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Book Review

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


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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

Before the corporate whitewash of the disco plague obliterated a golden age of musical creativity, there was a time when artists with a musical vision, fired by spiritual fervour, could reach a global audience with the full backing of a multi national record label.

Fuelled by previously unheard levels of instrumental dexterity, volume and eastern musical wisdom, guitarist John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra may indeed have been "the greatest band that ever was," as Walter Kolosky claims in this history.

Over the 300 or so pages of this thoroughly entertaining book, writer and self-professed aficionado Kolosky tells the story of the incendiary rise and sudden implosion of this most ferocious of the fusion bands of the '70s. At a time when the term jazz-rock was meaningful, before fusion became synonymous with overblown egotistical fret-melting pyrotechnics, the Mahavishnu Orchestra joined the musical revolution begun by trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist John Coltrane, combining jazz improvisation aesthetics with rock volume and propulsion—and a vital third ingredient, Indian rhythm and composition forms.

Along with Weather Report and Return To Forever, Mahavishnu was at the cutting edge of the new movement. The involvement had begun for McLaughlin himself when he was a member of Davis' seminal early electric line-ups, and a founder member of Tony Williams' Lifetime—the first and most riotous jazz rock ensemble.

The author lets the Mahavishnu story unfold through the participants' own accounts, and rarely steps in to let his own, admittedly biased, opinion colour the facts. Complemented by a treasure trove of images, many from private collections and never publised before, Kolosky follows a chronological order of events. He tells the story from the early personal histories of the original band members, through the various incarnations of Mahavishnu, and on to the groups Mclaughlin was to assemble later.

Rather than succumb to the usual headline grabbing gimmicks so loved by the media, Kolosky wisely and respectfully sidesteps sex, drugs and rock and roll gossip. Instead he gathers insightful first-hand accounts of events as they unfolded—from the famous and the not-so-famous. Amongst the former, all the original band members give generous input to the author, so the objective stance and authenticity of the book is unquestionable.

Kolosky is rewarded for his honesty with insights of which even the most ardent enthusiast would have been ignorant. Some mysteries, like the events surrounding the shattering of drummer Billy Cobham's relationship with McLaughlin, are not fully resolved. In the case of the self destruction of the original band however, enough evidence is assembled from those close at hand to get an informed picture of the background to it.

The author's unobtrusive style is perfectly suited to his subject. It's clear he has conducted exhaustive research, gathering together practically any previously published mention of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and its music, from a wide variety of sources. From hip-hoppers sampling the music directly, to film scores borrowing whole tracks, and obscure tributes by relatively unknown artists, there can hardly be any stone left unturned by Kolosky in his quest for completism.

One subject which Kolosky declines to explore in depth, due to personal ambivalence on the subject, is the Mahavishnu's spirituality. There can surely never have been another band more blatantly fired by spiritual vision than this one. Indeed, McLaughlin's then-guru, Sri Chinmoy, originally gave him the name (Maha = Great, Vishnu = Creator ). The band was created to carry McLaughlin's inspired vision through the music. Although Kolosky touches on this subject in the brief section Music From The Heavens, it would have been valuable if he'd investigated it more fully.

As McLaughlin himself explained, if the music had power, passion, beauty and spiritual intensity, then the people listening would also feel and possess those things in the moment. Judging by the legion of fans giving witness in the book to the life-altering properties of a Mahavishnu concert, one would have to say that, on balance, Mclaughlin appears to be right. The fact that this band perhaps more than any other, previously or since, had this effect upon so many people, bares out the author's claim that they were the "the greatest band that ever was."

Fans and the merely curious alike will find plenty to entertain and inform in this book. As a fan, I found it absolutely riveting. It also works as a coffee table browser, which the casual reader can enjoyably surf at random.

If you're of an age to believe fusion began with the Yellowjackets, you likely won't know much about the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But for fans who witnessed this awesome combo live, and for newcomers too, Power, Passion And Beauty: The Story Of The Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra tells it like it is.

Ahead of their time, in their own time, the band's star burned brightly for two short, glorious years. Judging by the success of the recent Vishnu Fest in New York, and Gregg Bendian's excellent tribute band, The Mahavishnu Project, it's quite likely that the world is only now becoming ready for the power, the passion and the beauty that is the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

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