The Mahavishnu Orchestra: This Century's Classical Music?
Over thirty years ago the original Mahavishnu Orchestra was making big waves in the music world. The band, led by the legendary English jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, had an album on the Billboard Top Twenty and was filling stadiums across the world with crazed fans. What made this so unusual was that the Mahavishnu Orchestra's material was the antithesis of popular music at the time. McLaughlin and his band mates fused the improvisational aspects of jazz with the volume and edginess of hard rock. The jazz-rock music it produced was years ahead of its time. Intricate and complicated melodies and sudden rhythm changes dominated. The band was ear-splittingly loud, played 30-minute tunes, featured no vocals, and thrilled audiences and critics alike with its virtuosity. If the band came out today, it would be hailed as the best jam band in the world.
In addition to McLaughlin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra included Rick Laird on bass, current Dregs violinist Jerry Goodman, the renowned Billy Cobham on drums and keyboardist Jan Hammer, who would go onto commercial fame in the 1980's as the composer and performer of the soundtrack for the Miami Vice television show. The band lasted only a short two years until it exploded due to tensions created by the challenges of playing such intense music 250 nights a year, and the inability of some of the younger band members to handle sudden fame.
The original Mahavishnu Orchestra may have had a short lifespan, but its influence has lived on in a very real way. Many musicians a generation or two removed are viewing McLaughlin's Mahavishnu compositions as a sort of new classical music.
In fact, for many years, pop and jazz stars such as Sting and Branford Marsalis have openly listed the Mahavishnu Orchestra as a major source of inspiration. However, very few musicians have dared attempt to cover the Orchestra's music. In the last few years this has changed in a major way as the compositions from the original band's albums The Inner Mounting Flame , Birds of Fire , and Between Nothingness and Eternity have been reinterpreted by contemporary jazz, rock and classical players brave enough to take them on. McLaughlin compositions that appeared on recordings by later versions of the Orchestra are also being revived.
The renaissance of the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra really began a few years ago when Branford Marsalis led Jay Leno's Tonight Show band. The band, featuring another McLaughlin admirer, guitarist Kevin Eubanks, would play a couple of McLaughlin's Mahavishnu compositions into and through the commercial breaks. Twenty some years after their original release, these tunes were still so intense that Branford was criticized by the show's producers for performing them. This criticism eventually helped lead to his leaving the show.
At about the same time, Columbia Records had been reissuing the early Mahavishnu Orchestra albums on CD. While many old fans replaced their vinyl recordings, a whole new generation began discovering the music as well. In addition, several John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra sites have popped up on the Internet. Eventually interest became strong enough for Columbia to release a long lost studio effort that the Mahavishnu Orchestra had abandoned shortly before the band had broken up. This album, posthumously titled The Lost Trident Sessions , cracked Billboard's Top Ten jazz charts a full 26 years after it had been recorded!
Many artists are now attempting to recreate the Mahavishnu Orchestra experience. Steve Lukather, guitarist for the 80's supergroup Toto, has been performing Mahavishnu numbers for several years now with a tribute band called Doves of Fire. European guitarist Fred van de Voort's Confusion band has effectively covered many of McLaughlin's compositions from the Mahavishnu era. Acoustic classical style tributes of the wildly electric music have also come from the Groningen Guitar Duo and the French guitar and violin duo of Bournet and Alberti. Englishman Marco Anderson's acoustic Wild Strings Quartet has even given the Mahavishnu compositions a modern Baroque treatment. Such popular and diverse bands as Gov't Mule and The California Guitar Trio have also featured the McLaughlin compositions in concert.
The rediscovery of the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra is fully evidenced however, by the dedication shown by The Mahavishnu Project. This electric band, formed and led by the well-known jazz drummer Gregg Bendian, has been performing live for several years and has released an album called Live Bootleg .
The album contains the band's versions of Mahavishnu classics recorded live during the band's various performances. Interest in the music is so high among musicians that the MP even gives Mahavishnu Orchestra seminars at music stores and music schools.
For Bendian, putting a band together to play this music was a dream come true. Bendian, who has had classical training, views the music as a sort of "unique form of chamber music" and he considers it to be "some of the most important music of the 20th century". While the electric sound may not fit into contemporary classical parameters, the approach certainly does.
In addition to Bendian, the band includes Pete McCann on guitar, Steve Hunt on keyboards, Stephan Crump on bass and Rob Thomas on violin. All of these musicians have played with the jazz greats, from Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman to even the original Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer, Bill Cobham. They all seem to approach the music with the same reverence as Bendian's.
The Mahavishnu Project honors McLaughlin's compositions by highlighting the dramatic moments associated with the original pieces, while adding its own skilled improvisational parts, rather than attempting to copy the music note for note. In fact, while the original band tended to feature each player's skills by upping the sound in the mix as they soloed, the MP seems to have adopted a group sound approach. This gives the band sort of a modern jam band sound that should appeal to the younger fans that will be discovering this music for the very first time.
For now, the Mahavishnu Project is focusing on the Orchestra's first three albums. In fact, it has even played the albums on stage straight through as if they were classical suites. Could this become a trend? It looks more and more like it.
It has not been unusual over the years for jazz stars to interpret classical music pieces. It hasn't even been out of the ordinary for some classical players, such as Andre Previn and Itzhak Perlman, to try their hands at jazz. But it is very difficult to find any examples of jazz compositions that have been treated with the respect reserved for classical music. Some of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's music may have reached that point. There are some who believe the late Frank Zappa's compositions qualified for such an honor as well. But a lot of Zappa's music was intentionally humorous or silly. Those are hardly the qualities that the classical world holds dear. The compositions from the Mahavishnu Orchestra were serious minded efforts.
There is much consternation going on about the future of recorded music. This anxiety is especially a problem in the insular communities of jazz and classical music. However, we can always count on creative minds to produce great art and for others to eventually discover and honor it. Perhaps the future and savior of some jazz music is for it to become the next classical music. If that is to be the case, we could start in worse places than with the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
John McLaughlin @ All About Jazz