By Walter Kolosky
November of 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra’s phenomenal ascent to become the most heralded of all jazz-rock bands. It was in that month of 1971 that the band released its debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, and began a relentless touring schedule. The first incarnation of the group lasted only thirty months, but four decades later you can’t turn around without bumping into a new Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute band, tribute album or yet another cover interpretation of the group’s trailblazing music.
In 1971, toward the end of English guitarist John McLaughlin’s stint with The Tony Williams Lifetime and some historic appearances on pivotal Miles Davis albums, Davis suggested it was time for McLaughlin to put together a band of his own. Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, as he was known after being given the spiritual moniker by Guru Sri Chinmoy, populated the original Mahavishnu Orchestra with an international cast of characters. Violinist Jerry Goodman was from Chicago, drummer Billy Cobham was born in Panama, bassist Rick Laird was Irish, and keyboard player Jan Hammer had been a child prodigy in communist Czechoslovakia. Jazz had a strong influence on all of the players, save the classically trained Goodman, who played mostly rock and folk in the band The Flock.
It was a period of great experimentation and cross-pollination in popular music. Still, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s odd-metered ultra high-volume mix of jazz, rock and blues, all infused with an (Asian) Indian subtext, was an unexpected hit on the pop music charts. This new music beat you about the arms and legs, but somehow managed to also inject a dose of spiritual Zen.
Though the Mahavishnu Orchestra didn’t invent jazz-rock, it was through its virtuosity that the music coalesced into a tangible genre. The jazz-rock era started with great promise from the likes of Miles Davis, Tony Williams, Weather Report, Return to Forever, the Eleventh House, Herbie Hancock, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and some others. The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1973 album Birds of Fire even cracked the Billboard pop music charts reaching #15. Aggressive instrumental music like this had never been accepted in such a way.
Thousands of fans showed up to fill large venues as the Mahavishnu Orchestra seemed to be on one long continuous tour. The music unrelentingly pushed out from the stage at gale force winds. The loud violence of it could, at times, threaten to separate you from your skeleton. Yet, there was a beauty to it as well. Listeners were left stunned in the wake of McLaughlin’s supersonic flights, Cobham’s power, Goodman’s soaring and Hammer’s deftness. All the while, bassist Laird somehow managed to keep everyone in some sort of line. Drummer Dennis Chambers remembers staying in his seat a long time after attending his first Mahavishnu Orchestra concert. “It felt like I had stuck my finger in a light socket. I couldn’t sleep for 48 hours.” Guitarist Pat Metheny described his experience as “face-melting.” (He meant that in a good way.) Rock stars like Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck, Sting and many others became fans and were influenced by the band.
For all of its exciting promise, with few exceptions, the jazz-rock movement all but fizzled out several years later when greedy recording executives predicted a larger market for a simplified watered down version of the music. In what may be one of the most ironic outcomes in music history, dumbed-down jazz-rock became the unwitting stepfather of smooth jazz. There were a few brave musicians who fought against The Wave, but they were commercially drowned out. In a business world that creates and then worships its own demographic models and sees art as only a numbers game, innovation and virtuosity didn’t stand a chance.
As for the Mahavishnu Orchestra itself, the pressures of sudden fame, complete exhaustion from an over-rigorous tour schedule, and communication breakdowns eventually led to frayed nerves and turmoil. The original line-up did not make it to 1974. For decades, several of the band members did not speak to each other. Over the last five years, however, there has been some thawing of tensions. Jerry Goodman visited John McLaughlin at his home and showed-up at one of John’s concerts in California. John introduced him from the stage. Rick Laird attended a John McLaughlin concert in New York City. When they met afterward, it was the first time they had seen each other in over 25 years. Jan Hammer has recorded on both a Billy Cobham album and a Jerry Goodman project. Cobham has recorded for the same Goodman album (not yet released). Hell froze over last year when Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin agreed to a last minute request from Montreux Jazz Festival director Claude Nobs to perform as a duo. (Additionally, it seems that in 2011, McLaughlin and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, from the second version of the Orchestra, mended fences.)
