Mahavishnu Orchestra

(& Other Works of John McLaughlin)

My musical training started with unwilling Indian Classical Vocal lessons from the age of 9…. Completely loathed it… Around 12, I found the Guitar and around 14, I found Rock ‘N’ Roll. But nobody knew that I was a closet admirer of Indian Classical Music. Of course, I didn’t have access to any real music, but the vocal classes gave me clues that there were a few odd gems to be discovered there. Around 16, I was a blues fanatic and Eric Clapton was the Everest for me. However, Clapton himself never believed that he is God, and often promoted other guitarists of sometimes very different styles, well evident in his Crossroads festival. I had a DVD of one of the Crossroads Festival, and it had performances by talents like Clapton himself, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, and many others. But there was one that completely blew me away. It was none other than the Father of World Fusion Music himself- John McLaughlin. And guess who accompanied him- the ambassador of Indian Music- Zakir Hussain. I had to search John’s music up. I found Shakti, I found the Guitar Trio, I found several solo and collaboration projects, but the one that touched me the most was his first band- Mahavishnu Orchestra.

In the late 60s, Eric Clapton & Jimi Hendrix had revolutionized the style of electric guitar playing. And from there, the first proper virtuoso to emerge with a staggering speed and ability on the guitar was John McLaughlin. And the musician who employed him, was none other than the Jazz legend Miles Davis. Miles always had the best musicians around him, and with John on the stride now, he made several great albums. Special mention must be made of ‘In A Silent Way’, the ambient, almost meditative album, where John has made a lot of contributions. However, the order of the day was Psychedelic/Acid Rock, and Miles was not selling much records. Luckily for him, people like John McLaughlin & others knew what to do. His album ‘Bitches Brew’ was the most Acidic/Psychedelic/Space Rock music, ever to have been fused with Jazz, and just like that, the genre of Fusion was born. John’s guitar and Miles’ horn skated through the double album across tracks as long as 20 minutes and put the listener into a complete trance, just as successfully as Pink Floyd or the Velvet Underground were doing. As a token of appreciation, Miles actually named one of the tracks as ‘John McLaughlin’. Bitches Brew was a big hit, as hit as Jazz (if it can still be called Jazz) could ever be. And yet, Miles was not a selfish man. He could have kept the hit formula of Miles & John and made several more hits. But he let John go, and actually told him to form his own band.

In 1971, John McLaughlin was the best guitarist in the world. Nobody could play faster than him or more complicated jazz lines than him. He had the Hard Rock pedigree with a firm grip on the blues. He had just had a stint in the band of the most respected musician of the time. He was at the top of his game as the best guitarist in Jazz as well as Rock and Blues. However he had a secret weapon, yet to be unleashed. Taking inspiration from other western musicians like John Coltrane, Yehudi Menuhin & George Harrison, he had also taken a step towards mastering Indian Classical Music. So with the blessings of Miles, he set out to form a new band. Of course, like Miles, he also had to be surrounded by the best in the business. Billy Cobham (also from the Miles Davis camp), the drummer who knew what a Rock beat is and what a Jazz beat is, and knew enough of the odd time signatures of Indian Classical Music. Jerry Goodman, who played Electric Violins (in 1971…..!!!!!!) and was equally adept at pizzicato style. Jan Hammer, master keyboardist, who had already been pursued by a few prog-bands of the day. And to keep all that talent in a tight knit groove, was bass player Rick Laird, the only bass player I have seen, who can carelessly smile while playing a groove in 10/4 time signature, and not miss a beat. And the name of the band paid a tribute to John’s fascination with Indian spirituality- Mahavishnu Orchestra.

They were formed in 1971, but it would be futile to assign them to a particular country. Each member was from a different country. You didn’t think the crem-de-la-crem of the best musicians would all be from the same country, did you..? Okay just for your consolation, John was an Englishman, Billy was American, Jan was Irish. I’m confused about the others,.. There’s a limit to how much information my brain can retain. Forget the facts, they were an international band, playing an inter-genre-fused kind of music that nobody else could. However, as with any such band of super musicians, it did not last long. By 1973, they had released two albums (The Inner Mounting Flame & Birds Of Fire), and the music was as mind blowing as could be. But the first line-up (or the 1st Incarnation as John called it) imploded after that. An album in the making was shelved and only released decades later (The Lost Trident Sessions). John soon got a new incarnation, this time featuring John-Luc Ponty on violins, and also a few other vocalists and multi instrumentalists. To me it does feel a little overblown, but the music John & crew made is quite unchallengeable. The music was more meditative, more devoid of Hard Rock influences and slightly hinted at what John was to do next.

