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

John Kelman By

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Power, Passion and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra
Walter Kolosky
Paperback; 313 pages
ISBN 0-9761016-2-9
Abstract Logix Books
2005

Anyone who's old enough to have experienced the Mahavishnu Orchestra's debut The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia/Legacy, 1971) when it was first released knew—whether they liked it or not, whether they understood it or not—that a sudden and monumental shift in modern music had just taken place.

Sure, others had begun combining the improvisational prowess of jazz with the volume and energy of rock. Drummer Tony Williams, whose Lifetime band featured British guitarist John McLaughlin—who formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the first place—had released Emergency! (Polydor, 1969), a raw sonic assault on the senses that, nevertheless, retained the clear earmarks of jazz. Williams' ex-boss, trumpeter Miles Davis, had been experimenting with rock rhythms as early as Miles in the Sky (Columbia/Legacy, 1968) but once again shattered his own conventions in a much more profound way with the one-two punch of In a Silent Way (Columbia/Legacy, 1969) and Bitches Brew (Columbia/Legacy, 1969).

But The Inner Mounting Flame represented an entirely different approach. Like Lifetime, it was LOUD. But unlike both Lifetime and Davis' efforts, there was a stronger compositional focus that included irregular meters, Indian harmonies and vivid counterpoint—all played, more often than not, at mind-numbing speeds that few others could match. But despite concert volumes that were so powerful that they sent some running from the venues, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was also capable of great beauty. And whether they were playing the almost impossible-to-conceive blinding theme of Inner Mounting Flame's closer, "Awakening, or the brief acoustic respite of "A Lotus on Irish Streams, the passion of McLaughlin, keyboardist Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman, bassist Rick Laird and drummer Billy Cobham was inexorable and undeniable.

Considering its significance, what's surprising is that it's taken so long for someone to write the story of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a group that may not have been the first jazz/rock outfit, but was undoubtedly the most influential and successful—despite the brief existence of its first and most important incarnation. The good news is that Walter Kolosky's Power, Passion and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra has finally arrived after years of research and interviews, and it delivers on the expectation of anyone whose life has been inextricably changed by the initial incarnation of the group.

Subtitling the book The greatest band that ever was, Kolosky makes no bones about the fact that, for him, the Mahavishnu Orchestra represented a clear musical pinnacle—the musical pinnacle, in fact. But he's not alone. Intrepid drummer/percussionist Gregg Bendian's Mahavishnu Project, a tribute band that does more than simply recreate the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but treats it as repertory classical music to be explored, torn apart and reinterpreted, has been met with open arms—and not just by Mahavishnu fans eager to hear the music in live performance (many of them too young to have experienced the real thing). At the Bendian-organized three-day Vishnu Fest that took place last year in New York City, McLaughlin attended the first night, while Laird and Hammer were on hand for the final evening, which paid tribute to The Inner Mounting Flame. By every account a grand time was had by all.

While Kolosky's passion for the group is evident from the first page to the last, he rarely imposes himself on the reader. Instead, a relatively chronological history of the band is presented through the words of those who lived it: the members of the group, the roadies, the managers and agents, and the almost countless musicians—many of whom, like guitarists Pat Metheny, John Scofield and John Abercrombie, have gone on to greater fame themselves.

What becomes clear, when reading of the first Mahavishnu Orchestra, is how its coming together was one of those rare confluences where everything lined up perfectly. In the same way that Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy, 1959) would likely not have come about the way it did had it taken place a year earlier or later, the first Mahavishnu Orchestra would not have been the same group had it not been there at just the right place, exactly the right time. Every member's contribution was of equal importance—McLaughlin's voracious interest in music and Indian culture/spirituality, Goodman's classical and rock background, Cobham's muscular approach to groove, Hammer's distinctive guitar-like voice on Minimoog and Rick Laird's unmovable anchor, consistently creating a fixed frame of reference regardless of the maelstrom that was going on around him.

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