Monday, July 10, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 019: The Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Inner Mounting Flame

Around 1971 the English guitarist John McLaughlin was just coming off eighteen months of incredibly high-intensity music-making. Having recorded a first, more-or-less straightahead jazz disc in England (the under-appreciated Extrapolation), he had come to the States in 1969 to play with Tony Williams and found himself, pretty much within moments, playing in the studio and (one night) on stage with Miles Davis’s late-60s band. Miles in this period was deep into an African/electric thing, having left most of the bebop/hard-bop/cool jazz fans and critics behind, and was investigating the intensity and the rhythmic grooves of rock and funk. He’d wanted to collaborate with Jimi Hendrix but Jimi was to die before a year was out; instead, Miles kept insisting to his later guitarists “Play like Jimi! Turn it up!”. Those early-70s LP’s by the big electric Miles bands are derogated too often as squalling noise, but they’re great music, and, along with McLaughlin’s first US album as a leader, were the foundation of the 70s jazz-rock/fusion style.

That McLaughlin debut was 1971’s The Inner Mounting Flame, credited to the Mahavishnu Orchestra (named after the name given McLaughlin by his guru Sri Chinmoy), but unquestionably John’s band. Mahavishnu went through several incarnations, but the first quintet was by far the best: violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Jan Hammer, bass guitarist Rick Laird, and the explosive drummer Billy Cobham. The template was to exploit the rhythmic grooves, instrumentation, and intensity of rock, the improvisational virtuosity of jazz, and the shifting meters and (occasionally) the modal scales of Indian music, in a program of all-original tunes.

This is a tremendously raw, forceful, but at the same very beautiful record, featuring McLaughlin’s twin-necked “Double Rainbow” electric guitar virtuosity (he was an astonishingly gifted technician), matched every step of the way by Billy’s volcanic drumming. Their dynamic interaction, the core of the band, is shown to best advantage on the frighteningly perfect stop-time unisons of The Noonward Race and the remorseless ostinati of The Dance of Maya.

Later, entirely too many people—even including McLaughlin himself—presumed that the template of screaming volume, lightning tempi, and portentious solemnity was the “way forward” for jazz in the 1970s, which led to an awful lot of self-indulgent crap from musicians who should have (and eventually did) know better. With hindsight, we know that they should also have been looking at loft jazz (Sam Rivers, Milford Graves, and their ilk, beautifully captured in Val Wilmer’s book As Serious as Your Life), the ECM school (Keith Jarrett, the first Pat Metheny trio record, and Oregon), and the collectives, especially Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Colored Musicians (AACM) and Philly’s Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

But that first Mahavishnu record, especially if you were a guitar-player, was exhilarating beyond belief. Still an amazing disc, 35 years later.


RMVela said...

This record scares the bejesus outta me. Fantastic, verge of collapse playing, though, & the group interplay is beyond heavy. A mighty record indeed.

Jonathan said...

too true.
McLaughlin's virtuosity and really just his all-around genius always inspire me.