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Book Review

Power, Passion And Beauty: The Story Of The Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra


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So as to safeguard access to his sources, it wouldn't have been politic, for instance, to have asked McLaughlin about his high-minded attitude to composing credits
Power, Passion And Beauty: The Story Of The Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra
Walter Kolosky
Paperback; 313 pages
ISBN 0-9761016-2-9
Abstract Logix Books

Because the Mahavishnu Orchestra has had such a profound influence on the jazz that followed it, the band's story begs—no, demands—to be told. Were the behind-the-scene goings-on as memorable as the music the players made together? Mahavishnu devotees, and those curious to find out what all the fuss is about, will be eager to read the real story.

They won't, however, read that story here. Instead, Walter Kolosky may have done the band, and John McLaughlin in particular, the ultimate favor: approaching the story in a way that focuses on the music rather than the personalities involved.

Power, Passion And Beauty follows the history of Mahavishnu from each member's childhood musical experiences through amateur and fledgling professional occupations. We learn about bassist Rick Laird's apprenticeship with Buddy Rich, and keyboardist Jan Hammer's stint with Sarah Vaughan. Up to a point, the story flows. But the presentation doesn't.

Kolosky presents his information, which is thoroughly researched, in an anecdotal style. He includes numerous quotes from musicians, and others behind the scenes, testifying to how the music changed their lives. He refers to his own life-changing moment more than once. But what's noteworthy—and perhaps off-putting, depending on how the individual reader hears the author's voice—is the bombast around the fringes of Kolosky's thesis, and how that bombast sits with a staccato writing style.

The hyperbole that runs throughout the book begins with its subtitle. It's one thing to believe that Mahavishnu Orchestra is truly "the greatest band that ever was. As the author of the book you hardly want to undercut your credibility on the point. But that's what the overstatement ultimately does. Further, if more of the quotes from such visionary musicians as Jeff Beck and Pat Metheny were pursued with an eye toward identifying the effects of the band on their own styles, sceptics and dilettantes both might come away with more sympathy with Kolosky's point of view. Many of these quotes, however, are culled from interviews which weren't concerned exclusively with Mahavishnu, so they don't necessarily throw light on this area.

It would have served Kolosky and the band well too, if he had identified some of his sources in more detail. Don Heckman, for instance, is a long- standing New York Times critic: he knows what's he's talking about. So too does Simon Phillips, who drummed with British guitar iconoclast and jazz-rock fusion pioneer Jeff Beck.

But some readers may know the lineage of Fareed Haque. Moving from such interesting projects as an instrumental interpretation of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Déjà Vu, he currently plays in the jam-band scene, in Garaj Mahal. And is the Rob Thomas quoted in "Homage To Mahavishnu Orchestra" the Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty? If so, what credibility does he lend to the subject at hand? (Perhaps his inclusion is Kolosky's way of illustrating the breadth of influence generated by Mahavishnu).

Kolosky's own point of view is clear throughout the book. One wishes he might bring it to bear more forcefully from time to time. He is, as noted before, somewhat stand-offish on the personality conflicts that arose during Mahavishnu's existence. So as to safeguard access to bandmembers, it wouldn't have been politic, for instance, for Kolosky to have asked McLaughlin about his high-minded attitude to the controversy over composing credits. More than one member of the band has expressed strong opinions about this issue, and to touch on them would paint a fuller picture, and throw light on the events that led to the disintegration of the band.

It would be interesting, too, to learn more about the disenchantment amongst the other musicians over McLaughlin's billing above the name of the band itself. Likewise, a balanced picture would need to address the music publishing issue. How was that particular area of disenchantment allowed to fester to the point it did, where the band's admittedly titular lead gave an outspoken (some might say, tactless) interview and then found the group fractured as a result?

Given the distinctly original nature of Mahavishnu music—Indian time signatures, high volume, adept use of technology in live performance—it boggles the mind that the same personality-based issues that afflicted mainstream pop artists would eventually destroy Mahavishnu too. The irony here may be obvious to those who've read the Mahavishnu story elsewhere. But it would have served Walter Kolosky well to illuminate it for those coming to the story for the first time.

To read of the never-ending touring, within which recording sessions were sandwiched on the run—resulting in aborted initial sessions for the second album, Birds Of Fire—is, however, astounding. For management and record company execs, it was unashamedly business as usual when serving this groundbreaking artistic endeavor. That's odd, given Columbia Records' head Clive Davis' enthusiasm for Mahavishnu. As Kolosky tells it, band manager Nat Weiss never succeeded in ameliorating the deadening pressure of constant touring, and the adverse effects it had on the band's creative impulses.

On the plus side too, Power, Passion And Beauty may encourage fledgling Mahavishnu enthusiasts to explore some of the other musics mentioned during the course of the story. The shadow of Miles Davis looms large in the Mahavishnu picture for instance, and the avid music lover anxious to build a library could assemble one just from Davis' discography and that of the various musicians in his bands over the years—Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and, most appropriate to this subject, Tony Williams, drummer and founder of Lifetime (where John McLaughlin first used high decibels as a tool).

Readers with a catholic and/or objective view of contemporary music may bristle at Kolosky's facile dismissal of new age music. One wonders about the breadth of his knowledge when he seems unaware that the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, as they too explored the outer realms of improvisation and meter, also asked their audiences to exercise some patience. And the omission of at least a cross-section of critical commentary about the group and its members seems egregious.

But if you love the art of music, you can't help but be fascinated by it in all its forms—and that includes how it affects its followers, including those as deeply moved to chronicle their subject as Walter Kolosky.

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