Mahavishnu Orchestra: Live at Montreux 1984/1974
With the completion of legendary guitarist John McLaughlin's 2007 tour with his new group The 4th Dimensionhis first fusion tour in North America in nearly a decade, there are plenty of opportunities to reexamine the tour in the context of earlier groups. While for some, the litmus test will always be his first, groundbreaking Mahavishnu Orchestra that recorded the classic The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971), the truth is that McLaughlin has continued to evolve in a myriad of contexts. From the Indo-centric Shakti and Remember Shakti to his trio with Trilok Gurtu and his late 1990s Heart of Things band, each of McLaughlin's groups has possessed its own distinctive personality.
So, too, did subsequent versions of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, most notably the expanded group that evolved out of McLaughlin's somewhat controversial Apocalypse (Columbia, 1974), an ambitious collaboration with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and The London Symphony Orchestra. McLaughlin's eleven-piece band, featuring French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty hot off the road with Frank Zappa, would go on to record another enduring Mahavishnu Orchestra album, Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia, 1975), but disbanded before it had the opportunity to perform material from that disc in its entirety. Still, the group toured the Apocalypse album, with one stop being at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974.
The Mahavishnu (this time without the "Orchestra") that McLaughlin re-formed in 1983 was even more controversial. Along with original Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham, the group's self-titled 1984 Warner Bros. album remains an unfortunate footnote in McLaughlin's discography. McLaughlin, who had been experimenting with guitar synthesizer technology from the mid-1970s, was focusing more on the Synclavier II and a digital guitar that opened up his sonic palette in ways previously only available to keyboardists, with minimal emphasis on his rawer electric guitar, and the album suffered for it. Still, the group, featuring a number of young playersMiles Davis alumnus Bill Evans on saxophones, Mitchell Forman on keyboards and Jonas Hellborg on bass, along with ex-Pat Metheny Group drummer Danny Gottleib, who replaced Cobham on tourwas a seriously in-your-face, kick-ass live band to which the studio album only alluded. The group remained together for three years, but made a stop at Montreux in its early days during the summer of 1984.
Those who own the mammoth seventeen-CD Montreux Concerts (Warner Brps., 2003), which collects all existing McLaughlin shows into one box set, are already familiar with these two stunning performances. But, aside from bootlegs copies, the video component of these two shows has remained in the Montreux vaults for far too long, making the release of the two-DVD set Live at Montreux 1984/1974 a welcome event for McLaughlin fans, and a revelation for those who don't realize just how sophisticated yet visceral both groups were in performance. A minor note: a manufacturing error has the 1984 show labeled 1974, and vice versa.
Live at Montreux 1984/1974
Eagle Eye Media
The 1974 edition of Mahavishnu Orchestra was a collective of eleven outstanding players, including three- piece string and wind sections that allowed the group to tackle the music from Apocalypse with some reverence while being a more practical touring unit (operative word: more, few bands of this size could tour today with any financial feasibility). But it was the core groupPonty as McLaughlin's primary solo foil, keyboardist/vocalist Gayle Moran (soon to marry another icon, keyboardist Chick Corea), bassist Ralphe Armstrong and drummer Narada Michael Walden (a powerful young drummer who would go on to forge a mega-career as a pop producer, making his relative desertion of the kit a real shame)who gave this version of Mahavishnu Orchestra its teeth. No, this unit was not as raw and unbridled as the first Mahavishnu Orchestra, but it truly was an orchestra, allowing McLaughlin to realize his increasingly broad-scoped compositions.
Those who own bootleg videos of this concert will be disappointed that only two tracks are available in video form, the 29-minute "Hymn to Him" and 22-minute "Wings of Karma." The rest of the performance is available only in audio format. Still, 51 minutes of this band is more than enough to demonstrate an ensemble that could, at times, be elegant and subtle, but at other times powerful and, while less raw, still rivaling the original Mahavishnu Orchestra in terms of energy, and extended soloing by McLaughlin and Ponty. Both tracks are significantly extended ("Hymn" was only 19 minutes on Apocalypse, while "Wings" was only six), and amongst the many notable attributes of the set is just how far McLaughlin had traveled as a guitarist. Still capable of blistering runs, his harmonic approach had broadened, with his lengthy solo on "Wings" as good as anything he'd done to date.
As strong as Ponty and McLaughlin are, Armstrong and Walden are no less important, the perfect combination of dexterity, sensitivity and keen listening. McLaughlin's solo on "Wings" would be nowhere near as effective without the dynamic interplay of the bassist, drummer and Moran, on electric piano. Moran's future role in Chick Corea's expanded Return to Forever has garnered considerable disdain from fusion fans but here, while she doesn't dominate, the small group sections benefit greatly from her presence.
