For a brief sizzling moment in time, as the 60s stumbled into the 70s, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was the benchmark of rock n’ roll. The world’s best, most exciting, most risky, most ‘spiritual’ and most together band of musicians that ever set foot on stage. Jazz Times in its March 2014 issue dedicated a wonderful article to that group’s first album, The Inner Mounting Flame, a little of which I exerpt here.
The first Mahavishnu Orchestra was born and died in New York City. Two and a half years separated those events. In between, they released three records, played somewhere in the region of 500 concerts and managed to astound the world, or that part thereof which took notice of modern music. And, in the early ’70s, that was a lot of the world. There were still vast, uncharted realms of sound for music to inhabit, still record-making corporations willing to fund the voyages of exploration and still hordes of listeners eager to make new discoveries. Popular music informed the culture, it was muscular and virile, and the feeling was abroad that perhaps still it could change the world. Mahavishnu John McLaughlin had not a shred of doubt about that.
Changing the consciousness of the world was, for John, the whole point of the thing. For the other guys, whatever turned John on was fine: They were simply ecstatic to be playing in what felt like the greatest band on the planet. The band, like the city, was a melting pot of nationalities and cultures: John McLaughlin from England; Billy Cobham from Panama; Rick Laird from Ireland via New Zealand, Australia and London; Jan Hammer from Czechoslovakia, as it was then, via Germany; and Jerry Goodman from Chicago. Many roads had led each of the five to New York where the first Mahavishnu Orchestra came together in the summer of 1971.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, with John pictured in lotus position among his cohorts on the cover and a poem on aspiration by Sri Chinmoy within, was recorded on August 14 1971. Released before the year’s end, it sold 20,000 units in its first three weeks.
The music was astounding. While some of the elements and ideas within it may be glimpsed, in retrospect, scattered here and there across Devotion, My Goal’s Beyond, the recordings with Miles Davis, Lifetime and Carla Bley, and even back to Extrapolation, those were but doodles on paper compared to this fully formed masterpiece. It was a music that was wholly new and which could not have been predicted.
John’s compositional maturity had finally arrived. As fabulous as Extrapolation was, this was a level beyond. There was an indestructible immortal aura around several of the album’s pieces. A lesser item like Vital Transformation—its title reflecting Sri Chinmoy’s preoccupation with the lower and higher vitals of the soul—grabbed the listener by the throat with its superficially Hendrix-esque riffing and sound, but even here the lascivious blues-rock overcoat gave way to a clean ascending movement.
It was in the contemplative pieces, Dawn, You Know, You Know, A Lotus on Irish Streams—where space, restraint and the wisdom to use it were the key—that the caterpillar truly emerged as a many-coloured creature in winged flight. The yin to their yang were the unholy behemoths, Meeting of the Spirits and Dance of Maya. Those two introduced the world to a device that might as well be known as ‘Mahavishnu arpeggios’—weird, unresolving, cyclical guitar patterns that formed the basis of many of John’s compositions of the Mahavishnu era. It was high art for the masses. And the masses came.
“I notice some difference in the music I played before I became a disciple and the music I play now,” John mused, early in 1972. “When I play now, I think of Sri Chinmoy. I think of him as my higher self, and me as his lower self. I think of my music now as an offering to God…the master musician, the soul of music, the spirit of music. I’m just trying to reach him by letting myself be his instrument. That’s what I’m striving to become.”
Perception is half the history; truth is the rest. To the record-buying, concert-going public of the early 70s, the substantial coverage given to John McLaughlin as the face of the Mahavishu Orchestra, and his serene demeanor onstage, asking for moments of silence before every show and presenting the performance as an opportunity for all assembled to reach their highest heights and deepest depths, fuelled a general fascination with the man. His extraordinary virtuosity, and his band’s extraordinary music, spoke for itself, but his commanding, slightly otherworldly personality and spiritual commitment behind it all not only added weight and portent to the music, but conversely, suggested that such singular accomplishments were achieveable by all and sundry through the path being espoused. Mahavishnu John McLaughlin was not a man on a table-tapping weekend in Bognor Regis. He was deadly serious.
Music was more than a pastime of an income or even a vocation to John McLaughlin. It was a mission from God. Among Sri Chinmoy’s many aphorisms was one that explains John’s extreme devotion to the cause of spreading his music as a gateway to God for the masses: If you say that a musician is not God, I may agree with you. But if you say music is not God, then I totally disagree with you. [Jazz Times (Vol 4. Number 2) March 2014]
This is indeed amazing, confronting and deeply moving music.
01 Meeting of the Spirits
03 Noonward Race
04 A Lotus On Irish Streams
05 Vital Transformation
06 The Dance of Maya
07 You Know, You Know