English guitarist John McLaughlin first emerged into the public eye in 1969 and 1970, a period he spent mostly working with Miles Davis. He can be heard on In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Big Fun and Live-Evil. He also played with Davis’s departing drummer, Tony Williams, as 1/3 of the band Lifetime, alongside organist Larry Young. Somewhere in there, he also recorded a solo album of psychedelic instrumental hard rock, Devotion (with Young, bassist Billy Rich, and drummer Buddy Miles), and then, after a period of isolation, practice and writing, decided to form his own full-time band. He pulled in violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Jan Hammer (yes, the guy who recorded the Miami Vice theme), bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Billy Cobham. This was the Mahavishnu Orchestra. On August 14, 1971, they went into the studio and blasted through eight of McLaughlin’s compositions in a single day; the resulting album, The Inner Mounting Flame, was in stores less than three months later, on November 3. I know, right?
It’s a barnburner of a record: Cobham laying down lightning-fast, hyper-complex rock beats, with Laird galloping along beside him; Hammer chopping at his keyboards in a sort of Larry Young-meets-Rick Wakeman style; and McLaughlin and Goodman spinning out wild unison melody lines that then erupted into solos like showers of fireworks. Except for the three-minute closer, “Awakening,” its tracks are all between five and seven minutes long. One or two feel like jams; “The Dance of Maya” finds the group playing a skronky, showoffy version of the blues, and on “The Noonward Race,” McLaughlin repurposes a boogie-metal riff he premiered on “Right Off,” from A Tribute to Jack Johnson. It’s a hell of a statement, and the quintet supported it, as one did in the ’70s, with extensive touring.
They returned to the studio in August 1972, but things had changed. The second album, Birds of Fire, wasn’t cut in a single day, but required multiple sessions at two studios—New York’s Electric Lady and London’s Trident. The music was much tighter and more disciplined, with little or no jamming; where Flame ran 46 minutes with eight tracks, only one of which was shorter than five minutes, Birds offered 10 tracks in a tight 40 minutes, and only three of those were longer than five minutes. Hell, “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” was a mere 24 seconds of guitar and synth noise. The music was a little closer to hard rock than prog at times; at the climax of the album’s longest track, “One Word,” Billy Cobham takes a thundering drum solo that would have brought any arena crowd to its feet, roaring. There are also quiet moments, though, like the almost Baroque semi-acoustic piece, “Thousand Island Park.” Birds of Fire feels like Mahavishnu were attempting to streamline their sound in order to safeguard commercial success, without going so far as to hire a vocalist. It has much more in common with early ’70s progressive rock, particularly the work of Yes, than with jazz. Indeed, both Mahavishnu and keyboardist Chick Corea‘s group Return to Forever have always seemed more like prog rock played by jazz musicians than anything really tied to jazz.
The Lost Trident Sessions, which would have been the band’s third studio album in 1974 had they not shelved the tapes and broken up, pushes them even further in the direction of hard rock. There are sections of the two long tracks that make up its first half, the 11-minute “Dream” and the nearly 10-minute “Trilogy: The Sunlit Path/La Mere de la Mer/Tomorrow’s Story Not the Same,” that sound almost like the hard, amp-frying blues-rock of Cactus or early ZZ Top. “Sister Andrea” finds the group moving in a funk direction, and “I Wonder” sounds like McLaughlin’s attempt to condense Funkadelic‘s “Maggot Brain” into three minutes. It’s very solid material, which makes it difficult to understand what the group didn’t like about it at the time or why it was shelved.
In any case, live versions of “Trilogy,” “Dream” and “Sister Andrea,” each between half again and twice the length of the studio takes, made up the original running time of Between Nothingness and Eternity, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s sole live album and final release. The remastered version sounds astonishingly clear; individual audience members can be heard commenting on the music, and every instrument gets its own space in the mix, something that couldn’t be said of the previous CD version, which was indistinct and too quiet. McLaughlin’s soloing is almost manic in its intensity, and his bandmates easily match his energy, particularly Cobham, who’s just breathtakingly powerful.
And this boxed set expands Between Nothingness and Eternity with an entire second disc of previously unreleased material recorded at the same August 1972 New York concerts. Like the original album’s three tracks, the seven bonus tracks, which add up to nearly 64 minutes of material, frequently double the length of the studio versions of pieces like “The Dance of Maya,” from The Inner Mounting Flame (which expands from seven minutes to 14); “One Word,” from Birds of Fire (which grows from nearly 10 minutes to over 18); and most astonishingly, “Awakening,” originally a three-minute coda to Flame, now a 14-minute odyssey. All this material is every bit as good as what was originally released, and coupled with the remastering job, helps make this box a must-have for any Mahavishnu fan, and indeed the ideal way to experience the band’s work for the first time. Seriously, get it.
Here’s some video of the band live on the BBC in 1972: