Mahavishnu Orchestra

All you need to know about British jazz-rock guitarist John McLaughlin is that he has won just about every major poll and award, is on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Guitarists list and has been referred to at various times by both Jeff Beck and Pat Metheny as the greatest guitarist alive.

He has been around the block a few times. He gave guitar lessons to Jimmy Page! He played with Ginger Baker. He hung out with Duane Allman in New York. “Duane was beautiful,” he said. “What a sweetheart and what a guitar player. The Allman Brothers had their own thing going and I love that band.” He jammed with Hendrix whom he absolutely freaking loved. You can hear it here if you’re so inclined.

McLaughlin did a solo album in the late Sixties and then played with drummer extraordinaire Tony Williams. Miles was his hero and when they met, Davis was ready to bring a guitarist into the band but he wanted “my R&B side, my funk side, as opposed to a jazz side” per McLaughlin.

Starting in 1969, McLaughlin played on Miles’ In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, Live-Evil, and On the Corner. (Brew even has a song called “John McLaughlin.”) At some point, Miles turned to McLaughlin and told him it was time to form his own band.

And in 1971, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was born. (McLaughlin had been introduced to the teachings of Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy by Larry Coryell. Hence, Mahavishnu.) The band’s first lineup featured McLaughlin, drummer Billy Cobham, bassist Rick Laird, keyboardist Jan Hammer, and violinist Jerry Goodman. (Hammer later played with Jeff Beck; Goodman with Dixie Dregs.) Their first live gig was opening for bluesman John Lee Hooker. Imagine that.

Mahavishnu’s music was highly complex polyrhythmic jazz-rock. And if you are too young to remember them, I can only tell you that contrary to what you might think, they were wildly popular. They came along at a time when rock and jazz were combining, prog-rock was expanding and audiences were eager to explore new sounds right along with the bands that were creating them.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame was released in November 1971. It knocked everybody’s socks off. Nobody’d ever heard anything quite like it.

From that album, “Meeting of the Spirits.”

Spotify link

Things could have gone completely differently as McLaughlin was asked by bassist Miroslav Vitous to join a band he was forming called Weather Report. But John knew he had to do his own thing. “I’m under orders,” he’d say (from Miles.) But through Vitous, he met Jerry Goodman.

One of McLaughlin’s favorite songs from the first album is called “You Know You Know.” It’s got a mysterious feel to it. It’s also, for whatever reason, been sampled by everyone from Massive Attack to Mos Def:

Spotify link

The band toured around the world and weren’t able to put another album together for about another year or so. In January of 1973, they released the terrific Birds of Fire. I wanted to put something slower and moodier here but I could not resist the title tune:

Spotify link

Alas, apart from a live album and another release 25 years later from the vault, this was the last album recorded by this incarnation of the band. Jean-Luc Ponty joined the band but I confess I lost track of them and spent more time listening to their solo stuff. (I saw Cobham just a few years ago in Cambridge.) They added vocals and got funkier but for me it just wasn’t the same.

McLaughlin went on to play with Carlos Santana and has done any number of solo electric and acoustic albums. He did an album with the late flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia and Al DiMeola a few years ago.

Alas, he played a farewell tour recently of which I was somehow completely unaware. (He played with guitarist Jimmy Herring who played with the Allmans and was offered, but turned down the Dickey Betts slot.) McLaughlin said that travel in a post-9/11 world had gotten more difficult although it sounded like he left the door open a bit for a possible return. If he does come back, I’m there.

27 thoughts on “Mahavishnu Orchestra

    1. In my opinion, yeah. The live album is good. But when the band went into different incarnations they added vocals and funk and it didn’t work for me. I liked McLaughlin’s Shakti stuff.

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  1. I know of McLaughlin via the Miles Davis stuff, but I never made a connection between Miles and Mahavishnu Orchestra.

    Anyhoo, I’ll keep a look out for Birds Of Fire.

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        1. Either ‘Birds of Fire’ or ‘Inner Mounting Flame,’ the two I featured I think are your best bet. There’s a later album with London Symphony Orchestra called ‘Apocalypse’ but I dunno, that one didn’t do it for me as much. Cobham’s early solo stuff like ‘Spectrum’ is really good too.

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  2. I have “Birds of Fire,” and have heard “Inner Mounting Flame,” both are very good. Mahavishnu’s an acquired taste, I think. The fusion’s more difficult listening than, say, Weather Report or Jeff Beck… would you agree? There’s no denying McLaughlin’s guitar talent. His spot on my Clapton 2007 “Crossroads” DVD is a highlight. And the guy ages really well!

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    1. Clearly either Weather Report or Mahavishnu is less initially accessible than, say, Beck. As to whether one is more difficult listening than the other, you raise an interesting point but I find myself stumped for an answer on that one. Someone could relatively easily get into “Heavy Weather” but find Weather Report’s earlier stuff tough sailing. Certainly WP is more traditional with the sax being the lead rather than guitar. But as to which is more difficult or more accessible, hard to say. Individual taste I suppose. Personally I liked them both right out of the gate and Weather Report was the first fusion I ever heard. I had to go back to hear Miles’ stuff.

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      1. For me, I don’t think it’s so much the instruments (guitar versus sax versus trumpet). I love “Heavy Weather,” and Beck’s early fusion albums, plus Miles’s cool jazz period. But I find Mahavishnu and fusion-period Miles somewhat challenging. Interestingly, Sir George Martin produced both Beck and Mahavishnu, and he calls Mahavishnu’s “Apocalypse” some of the best music he ever produced.

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        1. I listened to a little bit of “Apocalypse” while researching this. It didn’t grab me but now that I’m in the mood it’s probably worth a full listen.

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        2. Pete, I listened to the “Apocalypse” album but I found it just didn’t do it for me, Martin notwithstanding. Felt to me like the orchestra was coming in from a different movie. Then some woman started singing. Way too bucolic. But for you – or for anyone reading – I just discovered the Lost Trident Sessions that came out in 1999 and sounds more like the Mahavishnu I dig.

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      1. Good point. I think McLaughlin did his fair share of substances in his day but soon realized that if he wanted to stay in one piece in the music biz, he should get off that stuff. I think he may be a teetotaler.

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  3. I love the whole package with this group but it was the hard edge stuff that made me a fan. I was expecting some wild looking bastard wailing away on the guitar. Wrong, I got this clean cut dude who could play like no one else. I still pull out these albums especially the first two. I have a lot of Mac’s work solo and collaboration (Yeah the Lifetime with Williams, Bruce and Young is good stuff). Goodmans violin was also something that CB dug. Cobham, yeah Doc i still pull out his solo work and will be doing a take or two on them. This is some really good, stand alone music. Good choice.

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    1. Yeah, I recall you did a piece on “Birds of Fire” a while back. My buddy Steve is an insane Tony Williams fan. I got to thinking about McLaughlin lately especially after seeing DiMeola. That album he did with McLaughlin is crazy but it’s a little bit too “Oh, yeah? I can play faster” for me.

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  4. While I was aware of John McLaughlin, frankly, I had never heard of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Based on my first impression, to me it’s definitely an acquired taste, and the fact there are no vocals doesn’t make that any easier. But, to be clear, that’s not to say it’s bad! Plus, I could cite other artists who didn’t exactly blow me away initially and who I’ve come to dig big time, Zeppelin being the first coming to mind!

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  5. Yeah, that’s right up my alley (as they say here in the UK). I saw the Mahavishnu Orchestra back in 1971. They were on the bill with Yes at Crystal Palace Garden Party V just down the road from where my family lived. The outdoor concert bowl is practically underneath a big TV transmitter and the TV broadcasts were being picked up by the guitar amps. The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s roadies attempted to fix the problem by wrapping the amplifiers in aluminium foil. And it did seem to help.

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    1. That’s about the time I saw them too in Central Park in NY. But you might appreciate this bit. In 1976, I was doing the “backpack around Europe” thing. I wound up in London for about two months. One happy night, I saw Weather Report, Billy Cobham and Mahavishnu together at the Hammersmith Odeon. I remember it being a great show up until the encore where they all came out and played a cacophonous mess. Still, a great memory.

      http://rockrarecollectionfetish.blogspot.com/2014/02/weather-report-jam-at-hammersmith-odeon.html

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