I too, have cheated fate. I, and about 1800 other people, saw the last concert of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It wasn't in the 70's, or the 80's. It was a couple of weeks ago at Royce Hall, UCLA (Dec 9,2017). Because John McLaughlin put together an American tour called "Meeting of The Spirits" which was his first revisiting of the compositions of The Mahavishnu Orchestra in over 40 years, and Royce Hall was the final performance of the tour.
Think it extreme to characterize these as two supreme events in history? I'll go farther than that, I call both the Beatles and the Mahavishnu Orchestra supernatural. The surviving Beatles feel that today: it's other-worldy to them, they can hardly believe they were part of it. They were vessels of something bigger than themselves or any individual humans. And although The Mahavishnu Orchestra didn't enjoy the same scale of fame, they too are supernatural.
Mahavishnu, of course, refers to John McLaughlin himself, the name given by his spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy. He too conveyed an out-of-body sense of proportion, in the evening's concert notes, referring to Mahavishnu in the third person:
The music of Mahavishnu is part of my personal and musical history, and as such it is inseparable from me. To return to these pieces with the experience I've had for the past 45 years, is very exciting. To play the music of Mahavishnu is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, among the only people I know who have succeeded in interpreting Mahavishnu music are my two all-time favorite guitarists: Jimmy Herring and Jeff Beck.
You have to wonder at what path took McLaughlin to choose this tour. By 1976, McLaughlin moved on from Mahavishnu to a rich career of other kinds of musical fusion: Shakti, trio albums with Paco de Lucia and Al Dimeola, The John McLaughlin Trio, The One Truth Band, The Fourth Dimension and numerous solo projects. Songs from the albums Birds of Fire and The Inner Mounting Flame have not appeared in his repetoire for 45 years. Some 15 years ago he said in an interview:
So many people come to me to ask me to play the music of Mahavishnu again. I'm so flattered, but I tell them quite honestly, I'm a man in my 60's now, it doesn't fit. (paraphrased)
Yet here he comes in 2017, as a way of showing gratitude to the audiences who helped make Mahavishnu what it is, he makes a farewell US tour at age 75 featuring the songs Bird of Fire, Miles Beyond, Meeting of The Spirits, The Dance of Maya, A Lotus on Irish Streams, Dawn, Trilogy: The Sunlit Path, Vital Transformation, Sanctuary, Earth Ship and Eternity's Breath part 1. If Steve Jobs was the embodiment of the phrase, "The Greatest Second Act in History", then John McLaughlin has just nailed "Going out at your peak." The virtuosity, brilliance and excitement seemed to exceed that of the original 70's concerts.
Photos show that other venues on the tour were of smaller, night-club-sized proportions, so with Royce Hall we were treated to a wonderfully vast space for the grandeur of McLaughlin's music. Although I didn't make a careful inspection, the sound all seemed to be directly from the stage: no bone-crushing house sound to wear you out prematurely, no elevation of everything to mind-numbing equal prominence. Also, the presentation was gratifyingly hands-off: no booming impressario's voice preceded them, the ovation that greeted them as they walked onstage was the only introduction they needed. The sight of McLaughlin, relaxed, fit and smartly dressed as usual, with his new blue custom Paul Reed Smith double neck slung over his neck, his virtuosity and musicianship still peaking, etching The Dance of Maya's colossal cathedrals of sound on the canvas of Royce Hall's wide stage and high ceilings, was a sight and sound to remember forever.
Over the years I have learned to play several of McLaughin's Mahavishnu compositions, read the published scores, make my own transcriptions from recordings, and play them in bands, and because of that I thought that I had managed to take a bit of the mystery out of those Godly performances from the 70's; I see now that I was wrong. Any band worthy of playing with McLaughlin is in possession of rhythm is so profound and uncanny, it is light years beyond what any melodic or rhythmic notation can capture. These cats don't even have to look at each other to keep a fast 11/4 in time across countless syncopations and polymetric fills. Their rhythm transcends a time signature label; although you can count off the 11, it doesn't put you in their metric realm. My jaw spent a lot of time gaping wide that night, my eyes in large OMG circles.
The tour was actually two existing bands, each with a set of their own, and a merging of the two for a closing Mahavishnu set. First up were Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip: Jimmy Herring guitar; Matt Slocum, B3 and Clavinet; Jason Crosby, Rhodes piano and violin; Kevin Scott, bass; and Jeff Sipe, drums. Next was John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension: John McLaughlin, guitar; Gary Husband, keyboards and drums; Etienne M'Bappé, bass; and Ranjit Barot, drums and Konnakol (Indian scat singing).
