In 2006, author Walter Kolosky released Power, Passion and Beauty - The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra (Abstract Logix Books), a well written and painstakingly researched work that was undoubtedly the definitive account of the most iconic jazz rock band the genre has ever known. Featuring interviews with all the the original band members plus a boggling number of insiders and powerhouse musicians (including Jeff Beck, Joe Zawinul, Sir George Martin, Herbie Hancock, Steve Lukather, Steve Morse, and many others), the book not only took you through the early days of Mahavishnu and it's groundbreaking founder, guitarist John McLaughlin, but also provided a unique and informed glimpse into the birth of the 70s jazz rock movement that changed the music scene forever.
Now Kolosky has released a new 2013 Special Edition eBook version of Power, Passion and Beauty that even owners of the original 2006 printing, or its earlier eBook edition, will want to pick up (the new eBook is available for Apple iBooks, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and via Smashwords). Included are new interviews with Carlos Santana, Chick Corea and others, plus new insights, anecdotes, and an extra chapter updating the Mahavishnu story.
I've corresponded with Kolosky a bit over the last couple of years since we first met in 2010 at the New Universe Music Festival (where he served as emcee). I was also lucky enough to publish a fantastic article he wrote in 2011 celebrating Mahavishnu's 40th anniversary. Take it from me - you'll find no greater authority on the history of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and John McLaughlin than Walter. I asked the celebrated author about the new eBook release of Power, Passion and Beauty, the legendary band it chronicles, and more.Rich Murray: You've just released an updated eBook version of Power, Passion and Beauty which includes many new stories and exclusive thoughts about the band from the likes of Carlos Santana, Steve Howe, Chick Corea and others. What prompted you to update it?
Walter Kolosky: There were several reasons. First, so much fantastic stuff has happened since the original book was published that I was compelled to share it. All sorts of things began swirling around the players. A few of them started speaking to each other again, and as it turned out, started playing together again. As we have this conversation, Billy Cobham and Jerry Goodman are on tour together. Who would have ever thought that was going to happen? Updating the book also became attractive because I had the opportunity to interview some people I just couldn’t get the first time around, mostly due to scheduling issues. I do believe the success of the original book gave me some added credibility which helped me obtain some of these new interviews. Also, though the technology of the eBook isn’t quite perfected across all formats, its use allowed me an easier avenue to create and distribute the new material in the most cost effective way and offer it at a low cost as well.
RM: So what is it about the Mahavishnu Orchestra that has grabbed people for so long?
RM: What inspired you to first write Power, Passion and Beauty years ago?
WK: I thought there was a need to chronicle the history of the band. If no one else was going to do it, why not me? I knew I wasn’t alone when it came to my life being impacted by this band. I know, in a way, it all sounds so cliche. “Music changed my life.” However, in my own case, it was undeniable. Over the years, I had run into others who were affected in much the same way. As an old newspaper and radio reporter I learned to write. For fun, I sent reviews of John McLaughlin’s albums to an early Internet site dedicated to his music called “Pages of Fire.” Soon after, other sites were offering to pay me. Then there was an Internet mailing list called “One-Word.” This list is dedicated to John McLaughlin’s music. I met fans from all over the world. My friend Jeff Frank made it possible for me to meet John McLaughlin back in about 1995. I did not talk or meet with John again until about 8 years later to do an All About Jazz interview. Also, through Abstract Logix’s founder Souvik Dutta, I spent some time with John in Cambridge, MA. It was during the 2005 Montreal Jazz Festival that I started thinking very seriously about doing the Mahavishnu book. I mentioned it to John, who was there performing with Zakir Hussain. A day or two later in an elevator, he told me he would cooperate for such a project. I was going to do it anyway, but that really set me off to the races!
RM: And what was John's reaction to the finished product? I'd imagine he was floored by the depth and detail.
WK: That’s an interesting question. As I write in the new eBook. I was told that John wrote me a very gracious email. However, I never received it. I felt, and would still feel, uncomfortable asking him to resend it. That being said, I take the fact that he sold the book on his website as a sign that he didn’t hate the book. Also, some of his close friends told me John had given them the book as a gift. One of those friends was Montreux Jazz Festival founder Claude Nobs. Sadly, he just died as a result of a skiing accident. I don’t think he would give the book as a gift unless he felt it had some value. I will not come out and directly ask him what he thinks about the book either. He has very high standards and a streak of honesty that sometimes has him saying things people may not want to hear. (laughs)
are fascinating anecdotes and quotes in the book from so many great
musicians. Did anyone stand out to you as being particularly insightful
about Mahavishnu or McLaughlin?
RM: While researching the book, did you learn anything that surprised you?
WK: I am not as big a Mahavishnu freak as Carlos Santana, but I knew an awful lot about the Mahavishnu Orchestra. As Steve Howe says in the new eBook, he and his fellow members in Yes looked up to Mahavishnu almost as if they were Gods. I had that same attitude in the sense that from my distance I didn’t view John, Billy, Jerry, Rick and Jan as mere mortals. So, really, the thing that surprised me the most was to find out how really human they were. This gave me a greater understanding about how and why the band worked and also why it could not have continued.