L:R: Jean-Luc Ponty, Bob Knapp, John McLaughlin, Ralphe Armstrong, Gayle Moran
For those who already own the Montreux Concerts box there will be grumbling about the balance of this two-hour performance being available in audio format only. Still the video that does exist is more than enough, and for those who don't own the box, there's the added benefitalong with hearing the entire Apocalypse album in performanceof an extended, fully orchestrated take on Dawn," from The Inner Mounting Flame. It's even more blistering than the original, with strong solo spots for trumpeter Steve Frankovich and flautist Bob Knapp.
The 1984 performance is more completely satisfying: first, because the entire 110-minute show is captured on video; second, because the sound, recorded to multi-track (as opposed to the 1974 show, which was recorded to two-track), is much better; and third, because this was a band of young players with something to prove, and pushed McLaughlin hard. There are a lot of smiles being traded around the stage during this performance, and it's clear that, while the 1974 Mahavishnu Orchestra was a superb organization, the 1984 Mahavishnu was a band that was having fun.
McLaughlin's broader textural capabilities, thanks to the Synclavier, meant that he could articulate in a near- vocal fashion on tunes like the ballad "Nostalgia." But on the fiery "Radio-Activity," when he trades his Digital Guitar for a Les Paul Special, it's clear that he's not lost any of his edge while, yet again, showing significant growth in his approach. McLaughlin rarely stands still, and this DVD set is a valuable addition to his body of work if for no other reason than making this show available to fans unable to cough up the big bucks for the Montreux Concerts box. It's also a performance that highlights just how important the Synclavier was to guitarists like McLaughlin, who were looking for ways to broaden their sonic capabilities without leaving their six-strings behind.
But it's not just McLaughlin who stands out in this group. Evans is just as potent, delivering solo after solo of high energy post-bop lines, even though they're layered over a group with a harder rock edge. Forman, looking like he can't be much out of his teens, is another strong solo foil, as into the technology as McLaughlin, but just as musicaland just as powerful. McLaughlin and Evans navigate the winding and blindingly fast melody of "East West," with Evans taking the first, furious solo before stepping back for a duet between McLaughlin and Gottleib that will be a revelation to anyone who only knows Gottlieb for his work with Pat Metheny Group. McLaughlin starts on Synclavier, but switches to electric guitar for an even more frenzied exchange with Gottlieb.
L:R: John McLaughlin, Bill Evans, Jonas Hellborg
The beauty of Gottleib and Hellborg together is that they can groove hard when necessary, but just as equally pull out all the stops. Hellborg has gone on to record seminal fusion discs with other guitarists including the late Shawn Lane, but here he was young and hungry, and it shows. He rarely solos, but when he does during the medley that starts with "Blues for L.W.," he demonstrates massive technique tempered with a sense of construction that, like everyone else in this group, transcends mere chops. He also references his love for Jimi Hendrix in a beautiful take of "Little Wing."
Together, these two performances only make one hungry for a similar treatment for the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. While the first incarnation did play Montreux, sadly it was not recorded. Still, Live at Montreux 1984/1974 proves that, while these incarnations of McLaughlin's flagship group didn't receive the kind of widespread acclaim his first version did, in performance they were every bit as stunning, and for the kinds of different reasons that do nothing more than demonstrate why, in a career now in its fifth decade, John McLaughlin remains such a vital figure.
Tracks: 1974: Wings of Karma; Hymn to Him; Power of Love (audio only); Smile of the Beyond (audio only); Vision is a Naked Sword (audio only); Dawn (audio only). 1984: Radio-Activity; Nostalgia; East Side, West Side; Clarendon Hills; Medley: Blues for L.W., It's the Pits, Living on the Crest of a Wave; Jozy; Pacific Express; Mitch Match; Mitch Match (Reprise).
Personnel: 1974: John McLaughlin: guitar; Bob Knapp: flute, percussion; Steve Frankovich: horns; Gayle Moran: keyboards, vocals; Jean-Luc Ponty: violin; Steve Kindler: violin; Carol Shrive: violin; Marsha Westbrook: alto; Phillip Hirschi: cello; Ralphe Armstrong: bass; Narada Michael Walden: drums. 1984: John McLaughlin: Synclavier II Digital Guitar, electric guitar; Bill Evans: saxophone; Mitchell Forman: keyboards; Jonas Hellborg: bass; Danny Gottleib: drums.
DVD Feature: 1974 running time 52 minutes (video) 73 minutes (audio only). 1984: running time 110 minutes. .
Captured from Live at Montreux 1984/1974, courtesy of Eagle Eye Media