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Mahavishnu Orchestra

Editor’s Note: John McLaughlin & Jimmy Herring perform the music of Mahavishnu Orchestra on November 15, 2017. In this post for UMS, Steve Smith, former freelance reporter and critic to The New York Times, writes about the discovery of Mahavishnu Orchestra. 

John McLaughlin (left) and Jimmy Herring (right) performing.

Pressed during a recent interview to recount the stratospheric ascent and rapid demise of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, the storied powerhouse quintet he had founded in 1971 during the nascent days of jazz-rock fusion, the great British guitarist John McLaughlin offered a paradoxical truism: “Failure is easy to deal with, but success is difficult.”

Success came quickly for the first Mahavishnu lineup: McLaughlin, violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Billy Cobham. Small wonder: Even in an explosive young scene that Mr. McLaughlin had helped to kick-start with his fiery 1969 debut LP, Extrapolation; as well as his further work that year in drummer Tony Williams’s groundbreaking trio Lifetime; and, ultimately, alongside the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis; nothing that came before the Mahavishnu Orchestra had hinted at this new band’s singular alchemy.

Front and center was Mr. McLaughlin’s breathtaking technique. In terms of speed, precision, and sheer originality, he was virtually without peer. In Jerry Goodman, Mr. McLaughlin had a counterpart who could match every flurry and spiral, while adding classical poise and folksy rusticity. Jan Hammer, beyond providing eloquent support, was taking the new Minimoog synthesizer to new heights of solo display. Rick Laird supplied the earthy tether for his bandmates’ flights; Billy Cobham matched them all with explosive pyrotechnics, while never foregoing a rock-solid groove.

From its start in July of 1971, the band seemed unstoppable. Following a week of rehearsals, the Mahavishnu Orchestra made its debut in a New York City club. The gig was a success, and the band was asked to return the next week. A few days after that engagement, the quintet made its recording debut, The Inner Mounting Flame, a stunning collection of original McLaughlin compositions that sounds fresh, intense, and otherworldly even now.

archival john mclaughlin photo 1973

John McLaughlin at Zirkus Krone in Munich in 1973.

The album vividly illustrated what set the Mahavishnu Orchestra apart from its fusion-era peers. While other bands in the burgeoning scene offered mixes of fiery display, virtuoso technical ability, funky grooves, sophisticated jazz harmonies, and psychedelic-rock power, Mr. McLaughlin and his mates balanced power with delicacy and restraint. Sophisticated arrangements helped the group live up to the second half of its name, offering textures that truly reached orchestral heights.

Mr. McLaughlin also showed an appreciation of bucolic, songful British folk music. But what truly helped to cement the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s originality was his abiding fascination with the sinuous melodic lines, complex rhythms, and euphoric flow of Indian classical music. An acolyte of the famous guru Sri Chinmoy, who gave the guitarist the name he bestowed upon his band — a compound of “maha” (great) and Vishnu, the Hindu deity — Mr. McLaughlin pursued a devotional path. Onstage, his spiritual side came out in ecstatic outpourings of joyful sound, abetted and amplified by a powerhouse ensemble. (Really, really amplified, according to many accounts.)

Those disparate elements came into still sharper focus and keener balance on the band’s second album, Birds of Fire, released in 1973. By that time the Mahavishnu Orchestra had left nightclubs behind, playing instead to arenas packed with rock sophisticates. One such listener, the insightful music critic Bill Milkowski, described seeing the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1973, opening for Frank Zappa, in his 1998 book Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries: Interviews with 30 of Contemporary Music’s Most Outstanding and Significant Figures:

The leader was dressed in all white and had a spiritual demeanor about him. He put his hands together in a praying gesture before they lit into their first song and humbly asked for quiet in the auditorium. …[W]hen drummer Billy Cobham, sitting behind an arsenal of drums and roto toms that looked as imposing as a battleship, counted off the first tune and the band jumped on it, my hair stood on end. And when McLaughlin bore down on his double-neck guitar during one solo, I practically fell to my knees with my teeth chattering.

The English guitar legend Jeff Beck described the sensation more succinctly. “Watching them was an education,” he told Mahavishnu biographer Walter Kolosky for the 2005 book Power, Passion and Beauty — The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra. “It was like having your pants ripped off and politely put back on again.”

The Mahavishnu Orchestra had become an extraordinary sensation virtually overnight, any band’s dream — or so it might seem. But for a group of five still-young men, some of whom barely had known each other before conjoining their fates, it was too much, too soon. Poor interpersonal communication and divergent lifestyles fed personal tensions; as importantly, the band simply worked itself weary with its whirlwind tour schedule, playing more than 300 shows in its first two years.

John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring

Like Icarus on melting wings, the plummet followed inevitably. Sessions taped in June 1973 for a third studio album — significantly, the first meant to include compositions by other band members — were abandoned. Instead, Between Nothingness and Eternity, a live album taped in New York City’s Central Park in August and made up entirely of material from the scrapped LP, would serve as the original Mahavishnu Orchestra’s swansong. (The abandoned tapes, issued in 1999 as The Lost Trident Sessions, attested to both lofty goals and flagging spirits.)

Daunted yet still devoted, Mr. McLaughlin soldiered on: with a bigger, more ornate Mahavishnu lineup featuring the prodigious violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and, for one LP, a full symphony orchestra; with the pioneering acoustic Indian-fusion group Shakti; with an intense trio featuring fellow guitarists Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola. A third Mahavishnu incarnation surfaced in 1984, featuring prominent guitar synthesizer, the flamboyant electric bassist Jonas Hellborg, and, briefly, Cobham back on the drum throne. Since the 1990s Mr. McLaughlin has fronted a string of distinguished groups under his own name, the latest of which, the 4th Dimension, puts a fresh, personal spin on the trademark fusion of poise and power that marked the original Mahavishnu Orchestra.

That band’s influence has been proclaimed now not only by countless jazz-fusion bands, but also by seemingly unlikely followers: hardcore punk guitarist Greg Ginn of Black Flag, art-rock band the Mars Volta, death-metal group Cynic…and Jimmy Herring, the former Allman Brothers Band guitarist whose teenage discovery of the Mahavishnu Orchestra opened his ears and changed his life.

“When you heard Mahavishnu, it was electric and really loud like rock and roll, but my God…the incredible passion and the rhythmic complexities of what was going on and the deep harmony, that’s all part of jazz,” Herring recently told Rolling Stone. “I heard the music, and my reaction was immediate.” How fitting, then, that this particular acolyte should be on hand now to help the master McLaughlin take his final bows before US audiences — and to help fan the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s inner mounting flame once more, for devotees and newcomers alike.

Steve Smith is the director of publications at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, New York. He was assistant arts editor at the Boston Globe, where his beat included classical music, pop music, and the visual arts. He also served as a music editor at Time Out New York and contributed to The New York Times as a freelance reporter and critic.

The John McLaughlin & Jimmy Herring return to Ann Arbor to perform Music of Mahavishnu Orchestra on Wednesday, November 15, 2017.