After the second incarnation, John decided to drop the electric guitar for a while, and delve deeper into his interests in Indian Music. He formed acoustic quartet Shakti with three Indians- then-unknown tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, violinist L. Shankar & ghatam player T.H. Vikku Vinayakram. All virtuosos, the music was fast, virtuostic, and may even be called what is often derogatively called ‘A Musician’s Musician’. For me it is just wizardry, speed and virtuosity, but it does not quite touch my heart as Mahavishnu does. After Shakti he formed a trio of guitar virtuosos with gypsy jazz guitarist Al Di Meola & flamenco guitarist Paco De Lucia. Another mind boggling display of virtuosity and speed. He even formed a third incarnation of Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 80s, which included electronic musicians, with John himself playing Guitar Synthesizers. He has formed several short lived bands/ensembles, the latest being The 4th Dimension, featuring Indian drummer Ranjit Barot. And all across the years, he has also constantly been making albums, either credited to himself as a solo artist or as collaborations with other well known artists. They have featured some of the greatest musicians of eastern and western genres like- Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Jack Bruce (from Cream), Jan Garbarek, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Chick Corea, Niladri Kumar, and of course, our Darjeeling’s own Louiz Banks (who is often hailed as the Father of Indian Jazz).

I have not finished listening to John’s whole discography (maybe never will). Add to that live albums and bootleg albums, and box sets. However, the ones that have most touched are the early Mahavishnu records. They have an undeniable Hard Rock (maybe even Metal) sound, attitude and aggression, coupled with structures and ideologies of Jazz like the head and improvised solos. And where are they drawing from..? From India. The modes/scales and beats/time signatures are all borrowed from Indian Classical Music. And during the second incarnation, they have another pedigree of Western Classical Music through the new vocalists and the violin/viola harmonies. And let us not forget that all the while John has always had an aggressive attack for his guitar solos, which comes only from Blues music and its derivative genres like Soul & Funk. So if you ask me, ‘What would it sound like, if we take only the best of the best components of several genres of music, and put it all in a cauldron..?’ I’d say it would sound like Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Fav. Mahavishnu Albums:

  • The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)
  • Birds Of Fire (1973)
  • Visions Of The Emerald Beyond (1975)

 Other Fav. John’s albums:

  • In A Silent Way (Miles Davis- 1969)
  • Bitches Brew (Miles Davis- 1970)
  • Extrapolation (John McLaughlin- 1969)
  • Devotion (John McLaughlin- 1970)
  • My Goals Beyond (John McLaughlin- 1971)
  • Love Devotion Surrender (Carlos Santana & John McLaughlin- 1973)
  • Shakti With John McLaughlin (Shakti- 1975)
  • A Handful Of Beauty (Shakti- 1976)
  • Friday Night In San Francisco (Al Di Meola, John Mc Laughlin & Paco De Lucia (1980)
  • Thieves And Poets (John McLaughlin- 2003)
  • Montreux Concerts Box Set (John McLaughlin with various bands- Live- 2003 release)
  • Floating Point (John McLauglin- 2008) [**this one features Louis Banks**]
  • Five Peace Band – Live [John McLaughlin & Chick Corea- 2009)

Fav. Mahavishnu Tracks:

  • Meeting Of The Spirits, A Lotus On Irish Streams, The Dance Of Maya, You Know You Know (The Inner Mounting Flame- 1971)
  • Birds Of Fire, Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love (Birds Of Fire- 1973)
  • Eternity’s Breath Part 1, Eternity’s Breath Part 2, Lila’s Dance, Pastoral, If I Could See, Pegasus (Visions Of The Emerald Beyond- 1975)

Other Fav. John’s Tracks:

  • Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) [The Beatles cover] (Experiments With Pop- Gordon Beck- 1968)
  • Shhh/Peaceful/Shhh, In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time (In A Silent Way- Miles Davis- 1969)
  • Pharaoh’s Dance, Bitches Brew (Bitches Brew- Miles Davis- 1970)
  • Arjen’s Bag (Extrapolation- John McLaughlin- 1969)
  • A Love Supreme [John Coltrane cover] (Carlos Santana & John McLaughlin- 1973)
  • Joy, Lotus Feet (Shakti With John McLaughlin- Shakti- 1975)
  • Isis (A Handful Of Beauty- Shakti- 1976)
  • Mediterranean Sundance, Guardian Angel (Friday Night In San Francisco- Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin & Paco De Lucia- 1980)
  • Thieves And Poets Parts 1, Thieves And Poets Part 2, Thieves And Poets Part 3 (Thieves And Poets- John McLaughlin- 2003)
  • Tones For Elvin Jones (Crossroads Guitar Festival- John McLaughlin- 2004)
  • Abbaji (For Alla Rakha), Raju (Floating Point- John McLaughlin- 2008)

Other Bands/Artists To Check Out:

Shakti, The Guitar Trio, The One Truth Band, Remember Shakti, The 4th Dimension,  Miles Davis (from the late 60s onwards), The Yellow Jackets, Herbie Hancock & The Headhunters, Soft Machine, John Scofield, Pat Metheney, Allan Holdsworth, George Harisson, Ravi Shankar

I do not own the copyrights to the image used. Got it straight from google. Since I am not commercializing this article (at least not yet), I’m guessing no one will want to sue me.

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