Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mahavishnu Orchestra Revisited


A review of the book Power, Passion & Beauty by Walter Kolosky

Funny things can sometimes happen when people of like mind make an otherwise unplanned connection. It is nice when a vehicle like All About Jazz can be instrumental in such connections. As it happened I recently had the inspiration to write an article that was fortuitously published on March 1, 2007 in AAJ about my experiences concerning Michael Brecker his music, his influence on me and my attendance at his recent Town Hall memorial. This led innocently enough to my being emailed by several people who read the article and were kind enough to welcome me to the AAJ family. One of those people happened to be Walter Kolosky who is the author the book Power, Passion & Beauty, The story of the legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra. I suppose it was a reference to my earliest experience with the MO and John McLaughlin in my bio that Walter was acknowledging, but it nonetheless led me to discover his book and read it subsequently.

Power, Passion & Beauty is a treasure for any musician or fan of this incredibly moving and genre creating experience known as the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The book describes, with unabashed admiration, the powerful and surprisingly life altering experience that many of us had when we bore witness to this cosmic tour de force for the first time. My first time was at a college concert at Farleigh Dickenson University (often jokingly referred to as Fairly Ridiculous at the time) in Rutherford, New Jersey. I am not positive of the exact date but it was after Billy Cobham had his Fibes Plexiglas drums kit, so using Walter’s conveniently useful chronology, it was sometime shortly after May of 1972. I had told my friends that I had heard good things about this band and its amazing guitar virtuoso and that we should be sure to make it to this concert. With some trepidation and skepticism my compadres agreed to cough up the admission price and we went to the show with seats in about the third or fourth row! Wiser fans had skillfully been a bit more prudent about the potential damage to their hearing. To describe the scene in words is not to do it justice, but suffice it to say that on the opening flurry of notes our jaws dropped in unison and we were never again the same. As a fledgling guitar player I was both inspired and totally disarmed.

PP&B was to me a wonderful and accurate reenactment of that time. Skillfully and meticulously researched and assembled by using excerpts of quotes gathered from multiple print sources; direct communications with the band members and their coterie; and from various personal recollections of the many musicians, some of them present day icons, which were obviously influenced by this band and their music. In its time, the early 1970’s there were many musical influences to choose from and music was certainly robust and vibrant, but Mahavishnu was palpably different. Through Walter’s careful inclusion of many present day musicians’ recollections of experiencing the MO, he has correctly unearthed a hereto fore underappreciated linkage. The MO tapped into a stream of musical consciousness that was apparently itching to be unleashed. An amalgamation of jazz, rock, eastern Indian influences all played with hereto fore unseen precision, virtuosity and originality. It hit a chord in all of us who were so profoundly affected by its searching, probing, thoroughly masterful execution of the magical music of John, Billy, Jerry Jan & Rick. It was as if a cosmic alignment, hinted to in Walter’s suggestion of astrological coincidences of the band members, brought these five disparate musical entities together to create a super nova of music that would change us all forever. To acknowledge such a thing is to accept a fact that many of us may not have been fully aware. This goes beyond music as a universal language, which it clearly must be considered, but borders on the realm of a spiritual connection with other people of like minds that were equally moved by the intensity, power, passion and uplifting beauty of the MO’s musical quest. As I stated in my previous article about the almost spiritual impact Michael Brecker’s playing had on me and many others, a fact not lost in the outpouring of good will at his memorial, the MO made similar although admittedly not as widespread cosmic connections.

Some readers may be disappointed at the lack of specificity in the reasons given for the bands ultimate demise. This book, however, rises above the tell-all genre of the band’s personality conflicts and petty misunderstandings. The fact that the MO was victim to what many other less connected bands were, EGO, is hardly relevant or a surprise. The author does, however, paint a clear picture of a band on fire, leaving it all on the stage every night. It is little wonder that with this delicate marriage of musical giants an early implosion was inevitable and perhaps the only way such an incendiary force of nature could be put asunder.

This is a must read for any fan or musician who were mystically touched by this music. It gives credence to the fact that there were so many more like minded individuals who were also so dramatically affected perhaps for many a comforting validation. It could rightly be considered a phenomenon. In bringing us together and relating with such enthusiasm his own irresistible draw to the band and its music, he unites us with the realization that we are indeed not alone in our appreciation, understanding and awe. What Walter’s book did for me was to reignite my love of this music and give me the impetus to research the music of the other players interviewed, that were also like me inspired and awed.

The original Mahavishnu Orchestra will never be duplicated. And as alluded to in the book, it is highly unlikely the band will ever be reunited, because of continued acrimony amongst the band members. But we as fans who have enjoyed this music for now over thirty years should look to those musicians who were similarly touched and who continue to carry the torch while exploring new possibilities. As John McLaughlin has never ceased to search and explore his musical boundaries, we as fans must also try to grow from the foundation of this music and continue to support those whose vision we apparently share. Power, Passion & Beauty serves as a virtual catalogue of like players, other birds of fire who may have taken their musical vision from the emerald beyond and carried them to new and arresting plateaus that we should continue to explore.

© Ralph A. Miriello

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