Saturday, October 20, 2007

10 favorite albums #9: MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA -- Apocalypse, CBS Records, 1974

Fusion. Before the caricature of the sci-fi obsessed masturbatory guitar-synthesizer soloist canoodling after a 15-minute trap drum solo becomes burned into your ears causing you to flip to the next album in the rack, consider how vibrant was culture on the cusp of the seventies. Miles Davis--brilliant, misanthropic, misogynist, narcissistic, drug-addled, virtuosic--had keyed into jazz, rock, funk, blues, and like the armies in front of Jericho before him caused the walls to fall with his trumpet. Maybe his great equalisation was as counter-revolutionary as it was revolutionary, but the jazz-head could now lie down with the funkster, the rocker could now lie down with the classicist, the snob with the plebe.

John McLaughlin was one of Miles' disciples: A white guy from England, an electric guitar player no less, whose muses included not only Delta bluesmen but mystical Indian gurus. After bringing the rock to Miles Davis' fusion of jazz and rock, McLaughlin became a kind of high-priest of fusion. He played Coltrane tunes with Carlos Santana on dueling electric guitars. He played delicate acoustic melodies linking the river valleys of Appalachia with the mighty Ganges in India. And he created the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

In its first incarnation the Mahavishnu Orchestra was like a plugged-in jazz rock combo, guitar-drums-bass-keyboard, adding in a fiery electric violinist. McLaughlin's guitar was not only front and center its metallic screeching and rapidfire arpeggios crowding and containing its space. I like the albums of this first incarnation; but they're not Apocalypse.

I first heard Apocalypse in 1977. It was my first apartment in college, shared with two roommates, one a fellow student, both fellow political radicals and activists. One of my roommates was recently back from Europe. He had long hair, and French girlfriends, and wore a gold ring on his thumb. He had tried to turn me on to Patti Smith (who I now love) quite unsuccessfully. His French girlfriends tried to turn me on to the Stranglers. Ugh. And then he put on side two of Apocalypse.

The sounds of a full string orchestra filled the room, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas no less. A lovely, melancholic melody. Kettle drums. A solo violin. And then something happens. Is it a keyboard? A guitar? Sound seems to ripple and distort, electricity takes over. The orchestra remains but the sound of soaring strings is fronted by interplay of electric guitar and electric violin. The orchestral percussion retreats in favor of propulsive rock drumming.

And so I was introduced to the second Mahavishnu lineup: French electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty veteran of West-Coast hippy-jazz-rock scene of Frank Zappa and George Duke, drummer Narada Michael Walden a young prodigy would go on to become a big pop-disco record producer in the early 1980; keyboardist and vocalist Gayle Moran responsible here for adding a voice of human vulnerability to otherwise divine and lofty playing. [Moran's work here is the strongest of her career. Her singing with later husband Chick Corea and her one long out-of-print solo album might please Xenu but they're nowhere near as sublime as on her two appearances with Mahavishnu.] Bringing up the funk is bassist Ralphe Armstrong.

The cover image (in LP days, sans brick red border) was Mahavishnu guru Sri Chinmoy as Krishna himself, there but not there, reflections within reflections, mysteries within reality. The kind of image that, propelled along by the music on the turntable and the weed in the bong could make you weep for its portrayal of another world so visible yet unreachable (Not quite Roger Dean of Yes cover fame, but it worked for me!).

And after the crescendo of orchestra and electricity, notes bent like a Indian raga cooling off: peace, tranquility, catharsis. That was the gift of this record. The catharsis of fusion energy unbridled and then restrained. The record also revealed, in its mystery, the nether worlds of spirit: the unspeakable shared by the knowing. A taste for me of later quests.

The second Mahavishnu Orchestra went on to record one other album, Visions of the Emerald Beyond which is quite enjoyable though not as sublime. Also of note, though a pale shadow of the original, is the tribute album Return to the Emerald Beyond by the New York-based Mahavishnu Project. John McLaughlin remains a virtuosic player, but to my taste his music is no longer as creative or as interesting. I liked his Shakti albums where he toyed more directly with Indian music, but, like an awful lot of what passes for jazz these days, his current records don't move me like the stuff from the seventies does.

Narada Michael Walden's solo albums also frequently attempt a return to the spirit of Mahavishnu. Even as the albums become more and more discofied to the cusp of the 1980s (and quite catchy, it must be said), each contains at least one song harkening back to the cosmic fusions of Apocalypse.

If the Mahavishnu Orchestra's sound was indeed the soundtrack to the Apocalypse, then let the world come crashing to an end.

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