The Race Against Obsolescence – Mahavishnu Orchestra

here has never been, and probably never will be, another band like the original Mahavishu Orchestra. This concert excerpt, from 1972, demonstrates the intensity of the music they created, a fusion of Jazz, Rock and Indian Music, featuring John McLaughlin on guitar, Jerry Goodman on violin, Jan Hammer on keyboards, Rick Laird on bass and the driving, propulsive, Billy Cobham.

Mahavishnu Orchestra, featuring John McLaughlin, guitar, Jerry Goodman, violin, Jan Hammer, piano, Rick Laird, bass and Billy Cobham, drums.


“The band’s first lineup featured English guitarist “Mahavishnu” John McLaughlin, Panamanian drummer Billy Cobham, Irish bassist Rick Laird, Czechoslovakian keyboardist Jan Hammer, and American violinist Jerry Goodman. McLaughlin had worked with Cobham and Goodman on his third solo album My Goal’s Beyond (1971), and asked Cobham to become the drummer in his new jazz-rock fusion band he wished to form, which he accepted. The violin was an instrument that had interested McLaughlin since childhood, and could not have Jean-Luc Ponty, his first choice, due to immigration problems. After listening to various albums with a violinist, he hired Goodman of The Flock. Although bassist Tony Levin was the first person McLaughlin wanted to join the band, Laird had known McLaughlin for several years and accepted the invitation. Hammer was found through the mutual friendship with Miroslav Vitous of Weather Report.
The group first met in July 1971, and rehearsed for one week. Their first live performance followed at The Gaslight Cafe in New York City, where they were the opening act for bluesman John Lee Hooker. McLaughlin recalled: “The first set was shaky but the second set just took off and every night it was great. They wanted to hold us over and a few days after the second week … , we went into the studio”.
McLaughlin had particular ideas for the instrumentation of the group, in keeping with his highly original concept of genre-blending in composition. He particularly wanted a violinist as an integral contributor to its overall sound. As the group evolved, McLaughlin adopted what became his visual trademark — a double neck guitar (six-string and twelve-string) which allowed for a great degree of diversity in musical textures—and Hammer became one of the first to play a Minimoog synthesizer in an ensemble, which enabled him to add more sounds and solo more freely, alongside the guitar and the violin.
Their musical style was an original blend of genres: they combined the high-volume electrified rock sound that had been pioneered by Jimi Hendrix (with whom McLaughlin had jammed on his initial arrival in New York as part of the Tony Williams Lifetime), complex rhythms in unusual time signatures that reflected McLaughlin’s interest in Indian classical music as well as funk, and harmonic influence from European classical music. The group’s early music, represented on such albums as The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973), was entirely instrumental; their later albums had songs which sometimes featured R&B or even gospel/hymn-styled vocals. In the aforementioned two albums, the group goes from an energetic fusion of upbeat genres (a representative example of which is the song “Vital Transformation”) to very serene, chamber music-like tunes, such as “A Lotus On Irish Streams,” a composition for acoustic guitar, piano and violin, and “Thousand Island Park,” which drops the violin and incorporates double bass; or from low-key to extremely busy in a single piece, such as “Open Country Joy.”
Due to the pressures of sudden fame, exhaustion and a lack of communication, the original band began to tire as 1973 continued. The stress was further exacerbated by a disastrous recording session (from a personal relationship standpoint) at London’s Trident Studios that found some of the players not speaking to others. Their project was never fully completed. The last straw came as John McLaughlin read an interview in Crawdaddy magazine in which Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman expressed their frustrations with John’s leadership style.[6] An effort to fix things back in New York fell through. Later on in the 1970s, McLaughlin stated in an interview in Gig magazine that he would like the album to come out, as he thought it was good. In its place, the live album Between Nothingness & Eternity was released featuring material from the studio album. Almost 30 years later, during the beginning of a renaissance of Mahavishnu’s music, the incomplete album from the failed London recording was released as The Lost Trident Sessions.”

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