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Igniting the Flame

How I discovered the Mahavishnu Orchestra

Tape player and Liner Notes

Listening to Mahavishnu Orchestra for the first time, while reading the liner notes! (artwork courtesy of Aravind Iyer)

It is generally agreed that experiences are more valuable to people than possessionsexperiences. From that perspective, a musical performance is something unique and wonderful. Attending one can be an experience to remember, and yet it can be bottled into a record which a music lover can possess and use to re-live the experience. Of course, today’s world of unlimited music streaming has upended the notion of music as a possession, or at least as a collectible. But it wasn’t the case when I bought my first jazz tape, The Inner Mounting Flame. Collecting music records was very much in, and I wanted to buy some tapes to move beyond hard rock and metal, and into jazz.

It was the autumn of 2000. I had heard that the Mahavishnu Orchestra was heavy and felt it would provide me an easy transition from the wailing guitar solos of metal into the musically more challenging world of jazz. I had heard about the legendary guitar player John McLaughlin, having heard him in his genre defining work in Shakti. So I went to Rhythm House, the iconic music store of Mumbai. I navigated my way through the shelves that were ordered genre-wise and found the alphabetically sorted stack of tapes in “Jazz and Blues”. After browsing, I decided on The Inner Mounting Flame based on it being the earliest Mahavishnu Orchestra album, released in 1971. By the way, in a telling sign of the times, Rhythm House has shut down its operationsrhythmhouse.

Back in my college hostel room, I popped my brand new tape into my trusty tape player and hit play. Barely 20 seconds into the first song, Meeting of the Spirits, I was staring at my tape player, agape, in disbelief, trying to figure out what exactly I was hearing. Heavy? Yeah. High-pitched electric guitar? Yeah. Powerhouse drums? Yeah. Except this was so much more. There was a pretty wicked violin and synthesiser sound, and the whole thing sounded intense, hard rock, Indian tinged and detuned in a way I had certainly never heard before. The time signatures, the scales, the mastery of each player and the most amazing of all, the players’ total commitment to play this crazy virtuosic music together — if you haven’t heard this album, please do me a favour: give it a spin or should I say stream, after you are done reading.

For something to have a power to move, 30 years since its creation (as of 2000), it is worth wondering what was going on 1971. Who were these musicians? How did they meet? Where did they record? What did it feel like to be there, at one of their live concerts? “It felt like I had stuck my finger in a light socket. I couldn’t sleep for 48 hours.” remembers Dennis Chamberskolosky, a modern day great drummer, of his first Mahavishnu Orchestra concert. John McLaughlin credits the formation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra to his mentor and jazz legend Miles Davis. Davis took McLaughlin aside after a gig in 1970 and told him “It’s time you formed your own band”. In McLaughlin’s wordsredbullinterview “Since he was the most honest person I’ve ever met, I took it very seriously. He was my teacher. That was when I formed Mahavishnu Orchestra.”

In order to understand McLaughlin’s reverence for Davis, it is necessary to turn to another seminal work that Davis recorded in 1969, Bitches Brew. With Bitches Brew, Davis was aiming for a heavier sound with less structure and more improvisation, continuing what he had first experimented with in In a Silent Way. The list of musicians who recorded on the Bitches Brew reads like a veritable who’s who of jazz music. All the modern masters including Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Lenny White, John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham were part of the cast, and they all seem to remember those sessions in much same way — Davis directing proceedings in a loose, abstract kind of way, while the musicians just jammed to the basic structure and tempo set by Davis. The music developed organically with Davis reacting to the big picture he was hearing and asking musicians to stop or play a specific way or something else. Individual musicians were not necessarily clear about the overall sound they were synthesising. Zawinul recallstingen humorously, how he asked someone who was “playing this incredible music”, “Who the hell is this?”. “It’s that Bitches Brew thing”, she replied!

