Friday, March 13, 2015
FUSION HECK: MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA
There's plenty of footage of Mahavishnu Orchestra in their prime on Youtube, but I thought I'd share this one because I dig the rawness of both the footage and the performance itself. Jazz-fusion, much like prog-rock, has become a four-letter word in the post-punk universe, and perhaps for very good reason, but one should also take into account that both terms denote a rather broad frame of sound, and both, at least in this writer's opinion, started off as great ideas (with some exciting original practitioners) which ran amok - and down the musical toilet - within a couple of years due to the self-indulgence of many involved. More or less, there are similar stories regarding '50s rock & roll, R & B, psychedelia, prog, glam, punk rock, hardcore, post-rock, etc.: the great works of the early pioneers, the decline of said pioneers, the imitators and the dross which followed. The point: there is gold to be had in the pioneering early days of jazz-fusion.
I have spoken of the electric works of Miles Davis in this blog many times (his albums from 1969 - 1975 remains possibly my favourite catalogue of music ever released), and, despite my descriptive terms for these recordings handily avoiding the 'F' word (psychedelic astro-funk, acid/voodoo-funk, et al), they remain a collision between the worlds of jazz and rock: FUSION. And there is also the great early works of Tony Williams' Lifetime to consider - and once you've finished considering, you should give them a listen: 1969's Emergency! and 1970's Turn It Over are brain-bending clumps of organic, free-form sound (augmented with handy work from Larry Young, John McLaughlin and Jack Bruce) which fit in perfectly w/ the better soundscapes of their era (think Ornette/Beefheart/Soft Machine). And of course there's John McLaughlin's first two ensemble recordings under his own name, also from 1969 and '70: Extrapolation and Devotion, both molten slabs of high-energy guitar-driven mania. Fusion.
Herbie Hancock did a series of highly listenable hard-bop discs on Blue Note in the '60s before spending time in Miles' Quintet and then releasing a trio of terrific, abstract fusion discs in the early '70s: Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant (that's '70 - '73). The last platter to matter there is particularly the one to get: Sextant is a mass of outer-space gonzo psych-tinged avant-funk on a par w/ Miles' On The Corner. After that Hancock made it big w/ Headhunters and a series of jazz-funk albums which went off the musical rails for me, but whatever musical pitfalls followed, those discs are worth the time. You could also throw in Weather Report's second LP, I Sing The Body Electric, from 1972, in there, too. Their self-titled debut from the year previous is a fairly limp snoozefest, although the follow-up is a suprisingly intense fare w/ some distinctly angular avant-jazz/rock moves which stands in distinct contrast to the dull, noodling chopsfest they would soon devolve into. There are, of course, many other examples to divulge, but I guess the point has been made. As with just about any codified genre (barring hard trance: I haven't found anything there I could yet tolerate in this lifetime), 'fusion' has its gold. It was a good idea which simply went sour quickly. Let's finally cut to the chase and discuss McLaughlin's post-Lifetime ensemble, Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Mahavishnu hit it big w/ the college/'head' scene in the early '70s, and w/ Columbia's backing became a mainstay on the more progressive FM stations across the globe (they even made a dent in hillbilly Australia at the time, influencing the likes of Melbourne's MacKenzie Theory, whose 1973 debut longplayer, Out Of The Blue, is an essential slab of antipodean jazz/prog weirdness) - but really, the first two albums, 1971's The Inner Mounting Flame and '73's Birds Of Fire, are the only two you need. After that, the group's ouvre became lighter and less interesting and, by mid-decade, as dull as many of their fusion contemporaries. However, those first two offerings present the listener with - as I'm prone to utter to disbelievers - some HVY FKN JMZ. Sure, the presence of the likes of Billy Cobham and Jan Hammer (both names which would soon be uttered in fusion purgatory) meant there was musical flash galore, but the energy and intensity of the music being made meant the result added up to more than a day out at a drum clinic. It was a genuine fusion of rock instrumentation combined w/ the looseness of jazz arrangements and the exploratory nature of psychedelic rock. And need I mention that these discs remain Ground Zero for any admirer of the estimable guitar talents of Greg Ginn and Joe Baiza? Of course not. Do it.