The Mahavishnu Orchestra are widely known for breaking new ground in the world of popular music. They (unsurprisingly) upset many jazz purists (one of them would be musician Wynton Marsalis), while conversely, offering new ways of looking at jazz.
This band may have been responsible for helping listeners (particularly of the younger crowd) ease their way into works of “pure” (for lack of a better term) jazz, but saying that largely undermines the integrity and musical power that The Mahavishnu Orchestra possessed. So to be more specific, this band may have helped broaden the appreciation of jazz, especially to a younger audience, while also (and more importantly) blowing the minds of many with their own dazzling musicianship.
Led by guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra specialized in blending rock with elements of jazz, Eastern, R&B, classical, country and other elements to form an indescribable brand of music. Not only that, every musician in this band were virtuosos, so the band were not without exhibiting feverish flights of aggression and intensity. However, this band were one of the rare breed of virtuosos who displayed a sense of taste, passion and fluidity in their virtuosic displays, and could rarely be criticized for dryness, or exhibiting nothing more than virtuosic chops all by itself. Another gift this band seemed to possess was a certain accessibility to their music — it was complex and technical, yet, it could be very addictive, and utterly inviting.
These tracks (which were all composed by John McLaughlin) all seem to be exercises in spirituality. Birds are creatures that fly – they seem to soar above everything. Fire = passion, inspiration, stamina, energy – a life-affirming source. This is transcendent, high-energy music played with soul, passion and purpose. The title track features a main lick, which gives off a slightly ominous, but penetratingly regal sound, while drummer Billy Cobham’s crash cymbal seems to add a bit more atmospheric relevance to it’s ever-present mystical aura. This main lick is in an astounding 18/8 time signature (but is really a set of 9/8, played twice), and features McLaughlin (guitar) and violinist Jerry Goodman dueling to the point where the two respective instruments sound indistinguishable–the two seem to become one.
On a personal note: I’ve listened to this one track on repeat for two hours straight, and I could have easily kept it on repeat — it was THAT addicting. Funky numbers like “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters” groove in 19/16, but still remain tasteful and addicting. The band softens things up with tracks like “Thousand Island Park” and “Hope.” The former sounding like an unconventional cross between Indian classical and folk-country music (very hard to describe), which is very beautiful and soothing, though it isn’t without some lightning-fast soloing. The latter sounding like a mix of Oriental, classical and instrumental ballad.
On “One Word,” the band really lets loose with a forbidding and frightening fire that will send many running for cover. For the majority of the first half, the band seems to play in a straightforward R&B-rock jam: John uses the wah-wah (or what I call the ‘wow-wow’) pedal to tasty effect, and bassist Rick Laird lays down some solid grooves underneath it all, and later, the rest of the musicians trade licks with one another on their respective instruments. The second half is where it gets more intense, as tension is built from drummer Billy Cobham, as he gets a solo spot. Here, he exhibits his drumming skills, which start off smoothly, then escalate in speed and dynamics.
Upon hearing this, you know to expect some sort of explosion ahead. Then, John McLaughlin (and band) kick in with a 13/8 meter, and for the rest of the song, this 13-rhythm continually increases in speed to reach a hair-raising climax. Within this 13-rhythm, closer inspection will reveal an almost mathematical technique in McLaughlin’s guitar line: a 6-5-4-3-2; 6 strokes/notes on the first line, 5 on the second, 4 on the third, 3 on the fourth and 2 on the fifth. McLaughlin is basically blazing and zigzagging on a pentatonic minor scale, and you will find McLaughlin, Jerry Goodman (on the violin) and Jan Hammer (synth/keyboard)–not to mention Billy Cobham pounding out this 6-5-4-3-2 pattern on the snare–playing this exact motif in unison, while Rick Laird is anchoring this spiritually cathartic flame with an utterly tense bassline to produce something so beautiful, divine, searing, orgasmic and powerfully devastating: it is my absolute favorite moment out of the entire (original) Mahavishnu Orchestra catalog.
