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Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Gene Hyde

OCTOBER 18, 1999: 

Mahavishnu Orchestra The Lost Trident Sessions (Columbia/Legacy)

Soon after Miles Davis recorded Bitches Brew in 1969, various Miles Davis alumni began to spread the gospel of fusion throughout the jazz and rock communities. Davis’ disciples approached the emerging genre in different ways: Saxophonist Wayne Shorter united with keyboardist Joe Zawinul to create the world/jazz/rock amalgamation known as Weather Report, while pianist Herbie Hancock carried Davis’ electronic energy into his Mwandishi band, then abandoned that for the Headhunters, a light pop/funk hit-making machine.

Meanwhile, British guitarist John McLaughlin went in a different direction. After a brief spell with drummer Tony Williams in Lifetime, McLaughlin embraced Hinduism and adopted the name Mahavishnu John McLaughlin. Seeking to incorporate his own visionary image of fusion, he formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Beginning with 1971’s The Inner Mounting Flame, the Mahavishnu Orchestra cut a wide creative path through contemporary music. Melding McLaughlin’s machine-gun guitar work with Jan Hammer’s splashy electronic keyboards, Jerry Goodman’s folk-inspired violin, and Rick Laird’s daunting bass lines, the entire ensemble cooked over the fires of polyrhythmic drum genius Billy Cobham.

This was a brilliant band of great complexity and depth which created some of the most original music of the era, music that blended blistering fast licks and gentle melodies, pastoral images and celestial firestorms. They were amazingly intense, yet always fluid and graceful. They were also hugely successful, attracting both jazz fans (those who weren’t alienated by the whole electric fusion movement) and rock fans as well.

Their second album, 1973’s Birds of Fire, was a breathtaking masterpiece; serene and beautiful, yet even more intense and focused than their first album. Like their first LP, all compositions were written by guitarist McLaughlin. The guitarist’s creative control was the cause of some tension within the band, as Hammer, Goodman, and Laird were not only helping to shape the songs, but they were also composers in their own right. By the time the band entered Trident studios in June 1973 to record their third album, they were close to breaking up. They recorded an entire LP, but argued over final details of the record — should strings be added, or should it be remixed again?

Unable to resolve these issues, the band opted to release Between Nothingness and Eternity, a live album recorded in August 1973. By the end of that year, this version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra had broken up. Soon, McLaughlin formed another version of the orchestra, and Cobham, Laird, Goodman, and Hammer went off on solo careers.

Although bootlegs of these recordings surfaced off and on for years, The Lost Trident Sessions is the first official recording of Mahavishnu’s final studio effort, finally unearthed and remastered after 26 years of neglect. Former band members have sanctioned this release, willing to overlook the creative differences that precluded its release a quarter-century before.

As might be expected, the intensity and fierce attack of McLaughlin and Cobham (especially) is without peer on these sessions; their furious duet in the middle of “Dream” is unrelenting. “Trilogy” is a beautiful, expansive piece, building upon an ensemble riff and some quiet guitar by McLaughlin, as the band trades solos and the tune builds in intensity.

Three of these songs (“Dream,” “Trilogy,” and “Sister Andrea”) appeared on Between Nothingness and Eternity. After years of listening to the live versions, it’s interesting to hear the original studio takes, which seem a bit more tame and controlled than their live counterparts. The live version of “Dream,” for instance, lets the band stretch out for a hefty 21 minutes, a full 10 minutes longer than the studio version.

In addition to “Dream” and “Trilogy,” both McLaughlin compositions, the disc includes three tunes by other band members. Jan Hammer contributes the bluesy “Sister Andrea.” Jerry Goodman’s “I Wonder” and Rick Laird’s “Steppings Tones” fail to match the creativity and passionate delivery of McLaughlin’s compositions. Brief and repetitive, they are easily the weakest cuts on the album.

The Lost Trident Sessions, while a welcome addition to Mahavishnu’s slim catalog, is the weakest of their studio efforts. While packing a powerful punch, it lacks the freshness of their first album, and doesn’t match the dazzling intensity of Birds of Fire. Still, it adds the final chapter to this extraordinary band, and should be required listening for any serious student of jazz fusion.

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