The Mahavishnu Orchestra was arguably the most influential, and certainly one of the best, jazz fusion groups ever. The band’s leader, John McLaughlin, inspired a generation of jazz-rockers with both his guitar wizardry and his flair as a composer. In forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra, McLaughlin brought together an unprecedented combination of elements-a background in jazz and blues, a passionate interest in Eastern (particularly Indian) music, a rock beat, and world class chops-that set the standard for fusion bands for years to come.
When the Mahavishnu Orchestra was created in 1971, it seemed like a logical next step in McLaughlin’s already illustrious musical career. Like so many British guitarists, he had been fascinated by American blues as a teenager. He next steeped himself in the jazz of such giants as Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. By the early 1960s, McLaughlin was living in London and playing music professionally. His jazz dabblings led to a role with the Graham Bond Organization, a seminal British fusion group that included
Original members included John McLaughlin (born January 4, 1942, in Yorkshire, England), guitar; Jan Hammer , keyboards; Jerry Goodman , violin; Rick Laird , bass; Billy Cobham , drums. Jean-Luc Ponty , violin, joined in 1973.
Later version (formed 1984) included Bill Evans, saxophone; Danny Gottlieb, drums; Jonas Hellborg, bass; Mitch Forman, keyboards; Jim Beard, keyboards (replaced Forman, 1987).
Band formed in 1971; original group released three albums; disbanded and second version formed, 1973; second version released three albums, before disbanding in 1976; third version formed in 1984, and released two albums.
future Cream members Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.
In 1969 McLaughlin moved to the U.S. to join Lifetime, a new band led by drummer Tony Williams. In America, he quickly met Miles Davis, and Davis invited him to play on his album In a Silent Wa. McLaughlin later contributed to several other Davis masterpieces, including Bitches Brew, which many consider to be the single album most responsible for making jazz-rock fusion a legitimate musical category. With the encouragement of Davis, McLaughlin left Lifetime in 1971 to form his own band. By this time, he had become a follower of the guru Sri Chinmoy. He decided to name his band after the name he had been given by his spiritual leader: Mahavishnu. In fact, for several years he went by the name Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.
The first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra included keyboardist Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird, violinist Jerry Goodman, drummer Billy Cobham, and McLaughlin on electric guitar. The group was an instant sensation. Its marriage of Eastern and Western sounds captured the attention of both jazz and rock mavens. Newsweek described their sound during an early performance as a blending of “instrumental voices swooping like electronic swallows in a summer storm.” This version of the Orchestra produced three albums: The Inner Mounting Flame (1972), Birds of Fire (1973), and Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973). Birds of Fir. made it into the top twenty on the album charts for 1973, but by the end of that year internal conflicts led to the dissolution of the band.
McLaughlin quickly put together a new version of the Orchestra, featuring electric violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty. The album Apocalypse, released in 1974, also showcased members of the London Symphony Orchestra. That was followed by Visions of the Emerald Beyond in 1975and Inner Worlds in 1976. Meanwhile, McLaughlin’s interest in Indian music continued to grow. While the second version of Mahavishnu was still active, he began to spend more and more time working with an all-acoustic group of mostly Indian musicians, playing a slightly jazzed-up take on authentic classical music from South India. By 1976, McLaughlin had given up on the Mahavishnu Orchestra-
-and the guru who had given him the name-and was focusing on Shakti, the new acoustic group, full-time.
Over the next several years, McLaughlin wandered through several different musical formats, always with the thought in the back of his mind of re-emerging with a new Mahavishnu Orchestra. When his interest in Shakti waned after only a couple of years, McLaughlin picked up his electric guitar once again to perform briefly with a group he dubbed the One Truth Band, which also featured L. Shankar, the violinist from Shakti. This band released one album, Electric Dreams, in 1979. In 1978 he formed a trio with two other acoustic guitar dynamos, Paco De Lucia and Larry Cornell. Cornell was replaced in 1980 by Al Di Meola, and this group put out albums in 1981 and 1983.
The following year, McLaughlin’s background desire to re-form Mahavishnu finally came to fruition. The group did not exactly reunite-the only other returning member was drummer Cobham-
but the new version of the band carried on the musical spirit and vision of the original Orchestra. The 1980s edition of the band featured saxophonist Bill Evans, who had previously played with Miles Davis; former Pat Metheny drummer Danny Gottlieb; bassist Jonas Hellborg, and keyboardist Mitch Forman. The presence of Evans’ sax and the absence of Ponty’s violin distinguished the new Mahavishnu from the earlier version. McLaughlin’s composing and guitar fireworks, however, provided continuity.
The third incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra released an album called Mahavishnu in 1984. The last album to date recorded under the Mahavishnu name—Jim Beard on keyboards in place of Forman was the only lineup change—was Adventures in Radioland, released in 1987. Both albums took full advantage of the amazing advances in the technology of electronic music that had taken place during the previous decade. While he had long since removed Mahavishnu from his personal name, McLaughlin had no qualms about using it for the new band, since the music so clearly descended from that of the earlier versions.
Since 1987, McLaughlin has tended to focus primarily on acoustic music. He has toured as a duo with bassist Hellborg, written and performed orchestral works, and was briefly reunited with Miles Davis before Davis’ death in 1992. McLaughlin has always been quick to explain that music is part of a spiritual voyage for him, whether attached to a particular religious sect or not. “My work in music is a work of the spirit; it’s a development of my spirit, and the development of myself as a human being,” he was quoted as saying in a 1985 Down Beat interview. “We don’t know if there’s a God, but if there is a God, I think music is the face of God.” Many listeners would be delighted if McLaughlin’s spiritual voyage happens to carry him in the direction of another Mahavishnu Orchestra along the way.
The Inner Mounting Flame, Columbia, 1972.
Birds of Fire, Columbia, 1973.
Between Nothingness and Eternity, Columbia, 1973.
Apocalypse, Columbia, 1974.
Visions of the Emerald Beyond, Columbia, 1975.
Inner Worlds, Columbia, 1976.
Mahavishnu, Warner Bros., 1984.
Adventures in Radioland, Verve, 1987.
Berendt, Joachim, The New Jazz Book, translated by Margenstern, et al., Lawrence Hill, 1975.
Sallins, James, ed., Jazz Guitars, Quill, 1984.
DownBeat, March 1985; May 1991.
High Fidelity, January 1987.
Newsweek, March 27, 1972.
Rolling Stone, July 13, 1978.
—Robert R. Jacobson