Much of the album is hard to describe in mere words, so this review is pretty much over. This album is recommended to all rock music fans, particularly if you’re a fan of Hendrix or King Crimson. Prog-rock fans will probably love it, and they may find it to fall closer to that category, than it does pure jazz. If you’re new to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, this is probably the best place to start, then pick up 1971’s INNER MOUNTING FLAME.
This disc is an absolute knock out. The music has withstood the test of time, the lp in vinyl form was released in 1973 as a departure from the gold lined, glittering road of commercial success that Santana had paved. Disappointing to many, a revelation to others, this LP at the time was met with great scepticism and controversy.
After all how could someone duplicate John Coltrane’s suite, “A Love Supreme? ” What was Santana doing with another guitar player, and not just any guitar player but John McLaughlin. And who was the Eastern fellow in the robe? And why did he look so different and what was up with the white outfits? The answers were in the music and Santana was definitely on a journey or a spiritual quest .
The attempt to record “A Love Supreme,” still fresh in the minds of jazz heads as the one of the ultimate Trane compositions that had religious qualities besides outstanding technique and tremendous exploration seemed almost blasphemous. Santana and McLaughlin’s version is a jazz-rock fusion masterpiece where the guitar solos are presented in blistering fashion at a frenetic pace that was otherworldly, almost to the point of inhuman speed and dexterity as though the other side were intervening to guide the then young musicians along the righteous path.
Beginning with the faster than the speed of light fret work slowed down by the organ tempo to Trane’ s “ta-ta ta tah” melody only to be pushed further along, at a blazing guitar pace that is (was)like to two gunslingers firing endless rounds of ammo from a machine gun. The lightning pace slows and builds several times in an expressive recreation of the spirit of Trane, free flowing improvisation kept in check by the lyrical beauty of “A Love Supreme.”
It is a beautiful thing. Another John Coltrane composition is presented which also happens to be one of my favourite (like anybody cares)Trane tunes entitled “Naima. ” The guitarists trade in their electric guitar speed for a softer with less edge melody that is soothing and lovely much like the original by Trane. It is one of the most beautiful jazz ballads ever written and performed with exquisite tenderness and respect. In a sense this was (is) a tribute disc , a further exploration of the spiritual path through music, breaking the chains and confinement of commercial success to make a musical statement graced in light and love along the lines of what Trane did when he recorded “A Love Supreme”.
There is(was) nothing irreverent here but rather Santana was(is) paying homage. Take a look at the names of the songs. “Let Us Go into the House of the Lord,” Meditation” and “The Divine Life.” Santana was leaving and anyone who wanted to see where he was going could go or compare notes from their own experiences. The guitar work by both of thee guys was(is) just amazing. The interchange , from one channel to the other is un-Godly or better yet, inspired by God. There is just enough variety in terms of fast guitar work and slower acoustic sounds to create a balance.
However the interchange between the two guitarists is absolutely incredible and not to be missed if you like rock guitar. For that matter the whole set of musicians is like an all star cast with Billy Cobham and Jan Hammer sharing the drum roles along with Don Alias. The stellar cast further includes the late Armando Peraza on congas and James (Mingo) Lewis on percussion. If you are rebuilding your collection or rediscovering your musical treasures add this one to the collection.
If you are new to Santana and keep reading old grey beards refer to his older albums that were better, than this might one of those. Not for everyone but surely for those that appreciate outstanding inspired guitar work with only hints of the Latinesque elements often associated with Carlos Santana.
Ever the restless experimenter, John McLaughlin decided to soldier on after the acrimonious breakup of the first Mahavishnu Orchestra. He had an even grander musical vision in mind. First he put together a larger version of the band, and not being content to stop there, bought in the heavy artillery, known as the London Symphony Orchestra, tapped one Michael Gibbs to do the orchestral arrangements, enlisted the services of a young up and coming conductor in Michael Tilson Thomas, who had a taste for the adventurous and unconventional. And to cap it off, Johnny Mac enlisted the services of Beatles producer George Martin to capture this grand experiment on tape.