Elliott Sears, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s road manager, looks back. “I can’t believe it’s been forty years. I knew Jerry Goodman since we were kids. He had joined this new group and he helped me get a job as road manager for its first tour, which was on the East Coast. I had always wanted to see that part of the country, so why not? Well, that East Coast tour was just the beginning. We went to three continents and put on 535 shows! It was an incredible experience to work with such great musicians and it doesn’t surprise me one bit that their music continues to influence the generations that have followed.”
The passage of time has a tendency to accentuate the positive as everyone takes stock of what was truly meaningful. The members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra are no different. This is the 40th anniversary of a remarkable event, the launching of the greatest band that ever was. They are understandably proud, in their own ways, no matter how things ended or what has happened since.
Violinist Jerry Goodman is quite aware how important the Mahavishnu Orchestra was. Still, it is his nature to be self-effacing. He went through a difficult period in the several years after the group disbanded. Eventually, Goodman seemed to find some footing with a recording contract with Private Music and some very good albums in the mid 80s. He was also involved with some movie soundtracks, including that for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and he scored The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe, starring Lily Tomlin. He has been part of some special projects along the way as well, most notably Gary Husband’s Force Majeure. Goodman’s most extensive gigging was done with The Dregs, but he hasn’t recorded or toured nearly enough.
Over the years, Goodman has revisited Mahavishnu Orchestra music with The Dregs, with Billy Cobham for a big band event in Germany and with various players on a Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute album. He has told me on more than one occasion that he thinks he plays the music better now than back in the actual day. Listening to his recent work backs this up.
The specter of the Mahavishnu Orchestra is still part of Goodman’s everyday life. On the phone from his home in the San Fernando Valley, he pretended, for humor’s sake, to feign surprise that someone was asking him about the Mahavishnu Orchestra - a topic he has been queried about at least ten thousand times.
“Now that you mention it, it does really seem to be forty years since we started,” he says wryly. “For a long time, it didn’t really feel like a lot of time had gone by, but forty years – that is a long time!”
On another occasion, when Jerry was feeling more expansive, he said, “To me, the band was always important. You know, I guess even back then I thought that it would be hard to go on and forget that this group existed. This was going to be some sort of a legendary band. Having been a musician and having listened to a lot of things, I felt like I was in the middle of something that was very unique. And I think I felt that from the very beginning.”
Transplanted New Yorker Rick Laird left the music business in the early 80s because, in his words, he was “SO OVER” being a bassist for hire. In the 60s, before the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he was the longstanding house bassist at the famous Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. There are quite a few impressive videos of him on YouTube performing with the jazz giants who came to town, such as Ben Webster, Wes Montgomery and Victor Feldman. Laird has gone on to have a successful photography career which has included some album cover work for the likes of John McLaughlin and Steve Khan. He also markets a stunning series of fine art prints made from his photographs of legendary jazz stars. Despite his love for his current vocation, he still looks back fondly on his time with the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
“Being a member of that band was a rare privilege. It was like a fleeting love affair; it came quickly and went quickly, but you will always remember it.”
Keyboardist Jan Hammer has had much success after the demise of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He led his own groups and collaborated with guitarists Jeff Beck and Neal Schon. Hammer began to compose for feature films and became a superstar when he scored and performed the award-winning music for the television series Miami Vice. These days Hammer chooses not to tour and instead spends time in his recording studio, about an hour north of New York City, composing music and recording solos for other artists’ albums. His last public performance was in 2006 at Moogfest in New York City. Ironically, he was backed by the Mahavishnu Project, a Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute band.
Jan has strong memories of the band’s very first gig in late July of 1971 at the Gaslight in New York City. The Mahavishnu Orchestra was the opening act for bluesman John Lee Hooker that night. Those waiting for Mr. Hooker were in for a shock.
