Jazz at 100 Hour 84: John McLaughlin & The Mahavishnu Orchestra (1969 – 1972)

John McLaughlin

British guitarist John McLaughlin contributed to creating the bold new sound of Miles Davis’s great proto-fusion works, In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. He was a member of what could be the first great fusion band, Tony Williams Lifetime, and then founded what Ben Ratliff describes as “the ideal band for the time” – the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Bitches Brew may have been the revolutionary album that launched fusion, but it could not serve as a model for other musicians. It was too idiosyncratic and too reliant on the unmistakable sound of Miles Davis’s trumpet. Instead, fusion as a style found its template in the intense yet disciplined electric guitar sound of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the creation of John McLaughlin, an English guitarist from Yorkshire.” Schooled in American blues and Spanish Flamenco guitar styles, he was first noticed when “…he recorded [Extrapolation]an album with avant-garde jazz players, drummer Tony Oxley (who later worked extensively with Cecil Taylor) and saxophonist John Surman.” – Ben Ratliff

Extrapolation and Lifetime.
“Coming to London in the ’60s as a young and already experienced professional drawn to swing and the blues, McLaughlin fell into a scene where the boundaries between jazz and rock, commercial and experimental music, were substantially blurred …[His first LP] Extrapolation is one of the finest jazz records ever made in Europe. The circumstances of its recording are consistent with the spirit of the time, as are the forms … which touch on blues, folk, swing, bebop and even some modern-classical ideas, but without settling into any specific ‘genre’. The emotional range and dynamics are already typical of what became McLaughlin’s familiar spectrum of gently meditative runs and furious, irregularly metred scrabbles, but with all his virtues (accuracy, power, vision) already in place. The band was state of the art for 1969. Oxley’s drumming has the firmness of a rock beat, even when the count is extremely irregular, and Surman’s playing is cast midway between folksy melodizing and something uniquely his own. Odgers is the least well known, but an admired player of the period. Some British jazz fans will claim ‘Binky’s Beam’ as their favourite track of all time. The whole set has a durable, timeless feel.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Binky’s Beam. John McLaughlin Quartet
(John Surman-ss/bs, John McLaughlin-g, Brian Odgers-b, Tony Oxley-d). From Extrapolation. 1/18/1969

Peace Piece. John McLaughlin Quartet
(John Surman-ss/bs, John McLaughlin-g, Brian Odgers-b, Tony Oxley-d). From Extrapolation. 1/18/1969

Right after recording Extrapolation in January 1969, McLaughlin went to New York at Tony Williams’s invitation and immediately participated in Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way sessions, followed by the Tony Williams Lifetime Emergency! Sessions and Davis’s Bitches Brew before year’s end. Lifetime’s greatest effort, (Turn It Over), was recorded the following year In the Penguin Guide Morton and Cook refer to Lifetime as “Arguably the greatest fusion group ever, and a forerunner to McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra.” They say further “The surprise of (Turn It Over) was how swinging some of the music was, underneath the electronic wail … Chick Corea’s ‘To Whom It May Concern’ comes in two parts and like most of the album they’re delivered abruptly and with little embellishment.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

To Whom It May Concern – Them. Tony Williams Lifetime
(Larry Young-org, John McLaughlin-g, Jack Bruce-b, Tony Williams-d). From (Turn It Over). 1970

To Whom It May Concern – Us. Tony Williams Lifetime
(Larry Young-org, John McLaughlin-g, Jack Bruce-b, Tony Williams-d). From (Turn It Over). 1970

The Mahavishnu Orchestra.
“After a year of playing with Williams and Miles [McLaughlin] was ready to strike out on his own. Fascinated by eastern religion McLaughlin studied teachings of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian ‘New Age’ guru. As a result, immersed himself in Indian classical music, which offered the improviser at bewildering variety of unusual meters … Mahavishnu Orchestra was an ideal band for the time. It played loud, fast, intensely distorted music, better suited to concert dates with ZZ Top and Emerson, Lake and Palmer than to the confined quarters of a jazz club. McLaughlin was out in front, playing an electric guitar with two necks one with six strings, the other with twelve. With lengthy solos, played at sledgehammer volume, McLaughlin raised the level of virtuosity associated with rock guitarists like Hendrix to a new level…” – Ben Ratliff

