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Mahavishnu Orchestra: Live at Montreux, 1984/1974

From the vaults of Claude Nobs, the irrepressible harmonica- playing impresario of the Montreux Jazz Festival, comes this two-DVD set documenting two different phases of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. The expanded 1974 edition is closer in spirit to the original lineup (McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Rick Laird and Jerry Goodman) for its sheer explosiveness and audacious, overthe- top abandon, while the 1984 edition is slicker and ultimately more dated than the raw, ripping 1974 outfit.

The 1984 edition of Mahavishnu is an energetic enough group and features bold blowing by Bill Evans on tenor and soprano saxes, with occasional stinging electric guitar lines by McLaughlin (as on “Radio Activity”). But the band is too often done in by the prevailing technology of the times: McLaughlin’s heavy dependence on the Synclavier II, a clunky MIDI attachment on his guitar, significantly blunts his attack by rendering his ax with the horribly flaccid timbre of flute and other assorted woodwinds (as on “Nostalgia,” “East Side, West Side” and the smooth-jazzy “Clarendon Hills”). Mitch Forman’s cheesy synth sounds and Jonas Hellborg’s thumbslapping basslines, both products of the ’80s, add to the dated quality of this disc.

The 1974 disc, by comparison, is absolutely killing. A core group of McLaughlin, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, keyboardist Gayle Moran, bassist Ralphe Armstrong and drummer Michael Walden is augmented by three-piece string section and three-piece horn section led by trumpeter Steve Frankovitch. Collectively, they head to the stratosphere on two volatile, spiritually tinged suites, “Wings of Karma” and “Hymn to Him.” McLaughlin’s pyrotechnic exchanges with Ponty’s wah-inflected electric violin, fueled by Walden’s powerhouse drumming, are particularly scintillating. Four additional audio-only tracks-“Power of Love,” “Smile of the Beyond,” “Vision Is a Naked Sword” and “Sanctuary”-further highlight the searing intensity of this remarkable high-energy ensemble.

Originally Published