Sun Spin: Mahavishnu Orchestra


This week in 1985, the theme song to Miami Vice was the No. 1 song in the U.S. and a whole generation got to see one of the last truly homely people to ever grace MTV as Jan Hammer briefly rose to the top of the pop culture cesspool. It was like seeing one's Dungeon Master or beloved video store clerk walking the red carpet. But, for some of us it was a bittersweet victory for geekdom. For you see, Hammer had long been revered, worshipped even, by a deep cult following that met him through his blazing, absolutely fearless keyboard work in Mahavishnu Orchestra. Without exaggeration, that group – originally comprised of Hammer, John McLaughlin (guitar), Billy Cobham (drums), Rick Laird (bass) and Jerry Goodman (violin) – altered the trajectory of instrumental music forever after. A mere quintet, they merged the bold soundscapes of Jean Sibelius, Miles Davis, Karlheinz Stockhaussen, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane. During their brief existence - particularly the original lineup, which lasted only two years (1971-1973) – Mahavishnu pressed at the edges or just plain blew them out. To this day, their creations remain intimidatingly complex, perhaps a little dangerous and unsettling, but always thrillingly quite alive, perhaps never more so than their sophomore album, Birds of Fire.

An honest, sometimes brutal sort of beauty is thrust upon the listener. While the solos and reoccurring themes echo the jazz world the five men emerged from, there is so much more happening here. While all compositions are credited to McLaughlin, this is undeniably the work of five potent, completely switched-on master musicians propelling themselves through doorways to hitherto unknown places. Despite the pastel cover painting, Birds is frequently uneasy listening. The rush to soul, the headlong lunge at the great unknown, at least in this setting, isn't always fun. But, take the ride with an open mind and you, like the players, will likely be transformed. Other music will sound different to you afterwards. Whether that's a good or bad thing rests with individual tastes. Still, the notion of "jam" and borderless sonic exploration owes this album and the men who made it a great deal. If you're unfamiliar with it, now's the time to discover a true classic. If you haven't pulled it off the shelf for a spell, well, here's your nudge to reacquaint yourself.

"Revelation," a poem by Sri Chomnoy, adorns the sleeve and points to the larger themes the group hoped to tap into with their music:

No more my heart shall sob or grieve.
My days and nights dissolve in God's own Light.
Above the toil of life my soul
Is a Bird of Fire winging the Infinite.

I have known the One and His secret Play,
And passed beyond the sea of Ignorance Dream.
In tune with Him, I sport and sing;
I own the golden Eye of the Supreme.

Drunk deep of Immortality,
I am the root and boughs of a teeming vast.
My Form I have known and realised.
The Supreme and I are one; all we outlast.

Birds of Fire track listing:

"Birds of Fire"
"Miles Beyond (Miles Davis)"
"Celestial Terrestrial Commuters"
"Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love"
"Thousand Island Park"
"One Word"
"Open Country Joy"

Here's the original lineup of Mahavishnu captured in 1973 performing "One Word" in New York City.

Next, a heavy duty live take on "Resolution."

Here's a glimpse of the quintet in their fighting peak in 1972 performing "The Noonward Race" from their debut, The Inner Mounting Flame.

Ah heck, here's a parting shot of the Jan Hammer Group in the '80s working his No. 1 hit TV theme for all its worth. No man ever rocked a keytar with as much passion.

[Published on: 11/9/08]

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Hotchkiss starstarstarstarstar Sun 11/9/2008 09:17PM
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haven't listened mahavishnu in a long time.

spun'dun'git'r starstarstarstarstar Sun 11/9/2008 09:29PM
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good to see an article about such a wonderful band. these guys should definitely reunite.

triad1 Mon 11/10/2008 05:21AM
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I just repurchased their album, The Inner Mounting Flame, on 180g vinyl. Sicky sick sick!

