Power, Passion & Beauty
POWER PASSION & BEAUTY
The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra
By Walter Kolosky
Back in the days when neither the words ‘Jazz’ or ‘Fusion’ were considered dirty, there lived a group of aspiring and inspired musicians lead by an English guitarist called John McLaughlin. An ex-Miles Davis alumni and rightful heir to the guitar King Hendrix’s crown, McLaughlin took his mentor’s advice and formed his own group, The Mahavishnu Orchestra. And verily didst they blow the collective rock and jazz world away with their musical wizardry, incendiary and voluminous live shows and became one of the most commercially successful instrumental bands of all time.
Never heard of them? That’s not surprising, since the disco plague that followed very soon afterwards didst put a blight upon the golden age of spiritually uplifting music which was thoroughly buried thereafter under the weight of gloss, dross and glitter and was lost in the mists of time. However, brave knight Sir Walter Kolosky hath revived their memory in this book and not single-handedly either. The subtitle of ‘The Greatest Band that Ever Was’ is practically the only time the author allows his own perception and recollection to bias the historical record of this mighty ensemble. Through interviews with all the original members and the famous and not-so-famous giving of their personal accounts of the events as they happened, Kolosky weaves his tale impartially and brilliantly through the arbitration of those actually participating and those who simply stood, awe-struck at the sight and sound of this iconoclastic ensemble.
Those who experienced first hand this momentous creation bare witness to the life changing properties with which the music was imbued and although touched by this very same magic, the author manages to remain objectively observant, despite his obvious enthusiasm and awe of his subject matter and the personalities involved. In it’s 300 plus pages he generously allows the story’s characters, from band members to road crew, managers and artistic designers to speak for themselves about all the crucial background facts and events that colour the roller coaster of mercurial rise and sudden death of probably the greatest of the 70’s jazz-rock bands, then its rise again and later incarnations, never quite as potent as the first creation, but nonetheless influential on a generation of musicians and audience alike.
The book follows a broad chronological path through the fascinating genesis of the band, the original members’ paths to finding each other and performing in the first ground-breaking (and earth shaking) format, through the punishing itinerary of continuous touring for two years world wide and ultimately the implosion on the fateful flight to Japan and dissolution on new years eve 1973. There are wonderful personal insights and surprises on practically every page, even for someone who knows a good deal about this band and its history and their narrative is laced generously throughout with original photography and images, many seen for the first time in this book. The complimentary website for this book takes up many of the points discussed herein for further debate and there are musical analysis, more images and even the possibility of purchasing some of the original artwork from the first three albums; even the specific Mahavishnu Font that was designed especially to grace the attending artwork can be purchased.
For this is not the usual story of outrageous sex, mountains of drugs and the debauchery of rock and roll, but of a quest through music for spiritual purity, intensity and the beauty that exists within us all. A most uncommon tale, therefore, but told in a common and easy tongue that had this reviewer unable to put the book down, despite best efforts of distraction by three year old daughter, wife, house burning down etc.
In its time, the group produced three official albums and one recorded at the time but issued posthumously. All are scrutinised in the book and evaluated by experts in the field. Practically everyone associated with the group, its music and the live shows gave voluminous account to the author through interview, telephone or internet, who had therefore the luxury of letting the protagonists themselves paint the pictures, unlike the ill-informed and self-absorbed scribe-precursors to this book’s main subject, McLaughlin himself.
This is undoubtedly a work of love and admiration, well researched and laid out, rendered in a style that even the most remotely interested reader would find informative and absorbing. Kolosky, perhaps wisely, skirts the debate about the innate spiritual nature of the band and its music through declared inexperience, and perhaps this is the only point at which the legion of aficionados might depart from the author’s track.
There cannot have been a more brazenly spiritualised band than this, apart from Coltrane’s avowed intent on the cover of A Love Supreme, in the whole history of popular music. Many musicians have claimed their work to have been in praise of, or inspired by one or other deity, but few indeed have actually set out with the intent of conveying their own quest for the high plains of spiritualised consciousness directly to the assembled audience through the performance of their music in the way that Mclaughlin did with Mahavishnu. This band was formed expressly to be the vessel of Mclaughlin’s spiritual vision, the seed having been sown by his then guru, Sri Chinmoy, who gave him the handle of Great Creation (Mahavishnu).
A measure of his success is the number of people, some quite famous, who claim the encounter with the band’s music to have been a life changing experience. Forsooth the music made by the Mahavishnu Orchestra carried within it a powerful alchemy that touched all who heard it. Apart that is, from a certain member of the band Mott the Hoople, who, in his short piece in the book, admits rather defensively that he found the band ‘boring’. No doubt being blown off the stage night after night by Mahavishnu in support would lead even the most egotistical rock star to question their own self-beliefs as many did, judging by their contributions in this book. Most however, had the good grace to bow to the supreme musical force that was the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Kolosky does both the memory and the history of this band proud and their status in the pantheon of ensembles that changed the lives of a generation of young minds is assured. It is further verified by the renewed interest in all things Mahavishnu which seems to have lately gathered apace. Reports on the recent VishnuFest in New York are covered in the book as too is the brilliant revisitation to this body of musical work by Gregg Bendian’s Mahavishnu Project. Ahead of its time, in its own time, perhaps the world is only now just about ready to embrace the Power, Passion and Beauty that was the Mahavishnu Orchestra.