The Inner Mounting Flame

Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin, The

album cover

A Flame Undimmed by Time

If Jimmy Page's guitar attack made Led Zeppelin the "Hammer of the Gods," then John McLaughlin's work with Mahavishnu Orchestra is the "Devil's Needlepoint." A cool Brit with Eastern spiritual leanings and seemingly limitless six-string technique, McLaughlin plays as if running an agility course, nailing small details while engineering statements that can take your breath away. His majestic lines, both the "written" melodies and the improvised derivations, come blazing across the soundscape. More than once you may hear one of these lurching riffs, which usually chug along in some odd time signature, and wonder "What kind of a mind thinks up stuff like this?"

Answer: A restless one. By the time he formed this group, McLaughlin had established himself as part of the rapidly coalescing jazz-rock-fusion movement, first with Miles Davis during the famed Live/Evil sessions, then as part of the Tony Williams Lifetime. On his website, McLaughlin recalls that after playing a gig with Davis in a Boston club in 1970, Davis told him it was time to form his own band. The guitarist listened: "If he says it, it must be true." The first incarnation of Mahavishnu was in place by Feburary 1971; this recording was made after just two weeks of live performances. It's clear that everyone's on the same mission: They crank the fusion rhythms that Davis pioneered up faster and louder, creating a whiplash-inducing pulse that seems forever on the verge of exploding.

Two adjacent tracks on this consistently amazing debut, "Noonward Race" and "A Lotus on Irish Streams," reveal Mahavishnu's range. The former is a panicky up-tempo whirlwind powered by virtuoso drummer Billy Cobham. It features solos by McLaughlin, who frequently relies on a double-neck guitar for extra textural possibilities, as well as violinist Jerry Goodman and keyboardist Jan Hammer, whose electric piano positively crackles.

The tune lasts six minutes, and after its tricky passages and all-out intensity, the tempoless "A Lotus" seems almost too tranquil. But this beautiful theme is demanding in a different way; it requires the five musicians to bring the cohesion of the up-tempo stuff to delicate, slowly unraveling themes. This they do with great care. Having established that they can play virtually anything, the group discovers that a different kind of profundity blossoms when they play nearly nothing.

Genre: Jazz
Released: 1971, Columbia
Key Tracks: "Meeting of the Spirits," "Noonward Race," "A Lotus on Irish Streams," "You Know You Know."
Catalog Choice: Birds of Fire
Next Stop: King Crimson: Larks' Tongues in Aspic
After That: Tortoise: TNT
Book Pages: 466–467

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#1 from lee, atlanta, ga. - 05/29/2010 10:58

saw them at a little place called the sports arena.                            unbelievaaaable!mac,hammer, cobham,laird,goodman. it’s been 40 years and i’ll never forget!

#2 from Jonathan Rothe, CA - 12/30/2010 7:11

Saw them at the Whisky in ‘72.  Never been the same since.

#3 from Tom Moon - 01/06/2011 8:08

You are both lucky people!


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