Things rarely ever come out of a vacuum. Bitches Brew continued in the direction set by In a Silent Way, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra was McLaughlin carrying the torch further. McLaughlin assembled a cast which could deal with the sophisticated music that was brewing in his head: Billy Cobham, a powerhouse drummer and a co-conspirator at the Bitches Brew sessions; Jan Hammer, a child prodigy at the piano and playing with Sarah Vaughan at the time; Jerry Goodman, a classically trained violinist playing folk-rock with a band called The Flock; and Rick Laird, a jazz bass player who had just spent a year and a half working with the Buddy Rich band. This crew, what was to be the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, only lasted for two and a half years and recorded two studio albums and one live album. The release of The Inner Mounting Flame, the debut album, was followed by a relentless schedule of touring and live gigs. It was through those live concerts that the Mahavishnu Orchestra earned its reputation. Thousands of fans who attended were blown away, stunned and then won over by the sheer virtuosity of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. “It was just the loudest and fastest music the audience had ever heard. In a way, it was the loudest of times, and after we finished, the quietest of times [laughs]. Many just sat there in stunned silence.” remembers Hammer.

Laird summarises the mercurial existence of the band, “Being a member of that band was a rare privilege. It was like a fleeting love affair; it came quickly and went quickly, but you will always remember it.” Cobham echoes the same sentiment, “There was a band named the Mahavishnu Orchestra whose members were as fluid as the time that has passed. Like many great artists who have passed away at an almost criminally early time in their lives, this band made its mark in about the same way.” And here’s Goodman, “This was going to be some sort of a legendary band. Having been a musician and having listened to a lot of things, I felt like I was in the middle of something that was very unique.”

I must have played that tape a dozen times over in the next couple of days. But I could never play it right back as soon as it was over. It needed time, time spent sitting and enjoying the silence, time spent assimilating the music, time spent realising the concentrated value of human endeavour that was possible, time spent waiting till you felt ready, for the next round. That tape was followed up with many more jazz albums, and with the ever-changing landscape of music (CD clubs, digital downloads and unlimited streaming) I have never been far from jazz music. I hope I can write some more album reviews, but here’s thanking the one that ignited the flame!

  1. The Inner Mounting Flame, Mahavishnu Orchestra, 1971. Band members: John McLaughlin — guitar, Rick Laird — bass, Billy Cobham — drums, percussion, Jan Hammer — keyboards, organ, Jerry Goodman — violin.

  2. Shakti with John McLaughlin, Shakti, 1976. Band members: John McLaughlin — guitar, L. Shankar — violin, Ramnad Raghavan — mridangam, T. H. Vinayakaram — ghatam and mridangam, Zakir Hussain — tabla.

  3. In a Silent Way, Miles Davis, 1969. Band members: Miles Davis — trumpet, Wayne Shorter — tenor saxophone, John McLaughlin — guitar, Chick Corea — electric piano, Herbie Hancock — electric piano, Joe Zawinul — electric piano, organ, Dave Holland — bass, Tony Williams — drums.

  4. Bitches Brew, Miles Davis, 1970. Band members: Miles Davis — trumpet, Wayne Shorter — saxophone, Bennie Maupin — bass clarinet, Joe Zawinul — electric piano, Chick Corea — electric piano, John McLaughlin — electric guitar, Dave Holland — bass, Harvey Brooks — electric bass, Lenny White — drums, Jack DeJohnette — drums, Don Alias — congas, Juma Santos — shaker, congas, Larry Young — electric piano, Billy Cobham — drums, Airto Moreira — percussion.

  1. James Hamblin from The Atlantic writes about how experiences are more valuable to people than things. A great example that a researcher cites in the article, is about waiting in line. When people queue up to buy a concert ticket, they tend to see that as part of the experience, whereas when they wait to get a material purchase, they see the wait as being in the way of getting their hands on the thing.
  2. The Guardian reports on how Mumbai’s iconic music record store, Rhythm House, finally shut down in 2016. Truly, the end of an era!
  3. Walter Kolosky writes at The Guitar Channel about the history of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and how its members and fans remember the band’s early days.
  4. The Red Bull Music Academy covers the long career of the guitar great John McLaughlin in a terrific interview.
  5. Paul Tingen at the Jazz Times narrates an amazing, in-depth story on the making of the Bitches Brew album by Miles Davis.