JT Notes: The Mahavishnu Letters

JazzTimes editor on jazz fans' deep connection to John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra

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Cover of September 2017 issue of JazzTimes

On the occasions when I’ve solicited feedback in this space, I’ve been consistently impressed with the thoughtfulness and depth of feeling in those responses. But none of my queries have inspired such obviously heartfelt messages as my request, in the March 2014 column, for readers to send me their “Mahavishnu moments”—their fondest memories and bolts of inspiration related to the music of guitarist John McLaughlin’s era-defining jazz-rock outfit, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Photo of John McLaughlin w/the Mahavishnu Orchestra
John McLaughlin in the early 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Sony Music.)

Despite today’s vast thoroughfares of digital information, jazz fandom remains a regional affair; most major cities, and some small ones, have a system of venues, festivals and musicians unmistakable from the one down the road, and that holds true in a lot of correspondence I receive. But the Mahavishnu emails were different, at once more uniform yet from more widespread locales, reflective of the big rock monoculture that created shared experiences for young music fans in the 1960s and ’70s. Kevin K. remembers the exact date of the Mahavishnu show that changed his life. (That would be April 1, 1972, at Princeton University, with John Prine opening.) Jim M. is similarly precise and ecstatic in recalling an Indianapolis concert that happened a few weeks later, and even snuck backstage when the band came through town the next time. Mark A., in Pittsburgh, was moved by McLaughlin’s onstage meditation ritual. (“He then straps on this beautiful Gibson double-neck guitar and burns!”)

This is the stuff (mostly male) adolescent fantasies are made of. And it’s coming around again. Unfortunately, a full-fledged Mahavishnu Orchestra reunion will probably exist among jazz’s pipe dreams until it’s no longer possible. But McLaughlin—and fellow fusion-guitar hero and tour-mate Jimmy Herring—have committed to performing classic M.O. material on their upcoming North American go-around, which they discuss beginning on p. 30. As McLaughlin explains, these November and December dates will be his last large-scale U.S. tour. And as heard on his new album, Live @ Ronnie Scott’s (Abstract Logix), due out Sept. 15, he’s in prime fighting shape. Recorded just last March, its nine tracks include takes of “Meeting of the Spirits,” “Miles Beyond,” “Sanctuary” and “Vital Transformation” that are an absolute blast to hear in the fresh context of his 4th Dimension band; you get the monumental themes and outsize chops within arrangements that reflect the more interactive sensibility of current fusion. (To put it another way, there’s plenty of jazz in this jazz-rock.) So buy your tickets, mark your calendars, allow time for traffic and let me know what you think: [email protected]

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Read Mac Randall’s interview with John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring. 

Check out the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s gig list compiled by Walter Kolosky.