A generation of musicians had their lives changed by this record and subsequent tour by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Guitarists who had been quite content covering “Layla” and “Whipping Post” were suddenly inspired, after witnessing John McLaughlin in action, to go deeper into their instrument and push the envelope on their own potential. Drummers were blown away by the precision and power of Billy Cobham. Keyboardists were in awe of Jan Hammer, who often filtered his Fender Rhodes electric piano through ring modulators and other devices to tweak his sound into a slicker realm long before synthesizers were made available. But it was the overall blistering intensity and fresh vision of this groundbreaking band that led rock-fed musicians down a different musical path toward a more challenging style of music.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra was the first band to emerge from a jazz/rock movement that had been bubbling up since the late ’60s to capture a huge crossover audience. My own first exposure to the band was as an opening act at a Frank Zappa concert in 1973. My ears haven’t been the same since.
Listening to this 1971 release, one is struck by the grandiose reach of the quintet that dared to call itself an orchestra. Pieces like “Meeting of the Spirits” and the fragile, acoustic “A Lotus on Irish Streams” are like classically-inspired suites in miniature. But it was numbers like “Noonward Race,” “Vital Information” and especially “Awakening,” fueled by Cobham’s smoldering intensity on the kit and McLaughlin’s raging, distortion-soaked guitar lines, that really grabbed rock crowds. More ethereal pieces like “The Dance of Maya,” with its odd time signatures and arpeggios, and the haunting “You Know, You Know,” a drum feature for Cobham, helped to create a kind of mystique about the Mahavishnu Orchestra that was wholly unprecedented for its time.
By today’s standards, this album wasn’t recorded too well. I’m sure that Cobham, who prides himself in getting rich, resounding tones out of his kit, absolutely hates his drum sound here. But the sound of the band communicated directly with listeners and continues to echo across the generations. Interestingly, some of this material has recently been reinvestigated by Bobby Previte’s The Horse, a regular Tuesday night band at the Knitting Factory’s Old Office. Twenty-something hipsters are responding to this music with great enthusiasm, just as I did 20-odd years ago.