The first three original John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra albums are the godhead of jazz-rock fusion, and their next two LPs are pretty damn good as well. These discs belong in the pantheon of the greatest records the genre has ever produced. Therefore, it makes sense to pay tribute to these classic Mahavishnu Orchestra discs of the ‘70s. Because of all the lame fusion music that resulted in their wake, critics and historians have neglected these records. (Side note: I recently interviewed a music critic, who has a new book out about the MC5. When I asked him what kind of music he listened to these days he responded, “Everything, but fusion that is.”) That’s a shame because the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra can send listeners into an enlightened state of satori through its inherent spirituality. One doesn’t have to be a Buddhist to get uplifted by these albums. Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire, and Between Nothingness and Eternity, as well as Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond belong in any serious music lover’s collection.
Unfortunately, this tribute album does not. For the most part, the various artists’ renditions of Mahavishnu Orchestra tunes on these records are not very good. Not only are the musicians unable to recapture the magic of the originals, the covers do not make one interested in discovering the prime material. That’s a damn shame.
Four adept musicians form the core of this project and perform on every cut: Jeff Richman on guitars, Mitchel Foreman on keyboards, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Kai Eberhardt on bass. Richman also produced and arranged all of the songs. Original Mahavishnu Orchestra fiddler Jerry Goodman joins in on several cuts. Various guitar heavies enter the fray on assorted tracks to lend their support, including jam band monster Warren Haynes, jazzbo John Abercorombie, and eight other electric guitar geeks—10 in all, a different one on each song. All of the musicians have the technical chops—there are no gals on this testosterone-powered affair—but lack subtlety. The music bludgeons one with a sledgehammer-like intensity. McLaughlin and company played hard, but with grace. There’s no bliss to be found here.
The closest any of the cuts come to capturing the special quality of the originals would be Greg Howe’s funky guitar riffs and Goodman’s lofty violin interplay on “Dance of the Maya”. The two get a nifty rapport going, but they don’t take the music a step further by encouraging each other on. Instead, they stay comfortably in the pocket. The same is true of the upbeat hooks Warren Haynes and Goodman bounce against each other. The two get in a groove, but don’t do much more after they get there.
There are some other notable moments. Steve Morse attacks “Celestial Terresital Commuters” as if he’s Eddie Van Halen on acid. The feedback gets a bit wild, but Morse always manages to bring his solos back to the main track, where the bass player and drummer have laid a solid foundation upon which to jam. Steve Lukather finds the hidden pulse on “Birds of Fire” and lets the winged creatures flicker into space without losing their sense of gravity. Jimmy Herring somewhat captures the enigmatic elegance of “Meeting of the Spirits”, but Herring doesn’t quite deliver. At the crucial moments of the song, where McLaughlin and company would really let loose, Herring loses his place. The tempo and tone change awkwardly. The second half of the song drags to the end. Even when the players pick up the pace again, the enthusiasm seems to have gotten lost.
For someone who has never heard good jazz-rock fusion music, there probably isn’t enough here to turn one on. Old time listeners may find this a pleasant, but unsatisfying reminder of the past. John McLaughlin and the rest of his band; Billy Cobham, Rick Laird, Jan Hammer, and Jerry Goodman, are still alive and well as far as I know. Rumor is that they’ve gotten back together at different times over the years but have been unable to recapture the magic. So why should these guys be any different. It’s a grand concept and worthy effort, but the results are disheartening.