The Mahavishnu Orchestra Story | Jazz Fusion Icons

Formed by English guitarist John McLaughlin in 1971 the Mahavishnu Orchestra became one of the most important and high-profile bands in the world of jazz fusion. In this article, we use their short discography to map out the course of this iconic group of legendary musicians

During its lifetime the Mahavishnu Orchestra went through several different line-ups. It’s generally regarded, though, that the original Mahavishnu Orchestra that existed from mid-1971 until the beginning of 1974 is the most potent and innovative.

The group recorded three albums for Columbia Records in this time, and a further ‘lost’ studio session was discovered and eventually released in September 1999.

Guitarist John McLaughlin was born in Yorkshire, England on January 4, 1942.

He recorded his debut album as leader in 1969, which was the critically acclaimed and influential Extrapolation with baritone saxophonist John Surman, Brian Odges on bass and drummer Tony Oxley. The album was noted for the powerful playing encompassing rock music, and the superb compositions.

Shortly after, McLaughlin relocated to the United States to join drummer Tony Williams’ Lifetime group. Williams introduced the guitarist to his then boss, Miles Davis.

Without even hearing him play, Miles invited McLaughlin to attend the recording sessions for In A Silent Way, and so began a fruitful association for both Miles and the guitarist over the next few years.

The association also made McLaughlin world famous overnight.

The Inner Mounting Flame

As grandiose its name, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was unleashed on an unexpected jazz audience in 1971, and their debut album released by Columbia that same year.

Brim-full of ideas from working with Miles Davis, McLaughlin chose an altogether different and more rock orientated path. Playing his trademark double necked electric guitar the Orchestra would veer from high volume and energy workouts on cuts like ‘The Noonward Race’ and ‘Vital Transformation’ to the symphonic grandeur of ‘Meeting of the Spirits’ and the exquisite ‘A Lotus On Irish Streams’.

All the indications of McLaughlin’s career over the next forty plus years can be heard in this outstanding recording.

Birds Of Fire

Birds of Fire was the second studio album from the Mahavishnu Orchestra with the same quintet of McLaughlin on guitar, violinist Jerry Goodman, Jan Hammer on keyboards, bassist Rick laird and fuelled by the powerhouse drumming of Billy Cobham.

The title track shows just how far their music had come, as well as how much further out they could take it.

‘Miles Beyond’ is, as you might have guessed, a tribute to Miles. A tightly structured set, the music continues to display plenty of variety with the ‘Open Country Joy’ an exuberant piece, more of a jam in nature, and packed with incident.

Between Nothingness And Eternity

Although the band were showing signs of strain and internal conflict, their label – Columbia Records – showed continuing support despite an aborted third studio album a few months before this live recording was made.

Taped at a concert at Central Park, there is much to enjoy.

Jan Hammer’s ‘Sinster Andrea’ has a catchy riff to open up the composition, laying down a nice groove before the piece develops through a series of sections where McLaughlin and Jerry Goodman solo at length.

With only three tunes featured on the live disc, ‘Sister Andrea’ is sandwiched between ‘Trilogy’ that produces some exciting moments after the dramatic opening sequence with Cobham’s gongs, and McLaughlin’s guitar, and ‘Dream’.

This latter piece allows the attention to slip after the dynamic opening performances.

At just over the 20 minute mark, and taking up the whole of side 2 of the original LP release, the momentum is lost and the band meander, playing a lot but saying little.

The Lost Trident Sessions

And here we have it: the lost third studio recording from the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Resulting from studio sessions in June 1973 and two months prior to the live recording above, we get to hear the compositions from the live album in their originally-conceived form.

‘Trilogy’ is still a long piece broken down into compositions, ‘The Sunlit Path’, ‘La Mere de la Mer’ and ‘Tomorrow’s Story Not the Same’, each logically developed before moving on but considerably more focussed.

‘Dream’ is half the playing time of the live version but to these ears still comes across as over fussy and lacking in any real conviction.

‘John’s Song’ is a welcome departure and with the sitar like drone hints at what would follow a few short years later with the acoustic Shakti where East meets West.


If the live album witnessed the demise of Mk I of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, then Apocalypse appears with hindsight to be an ill-fated venture.

On paper it seems an odd direction to take, with the second line-up placed alongside the London Symphony Orchestra.

The music drifts free of any strong compositional framework, and it is often Jean-Luc Ponty who brings some genuinely inventive playing to a lacklustre set.

Visions Of The Emerald Beyond

Sticking by their man, Columbia again granted McLaughlin another album with a larger ensemble.

Violinist Ponty again has his moments, but by and large this offering is often pretentious and lightweight. ‘Eternity’s Breath Pt. 1’ and ‘Pt. 2’ offer little of substance.

Keyboard player, Gayle Moran is no match for Jan Hammer and the vocals date the album.

McLaughlin’s ‘Can’t Stand Your Funk’ and ‘Cosmic Strut’ by drummer Narada Michael Walden offer a little light relief, but again the music is very much of its time.

Perhaps it would have been kinder if Columbia had left this one in the vaults.


The third and final chapter in the story of the Mahavishnu Orchestra begins in 1984 with this offering that finds McLaughlin, having moved from electric guitar to acoustic guitar with Shakti, now dabbling with the Synclavier guitar synthesizer.

Reunited with drummer Billy Cobham, and featuring saxophonist Bill Evans in place of violin we have a very different sound. Considerably easier on the ear, the music is far less abrasive, McLaughlin still seems to be casting around for a setting and concept for his music.

‘Clarendon Hill’ sounds like it could have been written for a TV film, and ‘Jazz’ could have easily been penned by Josef Zawinul and performed by the Weather Report line up of the day. This seemingly temporary loss of direction for the guitarist is encapsulated in ‘Nostalgia’ that is strongly reminiscent of Miles’s In A Silent Way.

Adventures In Radioland

If ‘Jazz’ on the Mahavishnu album above acknowledged a debt to Josef Zawinul, then this was cemented in the tribute to the keyboard player and composer on ‘Jozy’ on this 1986 session for Verve. Another attempt to revive the Mahavishnu brand this has many of the pitfalls of the earlier attempts.

The music is diverse but lacks any solid sense of direction or purpose. While there are some attractive themes such as ‘Gotta Dance’ which is quietly infectious, the composition ‘Reincarnation’ is just dreary. By this time, it was clearly the end for the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

McLaughlin was making exciting new music, but just not with this band, His association with fellow guitarists Al DiMeola and Paco DeLucia in an all acoustic trio was packed with great playing and interesting compositions, and there would be more focussed and exhilarating music to follow in the years ahead from John McLaughlin.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.