Mahavishnu Orchestra: Apocalypse (1974)
Wow! This 1974 recording had a great pedigree. First, you had Beatles producer George Martin. Then Michael Tilson Thomas, the young and gifted classical conductor, waving his magic wand in front of the London Symphony Orchestra. Jazz violin superstar Jean Luc Ponty stepped up as part of a newly expanded Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the teenage bass phenom Ralphe Armstrong more than capably held down the bottom end. Gayle Moran, Chick Corea's girlfriend, handled the keyboards and vocals, and Narada Michael Walden played drums. Last, of course, the guitar master Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, leading an Orchestra that was augmented by an impressive string section of its own. Producer Martin has stated in interviews that he considers this album to be one of the greatest he's ever produced. And that's saying a lot considering the landmark albums he produced for the Fab Four.
McLaughlin's compositional skills stand out on Apocalypse. Jean Luc Ponty made his debut with the Mahavishnu Orchestra on this album, and added energy to McLaughlin's inspired tunes. In a precious moment on "Hymn to Him," McLaughlin and Ponty achieve hyper stellar overdrive.
The true sleeper on this album is the opening "Power of Love." McLaughlin wields his acoustic guitar to front the LSO on this piece, a deliberate and uplifting tune. The remainder of the album features a highly charged McLaughlin. His electric playing is reminiscent of a finely tuned car engine: it purrs as smooth as a kitten, but can accelerate or stop abruptly when necessary. Ponty, McLaughlin's original choice for the first Mahavishnu Orchestra, really excels on Apocalypse. Years later he would say he probably left this band too soon. One only has to hear his musical interaction with McLaughlin to quickly agree.
The album does have one low moment, the misinformed "Smile of the Beyond". Despite some great playing on this tune, you have to suffer through a lengthy build-up which includes a vocal section. Moran's vocals are very nice, but because they are part of an overlong introduction, they are lost a bit. If McLaughlin had shortened the tune by three minutes, it would be a classic!
The London Symphony Orchestra deserves recognition as well. Yes, I know these guys would play just about anything for a paycheck. There was even some complaining about a few arrogant string players. But they did take advantage of these compositions and the orchestral arrangements, in which McLaughlin was greatly aided by Michael Gibbs. Many times on recordings like thisby Emerson, Lake and Palmer for examplethe orchestra seems to be there for the effect only. In this case, the LSO had some really interesting things to say.
To perform this music live with a symphony orchestra was a nightmare. McLaughlin occasionally speaks upon the impossible technical requirements of the day, and in particular an unpleasant but eventually rewarding last minute experience with America's Buffalo Symphony Orchestra.
Related link: John McLaughlin Reviews @ All About Jazz
Track Listing: Power of Love; Vision is a Naked Sword; Smile of the Beyond; Wings of Karma; Hymn to Him
Personnel: John McLaughlin- guitar; Jean-Luc Ponty- violin; Gayle Moran- keyboards and vocals; Michael Tilson Thomas- Conductor and piano; Marsha Westbrook- viola; Carol Shive- violin, vocals; Philip Hirschi- cello, vocals; Michael Walden- drums; Ralphe Armstrong- bass, vocals; London Symphony Orchestra