RM: Speaking of that, near the end of both versions of the book you mention that the act of writing Power, Passion and Beauty gave you a deeper understanding of the band members as individuals, and why they were not only able to make the music they did, but why it could not last. Can you expand on that a bit?
These guys could be a case study of family dysfunction. Each one,
though Rick Laird much less so, seemed to fit into a stereotypical
behavioral category which made it impossible to fix the problems in the
band. For example, Jerry Goodman certainly felt pressured to live up to
his musician father’s expectations. In the band, since he was younger,
he saw John McLaughlin as a father figure. His instinct, as it was with
his own father, was to rebel. Jan Hammer is a very non-confrontational
person. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t have strong opinions or attitudes,
but he does not bring issues directly to the person he is having
problems with. John McLaughlin could be stubborn, which made it
frustrating to talk to him about any complaints. Billy Cobham was all
about the business- which is something that McLaughlin had no actual
interest in because of his spiritual path. It was their differences that
created the magic in the studio and on stage. Offstage, eventually
these differences resulted in a terrible communication breakdown. You
have to remember, outside of John knowing Rick from back in London, and
his knowing Billy some from the local scene and playing with Miles
Davis, the band were virtual strangers to each other when they began.
WK: I think not. Something would have happened for sure. However, I think the scale of commercial success would have been much smaller. You are right, there were some other artists who were producing precursors to jazz-rock. Burton and Coryell yes, but musicians such as Don Ellis, Jeremy Steig, Mike Nock, Brian Auger and others were dancing around the jazz-rock wheelhouse without really quite finding it. Of course, there was the Tony Williams Lifetime, featuring McLaughlin. The de facto “Father of Fusion” Miles Davis was having a go. But, to put it bluntly, these great and important artists and groups never quite found the right vein to mine - and that includes Miles. Mahavishnu found the motherlode. The band had the right mix of rock to jazz. They were electric and loud. They were charismatic on stage and seemingly powered by a divine force - even if not all the players were aspiring for the beyond. Spirituality, especially of the Indian guru-driven kind was a big thing back in the late 60s and early 70s. It can also not be overlooked that McLaughlin’s compositions were truly compelling. Mahavishnu was more than just about the complicated time signatures and technical brilliance. For sure, all of the Mahavishnu players helped McLaughlin’s musical ideas take shape. But realistically, if you compare McLaughlin’s tunes to other fusion output, it stands head and shoulders over the vast majority of it. And, as has been pointed out many times, don’t overlook the drawing power of the electric guitar, especially one operated the way John McLaughlin did. Rock fans prefer the guitar over the drums, piano or trumpet. Oh, Mahavishnu also had a major record label behind it. All of these factors really made for the perfect jazz-rock storm for Mahavishnu. Much to their credit, Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea openly gave credit to Mahavishnu for taking the lead.
RM: I'm curious about your opinion of the state of jazz-rock or fusion today. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like there's been a resurgence of this kind of music over that last 10 odd years. Would you agree?
That’s really two questions there, Rich. I think the state of the music
is very high, while the state of the fusion music business, and the
music business in general, is horrifyingly and embarrassingly low. The
fusion category is much more difficult to separate out these days as
it has been absorbed by so many genres, but there is some great stuff
being played. I’ll stick with the guitarists because this is the
Guitar Channel after all. I still think McLaughlin is vital, of course,
but I am truly loving what Wayne Krantz does. He is among the most
unique voices I believe. There is also Alex Machacek and Finland’s world
class player Raul Mannola. I like Carl Orr, Wolfgang Schalk, Joe Guido
Walsh, Ede Wright, The California Guitar Trio and Nenad Gajin. The
Australian Joe Robinson kicks some serious ass. I also like some of the
New York players like Pete McCann, Nat Janoff and Tim Curtin. As we do
this interview, there is a new guitar-centric band forming called The
Ringers which will include the previously mentioned Wayne Krantz plus
the amazing players Jimmy Herring and Michael Landau. I am sorry to
anyone I am not remembering right now, but the point is that the list of
extraordinary musicians, who from time to time compose and play what we
call “fusion,” is endless. And these are just the guitarists. On the
other hand, the business support system, for all but a lucky few, is
criminally non-existent. There are a hundred reasons for this and fusion
music is not the only casualty. All art is. Don’t get me started. There
could never be a Mahavishnu Orchestra today. They wouldn’t even get a
sniff from a major label. Columbia Records were no saints, but they put a
lot of money into promoting the Mahavishnu Orchestra back in the day.
Chances were taken. Today, the only chances taken are by the musicians.
Unfortunately, taking chances doesn’t pay the rent.
The true legacy of jazz fusion is now found in jazz, rock, country, flamenco, blues, classical and world musics. In this realm, there is no one as dominantly influential as the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
By Rich Murray. Published 3/2/13
Visit Walter Kolosky online at www.walterkolosky.com