Jimmy Herring's band opened with an improv based on a composition titled---yes---John McLaughlin (a Miles Davis riff from Bitches Brew, 1968). Low key, but with a delicious, swampy fusion feel. The highlight of Herring's set was more in the contributions of his sidemen than the numbers they played. Crosby's Rhodes playing and soloing was exciting and memorable. Slocum played wonderfully as well, although he tended to play softly and one had to strain to hear the beauty of the B3 tone. Kevin Scott on bass was a very capable fusion jazz bass player, but on the heavy-metal end of the spectrum: he added too much bombast and eliminated what subtlety might have been in the songs. I also didn’t sense that he was a very harmonic-thinking player; there were times he kept riffing on the root over chord changes. Herring's guitar was virtuosic but unmemorable. All the players would, however, show a new side in the Mahavishnu set to come.
John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension was every bit as beautiful and amazing as their albums Live At Ronnie Scott's (2017), Now Here This (2012), and To The One (2010) have shown. They also played the compositions, and showed the brilliance of, many other McLaughlin projects of the last few decades: the recordings of the John McLaughlin Trio (Que Allegia, 1992; Live at The Royal Festival Hall, 1989; and Belo Horizonte, 1981) and some of his more amazing solo projects: Floating Point, 2008; Industrial Zen, 2006; and The Promise, 1995. Gary Husband is a musician who can amaze not only with his keyboards and synth playing, but with fusion jazz drumming as well---how often do you see that? M'Bappé's bass seemed a little subdued, musically and visually. With black gloves on each hand, and moving very little he seemed a little distant from the band, like he was in a plexiglass booth. But the intersection of the band's virtuosity with McLaughlin's compositional genius elicited standing ovations for two different numbers in their set.
The combined 9-piece band brilliantly covered all the Mahavishnu ensemble requirements and made a dream recipe for reincarnating the sound. Slocum's B3 brought the requisite sound of for songs like The Inner Mounting Flame's Meeting of the Spirits, although again, disappointingly low in the mix. However he used a Clavinet to great effect, with a wah-wah when funk was needed, or straight to give a sharp tonal edge to the melodies and solos. Crosby, switching full-time to violin for this set, attempted no imitation of Jerry Goodman, but brought the string timbre which is so essential to Mahavishnu's sound, and gave beautiful, if not electrifying solos. Similarly, Husband stayed put on keyboards, and gave many touches of synth that evoked some of the genius of Jan Hammer's playing. Two drumsets, with some exciting Konnakol interludes, created the immensity needed to call to memory Billy Cobham's power and virtuosity. Two bass players are a tricky feat for any band to accomplish, yet Scott and M'Bappé did so brilliantly by spelling each other on the more improvised material, and playing in unison on the head parts of the songs. Several members contributed singing for numbers such as Eternity's Breath Part 1. Herron’s less memorable contribution in the first set became God-like here with his screaming sustain, brilliant speed and articulation that filled the shoes of Hammer and Goodman as McLaughlin's melodic counterpart. And McLaughlin himself again showed that technically he is still peaking at age 75, handily equal to the challenge of Mahavishnu's machine-gun-fire virtuosity, and layering his old compositions with the patina of his 45 years of stylistic evolution, such as his Miles-like inflections on the whammy bar. Also, novel twists in A Lotus On Irish Streams heretofore unknown from existing recordings showed the composer-as-performer ever evolving his material.
The concert drew a fascinating crowd. People-watching in the lobby beforehand, I saw many with guitarist DNA etched in their faces, some of whom I suspect are well known session cats or performers in LA and Hollywood. Seated to my left was a woman who brought her six-year old daughter.
Taking their final bows, the band's body language seemed to say “that’s it, we don’t play encores, thank you very much, goodbye.” But this sold-out Saturday night L.A. audience would not take no for an answer, so the ovation continued unabated until they returned, for two more Mahavishnu encores.
There was a sense of unbelievability to the evening. My friend and I kept exchanging wide-eyed OMG glances with each other as the evening would delve into yet another masterwork from the Mahavishnu canon (such as the lesser-played Trilogy-Sunlit Path and Earth Ship). I realized there could be no phone call, no social media post, photograph or video that could convey what this evening felt like. Just being in the same room as John McLaughlin held his hand on his heart, his face overcome with emotion, and clasping his hands in thanks to the waving arms of the standing ovation just inches from him, felt other worldly in a way that cannot be described or forgotten.