Did the bold experiment work? For the most part, it did.
We begin with “Power of Love”, where the orchestra plays a quiet and somber understated theme as Jean Luc Ponty spins forth a haunting melody on his electric violin and McLaughlin adds poignant acoutsic guitar. But this is just a prelude to something very unsettling.
That unsettling something being “Vision Is A Naked Sword”. Beginning with a rumbling gong, both the band and the Symphony unleash an ominous “Wrath of God” reworking of the main theme of “Dance of The Maya” and in doing so, nearly scaring the crap out of you, with Johnny Mac peeking out with his trademark scary dissonant arpeggios. From there things get even more jarring and intense, as J Mac and Ponty trade off phrases, Narada Michael Walden interjects and the band plays a fine game of volleying riffs back and forth before things draw to a terrifying orchestral close. WOW!!!!
Next up, “Smile Of The Beyond” is a attempt to lighten the mood after having the fear of God put in you. As the strings come in, Gayle Moran (the future Mrs. Chick Corea) does the wailing diva thing, howling at the moon with some rather preposterous pseudo-cosmic lyrics over a fairly saccharine string arrangement, then the band kicks in with the guys singing the song’s signature line over a fairly active fusion groove, but somehow, this one just doesn’t quite add up or succeed at what it attempted.
“Wings of Karma” is a nice orchestral interlude leading to a sort of gospel-inflected fusion groove, paving the way for “Hymn to Him”, a multi-part epic that has more than the minimum USDA daily requirements of instrumental fireworks, that reaches a fiery climax as Johnny Mac and the band trade riffs with the whole London Symphony, quite fun to listen to actually and then it winds down to a beautiful, serene ending.
This is not what one would call easy listening by any stretch.
The overall recording quality is spacious and crisp, thanks to George Martin’s finely tuned ears and ace Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick manning the faders. The recording of this album was a pretty complicated affair according to the participants, having to stay in synch by way of a closed circuit TV system in the studio.
Quibbles? I have some.
First, Johnny Mac’s guitar is uncharacteristically low in the mix and doesn’t come across with quite the fullness that it normally did on previous recordings. In fact, it sounds downright thin and overly metallic in a lot of places, almost hurting the ears sometimes.
Second, Gayle Moran. Her keyboard work here is adequate but not really anything outstanding or special in any manner. And yes, she can sing, but that wailing diva howling at the moon thing is more of a distraction than an asset, it sticks out like really bad Broadway/pseudo-operatic schlock, truth be told. Those dippy pseudo-cosmic lyrics weren’t much of a help either.
The new band overall kicked butt, especially Ralphe Armstrong and Narada Michael Walden, even if he does overplay a little now and then. I heard that MO Mark II were actually great on stage with just the 3 strings and 2 horns. It had to be a monumental challenge to capture the essence of the dense orchestral sections and be able to convey it with a much smaller (relatively speaking) ensemble.
John McLaughlin could certainly not be faulted for being exploratory and wildly ambitious, and he is in fact to be commended, even when it didn’t always fly. At least he learned from the mistakes.
In spite of the flaws, this is a disc definitely worth having, just to see how orchestral and electric textures can work together, and how one such as Johnny Mac always followed his musical heart wherever it took him, not having the least bit of concern for commerciality.
It’s tough to bottle lightning once, and this band did it twice. Dispensing more otherworldly magic, Birds Of Fire doesn’t build on its predecessor so much as it continues their dazzling group interplay. Perhaps it lacks the freshness of Inner Mounting Flame, but that’s primarily because that album came first, and this one in fact is probably a better example of the “fusion” term that the band is so closely identified with.
