slight explosion before bringing us to one of the world's best album endings: Resolution, which starts on a solemn martial chill-inducing crescendoing track bringing the tension to a max allowable (Goodman's violin is incredibly efficient at this) before the burst.. Which will never come as the track ends and the needle lifts off, leaving us to imagine the explosion of molten volcanic rock in fusion. What a bunch of bloody teasers

Well, MO managed to perfect perfection, and they probably did it without being aware of the feat and actually rushing it up. Indeed the album was done between two tours and most members think they could've twiddled a few more knobs and refined the compositions to better it further still. As can be heard in One World, the three soloists where in a very competitive environment and the egos where now acting up a bit, although in this album it remains at a healthy level.

As a side note, regarding the egos, Mc had been recording his collab with buddy Carlos Santana and taking with him Cobham, eventually touring to promote the Love Devotion Supreme album, hand coming within hours of missing the opening the first concert of MO's tour of Japan, thus being under-rehearsed for a while and creating much bad vibes for the next six months before the group implodes, taking in the abyss the recording sessions of their next album .

Mahavishnu Orchestra - 1971 - The Inner Mounting Flame

Mahavishnu Orchestra 
The Inner Mounting Flame

01. Meeting Of The Spirits 6:50
02. Dawn 5:15
03. The Noonward Race 6:27
04. A Lotus On Irish Streams 5:41
05. Vital Transformation 6:14
06. The Dance Of Maya 7:15
07. You Know You Know 5:06
08. Awakening 3:30

Bass – Rick Laird
Drums – Billy Cobham
Guitar – John McLaughlin
Piano – Jan Hammer
Violin – Jerry Goodman

The Inner Mounting Flame was the first album which totally captured the power of hard rock and the freewheeling improvisational aspects of jazz. Larry Coryell, Miles Davis, and Tony Williams' Lifetime had tried something like this with some success in previous years. (It was no mistake McLaughlin was attached to all three of those efforts.) But none of that output captured the spirit like the Mahavishnu Orchestra's 1971 recording The Inner Mounting Flame.

The Inner Mounting Flame 's ascending and descending distortion-laden mantra-like riffs and unison playing set a standard for jazz-rock that is still in place today. Its Indian influences merged with blues scales and rock rawness set the music world on fire. The musical attack was relentless.

Over thirty years after its release, this album can still blow away first time listeners. The Inner Mounting Flame was recorded before the use of synthesizers, drum machines, and computer enhancement. The sound is loud, raw, and dangerous. Wild abandon meets supreme musicianship on such classic tunes as "The Meeting of the Spirits," in which an introductory guitar passage sounds like an electric sitar played through a thick fog. A forbidding theme turns "The Dance of Maya" into a raving jazz-fusion hoedown. The drummer and bassist take a short rest while the acoustic guitar, piano and violin offer the beauty, grace and delicacy of "A Lotus On Irish Streams". How could this be the same band that just blew out my eardrums?

Melodies and rhythms like had never been heard before. The distortion and the loudness could be insulting, and the speed of the playing was mind-numbing. In short, this was the greatest jazz-fusion recording ever made.

Who were these guys anyway? John McLaughlin was an up and coming European jazz guitarist who recently had been best known for some far-out playing with Miles. Soon he would become a guitar god. Billy Cobham was an ex-marching band drummer from Panama who had played with the great Horace Silver and in the important band Dreams. He too would also take his rightful place in the heavens. Jan Hammer was a true innovator who would eventually achieve worldwide fame not only for his keyboard playing, but also for his movie and television scoring. Jerry Goodman was a jazz-folk violinist who had cut his teeth during the short run of the pseudo jazz-rock group The Flock. Rick Laird had been a musician friend John knew from London. He was the house bassist at Ronnie Scott's jazz club and had played with Ben Webster and Wes Montgomery. Although the Mahavishnu Orchestra enjoyed a relatively short reign, their influence still reverberates today.

In 1972, the relatively unknown Mahavishnu Orchestra followed Count Basie at the Newport Jazz Festival. Upon hearing the very first ear splitting notes from the stage, hundreds of jazz fans—feeling musically assaulted - left the concert hall in a rush. What a joy it must have been!

