[13 March 2007]
Between 1971 and 1976, the Mahavishnu Orchestra produced a body of work that is, even today, not fully recognised for its brilliance and daring. Coming out of a stint in Miles Davis’ band, which saw him contributing his fierce, fiery electric guitar stylings to such epochal jazz-rock statements as Bitches Brew, John McLaughlin became infused with an almost spiritual mission to further this work and create an all-encompassing music that blended the spontaneity of jazz, the visceral power of rock, the sweep of European classical music, and the intensity of Indian devotional music. The result, of course, was the Mahavishnu Orchestra: a dazzling fireball of creativity that achieved all of McLaughlin’s aims and, in the process, set a high water mark for virtuosity and passion.
Needless to say, when punk came along, the grandiose yearnings and arrangements of the Mahavishnu Orchestra suddenly seemed anachronistic, to say the least—perhaps even downright embarrassing for those who’d been caught up in its epic fury. Now factor in the less appealing extravagances of fusion—a hybrid of jazz, funk and the most bombastic of rock, which simply couldn’t have come into being without McLaughlin’s pioneering work—and the result is a stealthy sidelining of McLaughlin’s grand achievements which has created the status the music currently holds today: a relic of a bygone day when musicians gave themselves Hindu names to indicate the seriousness of their musical quest, guitarists could wield double-necked monsters without irony, and a solo simply wasn’t making it unless the musician involved was thrown into paroxysms of intense ecstasy, head back, eyes closed and steaming.
Consequently, and perhaps also as a result of the intensely personal nature of much that he created, ever since McLaughlin ended that particular chapter in his musical development—moving on to form the acoustic world-fusion outfit, Shakti—the compositions he birthed under the Mahavishnu banner have remained largely dormant: few if any musicians have attempted to revisit, reinterpret, or renew that substantial body of music.
All of which makes the Mahavishnu Project an entirely fascinating proposal. Formed in 2000 by classically trained composer and percussionist Greg Bendian, the Project is essentially an interpretive repertory ensemble devoted to reviving the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and presenting it to new audiences—here released as part of Cuneiform’s “New American Masters” series, which seeks to shed new light on the work of ground-breaking and often overlooked American composers such as Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa. What lifts this above the usual “tribute band” offering is Bendian’s urge to bring the music to life, not through slavish imitation, but by treating the original compositions as the springboard to further explorations, fresh improvisation, and personal interpretations. It’s an approach that has made previous Project releases such as Live Bootleg and Phase 2 genuinely thrilling events.
So far so good. If Return to the Emerald Beyond suffers in comparison to these earlier releases in any way, it is almost entirely due to the choice of material. Whereas the Project previously concerned itself solely with compositions drawn from albums by the original—and many would say, best—Mahavishnu lineup, the current album is a recreation of Visions of the Emerald Beyond, an album created by an arguably inferior lineup, which saw drummer Narada Michael Walden replacing Billy Cobham and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty leaving Frank Zappa’s band to replace Jerry Goodman. Moreover, in many ways, the original Emerald Beyond contained much of McLaughlin’s most ambitious work—the very same ambition that became confused with pretension in later years.
The bottom line is this: if you dig gloriously, unashamedly pompous jazz-rock with lashings of post-Prog synth solos and vertiginous guitar pyrotechnics, if you have a deep abiding love for the sincere searchings that music undertook for a brief period in the early 1970s—hell, even if you ever once enjoyed a Marillion concert—the chances are you’ll take this record with good grace, smile, wig-out a little and feel happy that someone’s willing to swim against the tide of popular opinion and pursue the things that bring them joy rather than pandering to the tastes and fashions of the day. If, on the other hand, you think the Ramones are the apotheosis of cool, do not listen to this record. I repeat: DO NOT LISTEN TO THIS RECORD. It will probably make you sick.