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Book Reviews

Power, Passion and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra

By Published: June 8, 2006
Laird was, in fact, the most consistently-overlooked member of the band and Kolosky goes to significant length to explain just how critical his role was. Surrounded by virtuosos who were often soloing at the speed of light, Laird seemed an odd choice. Rarely soloing himself, Laird's sometimes hypnotically-repetitive lines seemed at odds with the rest of the group. But another bassist—perhaps one like Stanley Clarke who was more extroverted and excessive—would have completely altered and likely destroyed the delicate balance of the group's diverse musical personalities. What also becomes clear is that while Laird's playing may have appeared simple, his harmonic knowledge had to be as strong as those around him; in order to find the unifying thread to tie everyone else's more outer-reaching explorations together he had to make the right decisions, which he did every time.

Kolosky doesn't sugar-coat the group's conflicts. This was, after all, a band that essentially imploded after only two studio albums—ignoring the more recently-discovered third album The Lost Trident Sessions (Columbia/Legacy, 1999), recorded in 1973—and one live record. But he doesn't exploit them either. While there are clearly some unresolved issues between various members of the group, there has also been a certain degree of forgiveness as well, and to some extent Kolosky can take responsibility for that by encouraging each member of the band to open up and talk about the events surrounding the group's beginning, rise to success and ultimate dissolution.

Kolosky also tackles the delicate subject of spirituality with an approach that makes it clear that McLaughlin's personal search was unquestionably responsible for his extreme dedication and the musical directions he chose. But thankfully Kolosky avoids making any value judgements. The biggest strength of Power, Passion and Beauty is how Kolosky, despite being a huge fan, lets the story tell itself rather than injecting too much of his own viewpoint, in direct contrast to Paul Stump's more easily contestable Go Ahead John: The Music of John McLaughlin (SAF Publishing, 1999).

If there's a weak point in the book it's in Kolosky's attempts to provide blow-by-blow descriptions of individual compositions. While any music critic's greatest challenge is to articulate in words the indescribable entity that is music, it's perhaps best to describe it in more general terms rather than becoming too specific.

But it's a small quibble as Kolosky doesn't focus the emphasis of the book on the Mahavishnu Orchestra's admittedly groundbreaking repertoire—again, in contrast with The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis 1980-1991 (University of Michigan Press, 2005) where author George Cole, despite having interview footage every bit as good and revealing as Kolosky's, spends far too much time dissecting each and every song Davis recorded in his last decade of life. How many ways can you say funky?

While the original Mahavishnu Orchestra dissolved at the end of 1973 and, being the most significant incarnation of the group gets the majority of Kolosky's attention, he does detail the second version that included, amongst others, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, drummer Narada Michael Walden and bassist Ralphe Armstrong. Kolosky also gives relatively short shrift to the 1980s incarnation, simply called Mahavishnu (despite McLaughlin having long abandoned the teachings of his 1970s guru, Sri Chinmoy). But there's no doubt which version of the band Kolosky is referring to when he describes The greatest band that ever was.

It's been over 30 years since McLaughlin, Hammer, Goodman, Laird and Cobham have played together. Every one of them has gone on with their lives, some to greater success than others and one—Laird—giving up performing entirely and finding another artistic outlet in photography. Kolosky rightfully focuses on just how vital each of them was in the day and, despite the passage of time and considerable diversification, continues to be.

There are those who still look back fondly on other fusion groups of the time—keyboardist Chick Corea's Return to Forever, keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter's Weather Report and keyboardist Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. But while they weren't the first jazz/rock group by a long shot, the Mahavishnu Orchestra effectively fired the first major salvo that made the early to mid-1970s a heyday of artistic creativity—a time when anything and everything was possible. A time when major labels would put serious money behind groups that, were they to emerge today, would be relegated to smaller independent labels or be forced—as is the case with Bendian's Mahavishnu Project—to self-publish.

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