“It was just the loudest and fastest music the audience had ever heard. In a way, it was the loudest of times, and after we finished, the quietest of times [laughs]. Many just sat there in stunned silence. To think it has been forty years makes me feel old [laughs]. It was so long ago now, sometimes it just feels like it never happened.”
Drummer Billy Cobham also had some remarkably successful years following the Mahavishnu Orchestra. His album Spectrum is considered one of the most important of the jazz-rock genre and it sold tons. Other hit albums followed until the jazz-rock fusion movement faded away. His touring schedule still makes him one of the busiest jazz drummers on the planet. After the Mahavishnu Orchestra folded, Cobham recorded with John McLaughlin twice more before they had a business falling-out that would last a quarter of a century until their reunion in Montreux. In fact, Cobham has always had a reputation as being a serious guy who was all business. In the last few years, however, he seems to be opening up a bit more and appreciating where his musical life has taken him.
A grateful and evocative Cobham spoke about the milestone. “It's amazing how quickly time goes by. There was a band named the Mahavishnu Orchestra whose members were as fluid as the time that has passed. Like many great artists who have passed away at an almost criminally early time in their lives, this band made its mark in about the same way. It then physically vanished, leaving only its shadow. Nonetheless, the impression made now lives on in the music of others. This is a great tribute to what we were about as a musical unit. I thank the powers that be for the opportunity to have taken part.”
Cobham is currently scheduled to play in another big band tribute to the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 2012 with Germany’s HR Big Band.
John McLaughlin followed the original Mahavishnu Orchestra with a second and third version. After the last line-up of the Mahavishnu Orchestra folded in 1976, McLaughlin formed the first real East meets West group, Shakti. Later he played in the popular Guitar Trio with Al DiMeola and Paco de Lucia. He would go on to compose and perform concertos, produce guitar improvisation and Indian rhythm instructional DVDs, tour extensively and record new music. McLaughlin’s career has been in high gear over the last decade. His last three albums have all been nominated for a Grammy award. Two years ago he won the award for his collaboration with Chick Corea, The Five Peace Band.
John was reached in Monaco, where he lives. “The Mahavishnu Orchestra has been in my brain the last few weeks because we just finished the mixing of the Central Park concert that is coming out,” he says. “I am a different person today, but I am still affected by the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the here and now. I have great affection for that band. I remember the times, which were so full of hope and promise. What does forty years mean? It means nothing to me because time just disappears. The emotions evoked have nothing to do with forty years. It is the journey that is important. Time compresses everything.”
The Mahavishnu Orchestra may not be around anymore, and four decades of its fans desperately hoping for a reunion a pipe dream, but you can capture some of the spirit of the music by listening to the band’s albums and searching videos on YouTube. Forty years later they can still thrill. Contemporary videos and live and recorded performances from such tribute bands as Gregg Bendian’s Mahavishnu Project, General Zod, the Birds of Flame, Treasures of the Spirit, Sapphire Bullets, The Mahavishnu Experience and Dream are also worthwhile. Many cover versions of Mahavishnu Orchestra songs are also available in almost any genre.
A special Mahavishnu Orchestra 5 CD package is due out from Sony Legacy in November, 2011. It will include the band’s first three albums plus The Lost Trident Sessions (originally released in 1999), a cut from the infamous 1972 Mar Y Sol Festival, and never before released material from its famed 1973 concert in Central Park.
Walter Kolosky is the author of the books Power, Passion and Beauty – The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra and Follow Your Heart - John McLaughlin song by song.
Be on the lookout for a special 2011 Edition eBook of Power, Passion and Beauty due out in time for Christmas.
Photo Credits: Glenn Abbott, Hugh Lelihan Browne. Thanks to Elliott Sears for the Mahavishnu Orchestra publicity shot.
Published November 7th, 2011