Review Summary: Upon repeated listening, Mahavishnu Orchestra reveals its magical beauty.
Hailed as the keystone band of the jazz-rock fusion movement, Mahavishnu Orchestra was arguably the most influential, and certainly one of the best jazz fusion group ever. In 1971, creative leader and front figure John McLaughlin formed the group that achieved considerable success from the start. Mahavishnu Orchestra was a very powerful group, having the sophisticated improvisations of electic free-jazz. John made a name for himself while working with the famous trumpeter Miles Davis during his early explorations into electric instrumentation, which were the very first steps into the jazz-rock realm in the late 60’s. Like Return to Forever
and Weather Report
, Mahavishnu Orchestra had the intention of further exploring the jazz-rock hybrid Miles Davis had explored.
The band was an instant sensation. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the high volume electrified rock sound that had been pioneered by Jimi Hendrix, the archetypal jazz-rock by Mahavishnu Orchestra was complex music performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences and critics alike. The band had a firm grip on dynamics and was equally adept at dense, aggressive flights of musical intensity as they were at creating moments of impassioned, spiritual contemplation.
As internal tensions came to a boil after three influential albums (The Inner Mounting Flame
, Birds of Fire
and Between Nothingness and Eternity
), the group disbanded at the end of 1973. McLaughlin quickly put together a new Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1974 that, despite the inclusion of electric violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty, along with a host of excellent new supporting musicians, the band failed to catch on and broke up again by 1975, mainly due to McLaughlin’s growing interest in experimenting with different musical styles.
The two first versions of Mahavishnu Orchestra have not much in common in their compositional structures, but the chemistry within the band always remained at a white hot, as the band built and created a multi-expressive layer of colours and sounds in that intricate and complex method they were known for. Their first two quintessential albums feature a shred-fest of a very dazzling energetic and very powerful kind of free-jazz, wich was often played very fast and frantically by the five members alone, while in Visions of the Emerald Beyond
, all those characteristics were clearly toned down. The album is more accessible, more refined and returns to more sober form of jazz-rock, consisting of shorter tracks.
The album was made to listen to it all in one shot, since many of the tunes are connected with others. It retains the same great spirit of their previous works, but does often fray into funk territory, which the band didn’t explore before. The scattered funk grooves freshen things up nicely, thanks to the versatility of both bassist Ralph Armstrong, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and the stunning drummer Michael Walden, whose playing contains the raw and explosive power of former drummer Billy Cobham.
The weakest spot, if there is one, is the keyboardist Gayle Moran. Her keys are used solely in the arrangements, and she is clearly outclassed by predecessor virtuoso Jan Hammer, who sounds very similar like Return to Forever
mastermind Chick Corea. Hammer’s fiery and masterful keyboard duels with the band leader managed to set a standard that every subsequent jazz-rock fusion ensemble would strive to meet. McLaughlin’s guitar and Ponty’s violin are more predominant on here: they more or less share centre stage. Their interplay is at a tremendous high, juxtaposed against the solid and hypnotic dual rhythm of Walden and Armstrong. The ecstatic opener Eternity's Breath
is a good example of that balanced harmony. McLaughlin’s blazing guitar work is often seen as pretentious and overblown, but in fact, his fluid technique and surcharged solo outings affirmed his standing as the dean of high decibel jazz-fusion. Overall, he’s the kind of guitarist who can add emotion and innovation to that highly technical, clinical style.
Mahavishnu Orchestra have been cited as a major influence on everyone from Frank Zappa
to King Crimson
(Fripp and McLaughlin were clearly kindred musical spirits) to Phish
to The Mars Volta
, and were in many ways one of the first electric jam bands, each member pushing the borders and creating this overwhelming intense music saturated in a complicit beauty. Visions of the Emerald Beyond
shows this in prime form.