With Miles Davis, Tony Williams' Lifetime and Ian Carr's group Nucleus, jazz-rock took a definitive shape and started crystallizing to its actual form. Out of the Bitches Brew sessions came two bands that would really further define JR/F, the first being the brainchild of Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul called Weather Report, and the second being the pet project of John McLaughlin (and with Billy Cobham), called Mahavishnu Orchestra, based on the name his guru Chimnoy had given him. Both bands are simply the essence of jazz-rock and both were particularly progressive in their early days, before jazz-rock sort of veered to jazz-funk and later to fusion. With an almost impossible-to-improve line-up in terms of virtuosity, MO's first era was simply flawless, even if it sometimes went over the top and might seem today a bit indulgent.
Contrary to Weather Report (who reigned as a duo but allowed anyone to come up with numbers), MO was clearly John's ship and clearly he was the captain with no back up, coming up with all of the music, leaving no credits to others. Between his roles with Tony Williams' Lifetime and Miles' group, two albums became very much essential in understanding John's evolution: first came the fantastic Devotion, where his guitar playing simply came of age and his brand of jazz-rock was born with the help of Larry Young (ex-Lifetime) and Buddy Miles (ex-Hendrix), than came the acoustic My Goal's Beyond (where he meets Cobham and Goodman), where John opens up to a very wide spectrum, including Indian music. But these albums cannot lead anyone to guess what was coming with Inner Mounting Flame. Even three decades after my discovery of this album, I still refer to it as Inner Mounting Erection, because it never fails to arouse my interest and reach orgasm, at least aural. (Sorry, I just had to do it ;o)) So when TIMF came out, its impact on music took on seismic importance and they became an instant success, as this album was the perfect mix between jazz and rock.

Opening on the McLaughlin-defining Meeting Of The Spirits (a fantastic version of this emblematic piece) with John's eruptive solos flowing out like molten lava, fluid life a river and rapid like the thunder lightning, and the whole group accompanying him effortlessly, bringing the whole thing to an orgasmic big bang. The reflective Dawn, on the other hand, shows a very different and much quieter facet of this quintet, where Goodman's violin takes on the prime role as a soothing pill, even if McLaughlin's guitar manages to pull the track upbeat, before letting it drop to its original level. The aptly-titled Noonward Race is exactly that: a monstrous piece, a 300MPH track where Cobbham and McLaughlin let use see that they're not normal earthlings, then seeking to hide that fact, they are letting first Goodman and his violin, then Hammer's distinctive-sounding synth have their say, the track resembling a jam. Just like Dawn, the track Lotus On Irish Stream is gentle and soothing (after such a brutal Race), where McLaughlin's acoustic dexterity is featured, where Goodman's aerial violin borders the cheesy and Hammer's cool piano is the cement that binds the track.

The flipside starts with a machine gun fire, courtesy of Cobham, and Vital Transformation becomes the alter-ego of Meeting Of The Spirits, and echoes that track's greatness. Dance Of Maya breaks the cycle of hard-smooth rotation of tracks with a slow-developing blues (that transition from the intro to the track proper is one of the best I've heard) where Mc and Co unleash all they got in terms of histrionics, while respecting the format. The following You Know track seems to be a variant of Meeting, but a calmer one, just content to play with the original riff, Cobham twisting our heads with his fantastic drum rolls. The closing Awakening is a bit the alter-ego of Noonward Race, at least in its intro, but even when reaching its apex, its delivers inhumane speed activity that no police radar has been able to measure, even three decades down the line.

How not to give this album anything but maximum ratings, without appearing a fool or having a chip on his shoulder?? This is the album that set the blueprint for so many groups to come, that its historical importance is worth maximum rating, let alone the musical near-perfection that it embodies. Blindly!!!!

The word “fusion” is one of the most maligned in music, its status after the punk era eventually descending into the obscene for many people who consider themselves hip to good music. After years of hearing the soulless, overproduced bits of grocery shopping music best epitomized by the abortion known as Kenny G, it’s hard to blame them. 

But this was not always the case. At the end of the sixties, musicians from both sides of the rock/jazz fence found themselves increasingly interested in finding a common ground, and albums such as Frank Zappa`s ``Hot Rats`` and virtually everything Miles Davis made from 1969 to 1975 contain some truly incredible music. One of the best (and, at least at first, most ``rock``) groups that defined this music was the Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by Davis protégé and guitar deity John McLaughlin, a man so humble as to never raise his voice on stage yet so aware of his own mystical status as a musician to christen himself ``Mahavishnu John McLaughlin``. There had been guitar superheroes before him, but dear old John was the first one to have a name that sounded like he’d stepped straight out of an issue of Doctor Strange.

McLaughlin had shown himself to be a formidable guitarist on Davis albums like ``Bitches Brew`` and ``Tribute to Jack Johnson`` as well as his own solo albums, but it was on the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s first album ``The Inner Mounting Flame`` that the full extent of his abilities was shown. Honing his fingers to almost machine-like levels of speed and precision and fully embracing Marshall-stack fuelled volume, distortion and feedback, ``The Inner Mounting Flame`` contained some of the most aggressive guitar work ever heard up until that point. Even today, bedroom guitar-muso`s who can’t appreciate the blues-based dinosaurs of the hippy era might find themselves tipping their hat to McLaughlin’s magic fingers. Still, his skill would mean little if he didn’t have a group that could match him, so he set out finding similarly jazz-trained players who were ready to rock out. I’ve already compared McLaughlin to a superhero, so I might as well give the others the same treatment: On drums, Billy Cobham, a Panamanian drummer with the power of 10 Ginger Bakers! On bass, Rick Laird, solid as a rock and able to groove in any time signature! On violin, Jerry Goodman, formerly of the Flock and able to match McLaughlin’s stringed virtuosity! And on keyboards, Jan Hammer, master of the moog synthesizer and able to bend the notes of his keyboard! Together they are the mightiest fusion group ever assembled: The Mahavishnu Orchestra!

