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DVD/Video/Film Reviews

Mahavishnu Orchestra: Live at Montreux 1984/1974

By Published: November 14, 2007
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 benefit—along with hearing the entire Apocalypse album in performance—of 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 musical—and 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."

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