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Mahavishnu Orchestra: It's Only Jazz Rock Fusion But I Like It

Groundbreaking, visionary, unfeasibly accomplished, The Mahavishnu Orchestra took ‘out there’ to a new level with music that was as bold, ballsy and exciting as when Hendrix first landed.

It was late 1973, and Jeff Beck needed to take shelter from the chill winds blowing around his latest band, the supergroup trio Beck, Bogert & Appice. The guitarist had retreated to his country pile in East Sussex, where he indulged his passion for working on hot rods.

One day, while on his back under one of those mean machines, hammering and spannering and cutting fingers that had already produced some of the most jaw-dropping guitar playing ever heard, he stopped suddenly. His attention had been caught by the music playing on the car radio. It was a sound he’d never heard before: thundering drums powered and underpinned a cacophony of guitar, synthesiser and electric violin. The band had a strange name to match their strange, new sound – the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Instantly, Beck saw his future unfolding before him. Beck, Bogert & Appice – and the power trio format – were a thing of the past. This fusion of jazz and rock was the way forward, and he wanted to be part of it. 

Not long afterwards, Beck heard Spectrum, the similarly groundbreaking debut solo album by Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham. Mahavishnu had opened his ears and his mind. Spectrum convinced him that he was making the right decision.

“It changed my whole musical outlook,” Beck said many years later. “It represented a whole area that was as exciting to me as when I first heard Hound Dog by Elvis Presley.”

Beck was as good as his word. His next album, 1975’s Blow By Blow, was an all-instrumental excursion into the sort of territory mapped out by the band he’d heard on the radio that day. The guitarist had been blown away, and he wouldn’t be the only one. On paper, the influence and success of the Mahavishnu Orchestra made no sense at all. But then that was the point.

“It wasn’t about making sense,” says John McLaughlin, the Yorkshire-born guitar virtuoso who steered the Mahavishnu Orchestra through a kaleidoscope of musical dimensions during their two separate runs in the early 70s and mid-80s. “It was about the opposite, in fact. Or rather, it was about making better sense. It was about connecting music to the spiritual, the universal, the stuff beyond. So when people asked: ‘Is it jazz? Is it rock?’ I would laugh and say: “I don’t know. What do you think?”

The truth is, nobody ever really did figure out exactly what the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was supposed to be. As the group’s founder suggests today, whatever people thought they were supposed to be, McLaughlin and his fellow musical alchemists would actively push against.

Mahavishnu blazed out of the left field at the beginning of the 70s with something very new: jazz-rock fusion. They had a foot in both camps but belonged to neither. Rock audiences, already educated in the far-out by Hendrix, latched on to their complex musical explorations which took the burgeoning cult of instrumental virtuosity and raised the bar to a vertigo-inducing higher level. Conversely, beard-stroking jazz purists, hung up on the lack of horns and shocked senseless by Mahavishnu’s controlled cacophony of guitar, bass, drums, synthesiser and electric violin, washed their hands of them from the start.

Between August 1971, when they first began to meld jazz, rock and spiritualism on their visionary first album The Inner Mounting Flame, and June 1973 when the original and best line‑up dissolved, the Mahavishnu Orchestra were the most far-out, game-changing, multi-discplinary musical outfit in the known (and unknown) universe. Led by the unlikely figure of McLaughlin – short-haired and beardless, white-clad, brandishing beatificially a twin-neck guitar – they were devotional, spiritual, meditative, fiery and, above all, free. And, remarkably, they were hugely successful on the back of it.

“It was a very powerful time of upheaval,” McLaughlin reflects. “The psychedelic revolution; the whole black and white thing in America; the assassinations; the Vietnam War on top of that. The music just reflected society as it was then. There was a great feeling that we could actually make the world a better place.”

These days McLaughlin resides in a beautiful coastal home just outside millionaires’ playground Monte Carlo, where he’s lived for the past 33 years. It’s a long way from his roots in the former Yorkshire mining town of Doncaster, where he was born in January 1942. A war baby, he was brought up to appreciate classical music, studied piano and watched entranced as his mother played the violin. He was 11 when he got his first guitar, and he has rarely been in a room without one since. “The guitar caused a revelation in my head and my heart,” he says. “Right now, as I speak to you,” he points out, “I have a guitar about twenty centimetres from my hand.”

Instead of Elvis, the young McLaughlin dug gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. But the real light-bulb moment came when he was 15 and he heard jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’s groundbreaking album Miles Ahead.

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