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Mahavishnu Orchestra: Live at Montreux 1984/1974

John Kelman By

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John McLaughlin / Mahavishnu OrchestraWith the completion of legendary guitarist John McLaughlin's 2007 tour with his new group The 4th Dimension—his 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 players—Miles 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 tour—was 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.

ALT="John McLaughlin / Mahavishnu Prchestra">Mahavishnu Orchestra
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 group—Ponty 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.


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