“The Mahavishnu Orchestra combined sophisticated time-signatures and chord structures with drum and post-Hendrix guitar riffs of surpassing heaviness… Over ambiguous harmonies and often complex time-signatures, McLaughlin produced chains of blistering high notes on both his six- and twelve-stringed guitars. He had worked in between with Miles Davis and as part of the Tony Williams Lifetime, and his sound had evolved and darkened since the making of Extrapolation just over two years previously… The first Mahavishnu album [Inner Mounting Flame] was one of the essential fusion records. It’s more varied than one remembers, with the soft lyricism of ‘A Lotus On Irish Streams’ set against the heavy blues sarcasm of ‘You Know, You Know’. Ironically, just as he was pushing the electric guitar solo to new heights of amplification and creative abandon, McLaughlin was also working against the dominance of electricity and setting a new standard for acoustic performance, something he continued to develop on the second Mahavishnu record, Birds Of Fire.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Awakening. Mahavishnu Orchestra
(Jan Hammer-key, John McLaughlin-g, Jerry Goodman-vln, Rick Laird-b, Billy Cobham-d). From Inner Mounting Flame. 1971

You Know, You Know. Mahavishnu Orchestra
(Jan Hammer-key, John McLaughlin-g, Jerry Goodman-vln, Rick Laird-b, Billy Cobham-d). From Inner Mounting Flame. 1971

A Lotus On Irish Streams. Mahavishnu Orchestra
(Jan Hammer-key, John McLaughlin-g, Jerry Goodman-vln, Rick Laird-b, Billy Cobham-d). From Inner Mounting Flame. 1971
“… speed-demon Spanish guitar improvisation leading towards a slow piano-guitar-violin rhapsody … the organic-hippie side of a frightening monster music.” – Ben Ratliff

The Mahavishnu Orchestra in its original configuration would record only two studio albums – the second was Birds of Fire. “The title tune … which opens up the album, is a fusion classic. John McLaughlin scares the hell out of his guitar with his melodic convulsions. If you ever want to frighten a musical neophyte, turn your stereo up really loud and play the cover tune – it’s guaranteed to send him or her fleeing… The most outstanding piece is ‘One Word.’ … On no other tune ever recorded by the Mahavishnu Orchestra does each member contribute so much. This was the first Mahavishnu Orchestra tune I ever heard, and I will never forget the chill that went up and down my spine when the band kicked in after Billy Cobham’s quasi-martial drum solo.” – Walter Kolosky (All About Jazz)

Birds of Fire. Mahavishnu Orchestra
(Jan Hammer-key, John McLaughlin-g, Jerry Goodman-vln, Rick Laird-b, Billy Cobham-d). From Birds of Fire. 8/1972

One Word. Mahavishnu Orchestra
(Jan Hammer-key, John McLaughlin-g, Jerry Goodman-vln, Rick Laird-b, Billy Cobham-d). From Birds of Fire. 8/1972

Birds of Fire ends on an anthemic note with “Resolution.”

Resolution. Mahavishnu Orchestra
(Jan Hammer-key, John McLaughlin-g, Jerry Goodman-vln, Rick Laird-b, Billy Cobham-d). From Birds of Fire. 8/1972

The Mahavishnu Orchestra was a huge commercial and critical success. After Birds of Fire, this line up recorded a live record and then exhaustion and inter-personal conflict led to the original group dissolving. Although there were subsequent bands led by John McLaughlin under the same name, none reached the peaks of this quintet.

Chick Corea began recording as a sideman for artists like Mongo Santamaria, Blue Mitchell, Herbie Mann and Cal Tjader in 1962. In 1966 his began to record as a leader, while still touring with Stan Getz. Like many others, his studio work and touring with Miles Davis from 1968 – 1970 raised his profile, leading him to a career that split between the newly emerging electric fusion music and acoustic pursuits. Chick Corea’s varied recordings from trio works to his bands named Return To Forever to his duets with Gary Burton in the next hour of Jazz at 100.

Recordings.
John McLaughlin. Extrapolation. Polydor 841598-2
Tony Williams Lifetime. (Turn It Over). Polydor 2425 019
Mahavishnu Orchestra. Inner Mounting Flame. Columbia CK 65523
Mahavishnu Orchestra. Birds of Fire. Columbia KC 31996

Resources.
Kolosky, Walter. “Mahavishnu Orchestra: Birds of Fire.” All about Jazz. 11/16/2002. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/birds-of-fire-mahavishnu-orchestra-columbia-records-review-by-walter-kolosky.php
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
John McLaughlin. Extrapolation
Tony Williams Lifetime. (Turn It Over)
Mahavishnu Orchestra. Inner Mounting Flame
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
81. Mahavishnu Orchestra: Inner Mounting Flame (1971)

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