Perfect Sound Forever


Their influence on jazz and progressive fusion music
by Cyrus Manasseh
(October 2020)

Years after their almost-insane intense musical onslaught on the public had ended, the power of the great jazz fusion group The Mahavishnu Orchestra's special sound still continues to be referenced by very different bands from very different genres. Such is their everlasting power. Seeming less like a jazz combo and more like a progressive rock band, the Hendrix-meets-Coltrane, Miles-inspired Mahavishnu. 'Mahavishnu' meaning 'Divine compassion, power and justice,' which was the name given to the band's leader John McLaughlin have been immeasurably influential.

Right from their beginnings in New York in 1971, this very influential band had pioneered, executed and carried through a difficult, specialized and complicated musical style melding Miles Davis's electric jazz and their interpretations of rock with Indian and Eastern sounds. Through astounding technique and musicianship, Mahavishnu's influence has seen the actual altering of how electric bands have played and operated in a musical sense, even though perhaps no one has ever fully matched their super-explosive musical example. In fact, not only have they been very influential on fusion but they happen to have greatly influenced many things that would prevail in progressive rock music too.

From their first song ("Meeting of the Spirits") on their first album Inner Mounting Flame, they made the ground shake with the splendour of their heavy songs, as well as their softer ones due to their galvanizing instruments, and guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Billy Cobham's astounding technique, which is to be found in all the fundamental ingredients on the album. From the beginning, the band's overall precision, which included a new kind of lively and extremely expressive note-syncing between the members was extremely original, paving the way for a new style and development of fusion as well as much that would enter into the progressive genre. As a result of continuing in their same spirit, they encouraged a launching of the constitution of fusion, which exerted a strong influence on the development of the progressive rock genre which came into being as a new and emerging musical style for so many.

In fact, if you are not aware of how great Mahavishnu's influence has actually been in the field of fusion and progressive music, just listen to die-hard punk band Black Flag's introduction to the live version of their song "Nervous Breakdown" or their live version of their song 'The Process of Weeding Out." Up until quite recently, after the insemination of Mahavishnu's style and spirit into the bands that already had manifested into some of the most important fusion groups and artist/musicians of the '70's and '80's, Black Flag and Greg Ginn have also continued to reference Mahavishnu's most explosive sounding music. Ginn's wailing guitar sound, which often sounds like a dying seal, mirrors much of Mahavishnu's sound. Other more recent music influenced by MO include Massive Attack, Mos Def, Opeth, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Ben Weinman (Dillinger Escape Plan's guitarist). Moreover, the Mahavishnu sound and variations of it, are also to be found in bands like The Mars Volta and in the music of Paul Masvidal from progressive jazz fusion group Cynic who have even done a version of "Meeting of the Spirits" from Mahavishnu's seminal first album - an album which had come out of the frenetic yet calculated synergy between McLaughlin and Cobham, which helped to crystallise and initiate the band's inception.

To calculate Mahavishnu's almost-immediate effect, we only need look at some of the groups of Cobham in the '70s. Listen to the album Spectrum that Cobham made in 1973 with guitarist Tommy Bolin and the music he made with guitarist John Abercrombie. You can see this in Cobham's Spectrum concert in Kongsberg, Norway in 1974 in which Abercrombie sounds like he had learnt to play from listening to Mahavishnu - a sound that would soon extend to many fusion and progressive bands. In the later part of the '70s, bands like The Soft Machine and Return to Forever with Bill Connors and later Al Di Meola - both Mahavishnu devotees- would also reveal Mahavishnu's influence. Di Meola's albums and live recordings would often show the influence, including his incorporation of McLaughlin's own "strange licks" and the sound could be heard in so many very famous and influential progressive bands like King Crimson and Dutch prog rock group Focus. It was a sound also evident in symphonic-sounding French group Magma led by Christian Vander. Listen to their live performances - especially the drums at the Hippodrome in Paris in 1977 where you can hear the influence of Mahavishnu's supremely majestic symphonic though syncopated sound.

But from the '70s, who could fail to notice Jeff Beck's music? Even today, we still see him come on stage to play the Mahavishnu classic "Eternity's Breath." Shortly after being exposed to Mahavishnu, Beck toured with them in 1975 and has gone on record to say that McLaughlin is his favourite guitarist. Listen to his Blow By Blow album produced by George Martin in 1974 after Martin produced Mahavishnu earlier that year. The work Beck would do with Mahavishnu's original keyboardist Jan Hammer would continue to show this influence and one only has to listen to Beck's Wired album to be filled with Mahavishnu sounds including a McLaughlin Mahavishnu-inspired guitar solo on the opening track in which you easily recognise eastern-flavoured stabbing guitar sounds common in much of McLaughlin's playing. As Beck said, "John McLaughlin has given us so many different facets of the guitar, and introduced thousands of us to world music, by blending Indian music with jazz and classical. I'd say he was the best guitarist alive."

In fact, many leading influential players like Bill Bruford have mentioned McLaughlin as having been a major influence on very many important musicians of the 1970s and 1980s and beyond, which also include Mike Stern, Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, Scott Henderson and Shawn Lane. Even Yes' Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin speak of his great influence. Other greatly influential players who acknowledge him, include Pat Metheny, who has said that "McLaughlin changed the evolution of the guitar during several of his periods of playing." In fact, McLaughlin is seen as a leading influence on all composers of fusion music. In an interview with Downbeat, Chick Corea said that "what John McLaughlin did with the electric guitar set the world on its ear. No one ever heard an electric guitar played like that before, and it certainly inspired me. John's band, more than my experience with Miles, led me to want to turn the volume up and write music that was more dramatic and made your hair stand on end."

So, what could be Mahavishnu's influence? After speaking about Mahavishnu with a well-known jazz musician who was my neighbour when I lived in Australia – a jazz bassist who grew up with and knew Rick Laird personally - he said Laird told him that McLaughlin was the first of the fusionist guitarists. Holdsworth came after. There was also Larry Coryell though he was also early too. But McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra's fire, fine spirit and ground-breaking originality was first and remains incalculable for what it has given permanently and irreversibly to the fusion and progressive music genres.

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