Although some would pick their follow up album ``Birds of Fire`` as their finest moment in the studio, for my money they never topped this debut, a monstrous slab of 8 instrumental bits of precisely controlled insanity and stunning virtuosity. Here, the sound is clear yet raw, with McLaughlin’s huge guitar tone growling and screaming at ungodly volumes, the production just clear enough for the listener to make out the (many) individual notes in his speedy runs. To my ears, McLaughlin’s guitar would never sound so good again, the bit of rawness only making his fret board pyrotechnics all the more exciting. And like most groups first albums, there is an incredible energy level here, an urgency and joy to the playing that only comes when a group of musicians first becomes giddily aware of their own potential. So enough back-story already, lets get to the music!

So begins the first track on the album, “Meeting of Spirits”, its dissonant first chord exploding out of the speakers. It’s as jarring as when your teacher would slam his ruler over your desk for talking in class, and the message is the same for both: shut the fuck up and pay attention! After a few more harsh but incredible blasts, the dynamics suddenly shift and the band quiets down, with McLaughlin introducing the main theme of the track, one that owes more to the pseudo Indian raga-rock freak-outs that psychedelic rock had been in love with for the past five years. McLaughlin’s, Goodman’s and Hammer’s instruments all swirl around each other, gradually building to a hurricane of sound before dropping the intensity again and starting anew. It’s exhilarating and highly indicative of the gigantic shifts in dynamics that will follow, not just within a single song but also between tracks, like how the relatively mellow “Dawn” and acoustic “Lotus on Irish Springs” sandwich the rampaging “Noonward Race”.

Another song that starts at full blast, “Noonward Race” is perhaps the most heavy metal any music tenuously connected to “jazz” ever got. Deciding that Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” wasn’t nearly an effective enough killing machine, McLaughlin’s guitar work here comes off as the aural equivalent of every war movie ever made, the chika-chika-chika of the main “riff” and speedfreak proto-shred of his guitar solo’s all played with maximum volume, maximum intensity and, of course, maximum speed. Anyone who’s ever heard bootlegs of the original group knows that this was almost always a highlight live, with band jamming on this song the hardest and longest in a set filled with 15-minute marathons of carpel tunnel musicianship.*

“Vital Transformation” is another killer in this vein, beginning with an astounding Billy Cobham drum intro that manages to be pretty funky despite the odd (9/8) time signature and lack of space in his groove. After about 15 seconds, the group tears into a ferocious unison riff that is the most memorable on the album, one that even denim jacketed headbangers-in training could get into. After a sudden and brief venture back into raga-style tension building, the band settles into a groove, and as always, McLaughlin’s solo absolutely kills, the band perfectly building to a frenzied climax with him.

Unlike many similar groups of the time, there are even a few moments on ``The Inner Mounting Flame`` that seem to hint that these boys had a sense of humour. Take for example ``Dance of the Maya``, a song whose wah-wahed pseudo horror movie introduction suddenly and inexplicably gives way to a post-modern blues shuffle (albeit one in 7/8 time). Or how “You Know, You Know” puts the listener in a mellow mood with its slow groove and lilting melody, only to periodically interrupt it with sudden stops and seemingly random blasts of odd chords. They may have let pretense get the better of them later, but here, it’s obvious the group was having fun. 

The last track, “Awakening” ends the album on a frenzied and chaotic note. The shortest song on the album at 3 and a half minutes, one could argue that the group invented “punk jazz” before Jaco Pastorious thought of the term (or at least they could if it weren’t for the incredible amount of musicianship displayed within said frenzy). Comprised of a tremendous number of extreme moods and feelings, “The Inner Mounting Flame” must have been a daunting listen back in 1971, so much so that some parents probably begged their kids to take it down a notch and play some Led Zeppelin on their stereos.

Unfortunately, the group would only manage to release one more studio album and a live album before tensions within the band would cause them to implode. McLaughlin would gather many other musicians under the Mahavishnu name, but none of them would match the chemistry, power and sheer cosmic rush the first band achieved. So the next time one of your friends makes fun of you for liking “fusion”, do them a favour and blast them “The Inner Mounting Flame” as loud as you can…they’ll thank you for it.

*For the best of these, try searching for a boot of the group’s performance in Cleveland in 1972. It features a version of “Noonward Race” that will leave you completely exhausted and maybe a little confused by the end…and I mean that in the best way possible.