One of the
premiere fusion groups, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was considered
by most observers
during its prime to be a rock band but its sophisticated improvisations actually put its high-powered
music between rock and jazz. Founder and leader John McLaughlin had recently played with Miles
Davis and Tony Williams's Lifetime.
The original lineup of the
group was McLaughlin on electric guitar, violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist
Jan Hammer, electric bassist Rick Laird and drummer Billy Cobham.
They recorded three intense albums for Columbia
during 1971-73 and then the
completely for the second version of the group.
In 1974 the band consisted of
violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, Gayle Moran on keyboards and vocals,
Ralphe Armstrong and drummer Michael Warden; by 1975 Stu Goldberg had replaced Moran and Ponty had left.
John McLaughlin's dual interests in Eastern religion and playing
acoustic guitar resulted in the band
breaking up in 1975. Surprisingly an attempt to revive the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1984 (using
Cobham, saxophonist Bill Evans, keyboardist Mitchell Forman and electric bassist Jonas Hellborg
and percussionist Danny Gottlieb) was unsuccessful; one Warner Bros. album resulted.
However when one thinks of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, it is of the
original lineup which was very influential
throughout the 1970s.
-- Scott Yanow, All-Music GuideMahavishnu Orchestra Band Members
In its first version, the band was led by "Mahavishnu" John McLaughlin on acoustic and electric guitars, with members Billy Cobham on drums, Rick Laird on bass guitar, Jan Hammer on electric and acoustic piano and synthesizer, and Jerry Goodman on violin. This first incarnation of the Orchestra was a multinational group: McLaughlin is from Yorkshire, England; Cobham from Panama; Hammer from Czechoslovakia; Goodman from Chicago, Illinois; and Laird from Dublin, Ireland. Jean-Luc Ponty was actually McLaughlin's first choice for violinist, but the idea was stalled by "immigration problems". The group is best known for their two most popular albums: The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1972).
This group was considered an important pioneer in the jazz fusion movement. McLaughlin and Cobham met while performing and recording with Miles Davis. McLaughlin was also influenced in his conception of the band by his studies with Indian guru Sri Chinmoy, who encouraged him to take the name "Mahavishnu."
McLaughlin had particular ideas for the instrumentation of the group, in keeping with his highly original concept of genre-blending in composition. He particularly wanted a violinist. As the group evolved, McLaughlin adopted what became his trademark double-neck guitar (six-string and twelve-string), and Hammer added a Mini Moog synthesizer, which enabled him to add more sounds and solo more freely, like the guitar and the violin.
Their musical style was an unprecedented blending of genres: they combined the high-volume electrified rock sound that had been pioneered by Jimi Hendrix, complex rhythms in unusual time signatures that reflected McLaughlin's interest in Indian classical music as well as funk, an improvisational concept that was rooted in jazz as well as Indian music, and harmonic influence from European classical music. The group's early music was entirely instrumental; their later albums had songs which sometimes featured R&B or even gospel/hymn styled vocals. In the aforementioned two albums, though, the group goes from this intense fusion of upbeat genres (the best example of which is "Vital Transformation") to very serene tunes such as "A Lotus On Irish Streams" and "Thousand Island Park", which are pieces for acoustic guitar, piano and violin, or from low-key to extremely busy in a single piece, such as "Open Country Joy."
Due to the pressures of sudden fame, exhaustion and a lack of communication, the original band began to fray at the edges as 1973 rolled on. Stresses in the band were further exacerbated during a disastrous recording session at London's Trident Studios as some of the players were not even speaking to each other. The project was never fully completed. The last straw came as John McLaughlin read an interview in Crawdaddy! magazine in which Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman expressed their frustrations with John's leadership style. Though an effort was made to fix things back in New York, it just could not be done. Almost 30 years later, during the beginning of a renaissance of Mahavishnu's music, the incomplete album from the failed London recording was released as The Lost Trident Sessions.(1974-1975)
After the first version of the group dissolved, it reformed in 1974 with a new cast of musicians behind McLaughlin: Jean-Luc Ponty (who had performed with Frank Zappa and the Mothers) on violin, Gayle Moran on keyboards, Ralphe Armstrong on bass, and Narada Michael Walden on percussion, Steven Kindler and Carol Shive on violin, Marcia Westbrook on viola, Phil Hirschi on cello, Steve Frankevich and Bob Knapp on brass. This "new" Mahavishnu Orchestra (which McLaughlin has reportedly called the "real" Mahavishnu Orchestra) changed personnel slightly between 1974's Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond in 1975. Apocalypse was recorded in London with the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, with George Martin producing and Geoff Emerick engineering the sessions. The band was then reduced to a four-piece for 1976's Inner Worlds, with Jean Luc-Ponty leaving and Gayle Moran being replaced with Stu Goldberg.(1976)
After the dissolution of this version of the Orchestra, McLaughlin formed another group called Shakti to explore his interest in Indian music; following that, he went on to form other bands including The One Truth Band & The Translators, and a guitar trio with Al Di Meola and flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia.(1984)
In 1984, McLaughlin reformed the Mahavishnu Orchestra with Bill Evans on saxophones, Jonas Hellborg on bass, Mitchel Forman on keyboards, and original member Billy Cobham on drums. Cobham participated in the sessions for their self-titled 1984 album, but was replaced by Danny Gottlieb for live work, and Jim Beard replaced Mitchel Forman for the latter period of this band's life. This band's overall sound was radically different from the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, in particular because of McLaughlin's extensive use of the Synclavier synthesiser system.(1985-1986)
McLaughlin then worked with a number of incarnations of The John McLaughlin Guitar Trio all of which featured Trilok Gurtu on percussion, and, at various times, Jeff Berlin, Kai Eckhardt, and Dominique di Piazza on bass. He then formed The Free Spirits, a guitar/organ/drums trio, with Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond organ and trumpet, and Dennis Chambers on drums, as well as touring and recording again with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucía.
Billy Cobham went on to perform as a solo artist, recording many albums including Total Eclipse, Crosswinds , Spectrum and toured with the Billy Cobham & George Duke Band for many years.
Jan Hammer went on to collaborate with Jeff Beck together with Narada Michael Walden in Beck's acclaimed album Wired, compose several solo albums and a live album with Jeff Beck and the theme from the hit 1980s TV show, Miami Vice.
Jerry Goodman recorded the album Like Children with Mahavishnu keyboard alumnus Jan Hammer. Starting in 1985 he recorded three solo albums for Private Music and went on tour with his own band, as well as with Shadowfax and The Dixie Dregs.
Rick Laird played with Stan Getz and Chick Corea as well as releasing one solo LP, Soft Focus, but retired from music business in 1982 and has worked as a bass playing teacher and photographer ever since.
There has been a significant resurgence in the popularity of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in recent years, with bands like The Mars Volta naming them as an influence. There have been no less than five major tribute recordings released. In addition, a very comprehensive and critically acclaimed book “Power, Passion and Beauty – The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra” by Walter Kolosky (AbstractLogix Books) has been published. It contains interviews with all of the band’s members and quotes obtained specifically for the book from many famous admirers such as Jeff Beck, Pat Metheny, the artist Peter Max, Bill Bruford, and many, many more.