AmshMisfit starstarstarstarstar Mon 11/10/2008 05:58AM
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‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstarstar Mon 11/10/2008 06:33AM
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‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

wicked :)

21mmer Mon 11/10/2008 06:57AM
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mahavishnu is the sweetness. i love everything they did. pick up lost trident sessions if you've been out of the m.o. loop for a while.

delaneyira star Mon 11/10/2008 07:01AM
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Mahavishnu Orchestra is unbelievable. The first song i ever heard by them was the acoustic "lotus on irish stream". That song is so surreal. The different layers flow into and out of each other with incredible fluidity. Especially the way the piano creates that falling effect and the violin creates that energetic swirl. The guitar forms the grounding. Talk about being connected. The Inner Mounting Flame album is priceless. Also, for a good example of john mcglaughlin check out the new crossroads guitar festival dvd, he has a song on it called maharina. Its outstanding, as are most of the other performances on that dvd. Good stuff, glad to see jambase covering the older and obscure stuff. This is the community that keeps the oldie goodie stuff going...

jeffofromknox Mon 11/10/2008 07:33AM
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John Mclaughlin is God

Kindskatz Mon 11/10/2008 08:50AM
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first time i heard these guys I finally understood where MMW came from...

benibby starstarstarstarstar Mon 11/10/2008 09:00AM
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I just picked up tix to see McLaughlin and Corea's 5 Peace Band in Boston in April. It's not Mahavishnu, but I'll take any excuse to see McLaughlin, and who knows, maybe they will play some Return to Forever and/or Mahavishu tunes. "Eternity Breathes" would be great to hear live...

gmoo Mon 11/10/2008 09:58AM
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I love listening to this and inner mounting flame in the car. It's serious music for serious listeners. Some of the best work ever done imho.

River starstarstarstarstar Mon 11/10/2008 01:24PM
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u know most of these guys, if not all of them, started playing with miles davis. and i belive that is how they met.

minutes Mon 11/10/2008 02:03PM
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My high school science teacher gave this album to me when I was a junior, back in 1994. He figured I would like it since I was always sporting my rock and roll t-shirts. Coincidently he was missing his figure and had a jerry nub.

Birds Of Fire - sounds way better on vinyl

elephantghost Mon 11/10/2008 02:18PM
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Nothing sounds better on vinyl.

Radio Ryan starstarstarstar Mon 11/10/2008 10:12PM
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Radio Ryan

I had the choice between watching porn or checking out Mahavishnu, and I chose Mahavishnu. Funny thing is, much like porn, I just can't stop watching Mahavishnu!!

iwantstogetfunkedup Tue 11/11/2008 09:49AM
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One of the sickest ever! I'll second or third or whatever the comment for The Inner Mounting Flame. That album was always a wicked listen after a spliff.

funkifiyo starstarstarstarstar Thu 11/13/2008 01:54PM
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Wow This is nice to see and read and I'm psyched to watch the video clips!! John Mclaughlin is my #1 fave gtr. player with Jimi and Jeff Beck close 2nd's. Damn I hope he's comin to nyc with chick corea. Inner mounting flame was my first from them and remains the standard bearer to all fusion. For some different twists on John I highly recommend The Shakti live album...pure intensity and divine playing from start to finish. Belo Horizonte for beautiful acoustic playing and certainly ...Friday night in san francisco with the trio of Paco Delucia and Al Dimeola. Enjoy. peace

Nailosity starstarstarstarstar Thu 11/13/2008 03:37PM
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Wow, cool to see this album spoken of. It's been a long time... as musicians in High School, we lived and breathed this music. "Birds" was one of my all time biggest influences - especially those damn guitar solos (and synth solos - I'm a keyboard player)! Smokin' revolutionary disc from the heyday of "original crossover". Always imitated, never duplicated.

RobHornfeck starstarstarstarstar Fri 11/14/2008 11:13PM
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I almost skipped the miami vice thing...but check out the drummer.