Indeed, there are more sections that could be called “jazz” and less fretboard frying hard rock on this one (perhaps that’s why I slightly prefer the debut), as McLaughlin (who again wrote every song) even dedicates a song (“Miles Beyond”) to mentor Miles Davis. Other differences between the two albums are that the songs here (aside from the ten minute long “One Word”) are generally shorter, while Hammer has a more pronounced role as he adds more modern electric keyboards and synthesizer sounds (check out his trombone impersonation on “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters”!).
As for the songs, the title track begins the proceedings and is almost as mind blowing as “Meeting Of The Spirits.” One listen to this and it’s easy to see why this band was so influential back in their day, and why they were so popular among rock audiences. Elsewhere, “Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love” (is it me, or are some of these song titles sorta silly?) shows McLaughlin to be an amazing acoustic guitar player as well, in case you had any doubts, while “Hope” is a short, mellower piece that nevertheless showcases the band’s tightly controlled rhythm section.
The album’s centerpiece song, “One Word,” then follows, and it’s arguably the most important song of the original band’s brief but bright career together. A largely improvised epic, the rhythm section quickly settles into a low-key groove before Rick Laird takes control with a rare bass solo. Each player eventually chimes in, at times interrupting each other as they all go for broke, before Cobham is spotlighted for a 2-minute drum solo (that’s actually not boring), after which they all join in again at the end. A well thought through follow up after that exhausting exercise, “Sanctuary” continues onward with a slow, mournful melody, led along by Goodman’s moody violin.
Finally, “Open Country Joy” takes a minute to get going but again brings forth plenty of guitar flash from McLaughlin, before the band smartly comes down again with “Resolution,” which provides a short, low-key conclusion to another classic album. Alas, they couldn’t keep it up, as ego clashes and “musical differences” splintered the band apart soon after the release of this second milestone offering, though they released another less impressive live album (Between Nothingness and Eternity) in 1973 and a belated third studio album would surface in 1999 (The Lost Trident Sessions).
Though McLaughlin would recruit new members and continue to do good work under the Mahavishnu name (while also pursuing a solo career), it is the original lineup that deserves to be long remembered, because for two albums they were the best fusion band ever.
A great idea that unfortunately was not carried out ideally. It is indeed hard to imagine a more blistering pair than Carlos and the inimitable “Mahavishnu” McLaughlin, one of the most renowned jazz/jazz-rock guitarists of all time. And a lot of the stuff on their common project is awesome beyond words. But I feel that the resulting product does not entirely do justice to the talents of both. With a little more elaboration, a little more diversity, and a little less pretention, it could have been one of the greatest guitar albums of all time; as such, it is just a “technically immaculate” record.
It is still quite good, though. The backing band on here is mixed, with organ player Khalid Yasin being the only prominent member apart from the two string-bending dudes, and he’s excellent at his job, contributing worthy instrumental passages that are far less trivial and generally more polished technically than those of Gregg Rolie. All the other time, it’s just Santana and McLaughlin fighting off each other.
The songs on here are credited either to Coltrane or McLaughlin, but it really doesn’t matter because there are no “melodies” as such – just endless jamming on three lengthy marathons (‘A Love Supreme’, ‘The Life Divine’, ‘Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord’) which all sound basically the same. The sound that the guitarists achieve is indeed stellar: miriads of blistering arpeggios laid on each other at lightning speed, finger-flashing battles with the guitars soaring into the sky, falling down from an enormous height, swimming undewater, emerging and rising out again – ‘The Life Divine’ sounds like something absolutely impossible first time around.
I can’t even tell who exactly is playing – both guitars play more or less in the same style, and since both Carlos and John were tremendously well-practiced, it’s up to the real expert to tell. But that’s not a problem, and who cares anyway? The problem is, apart from those flashy duels, they hardly do anything else that would be interesting. With ten and fifteen-minute jams, you’d expect at least a careful approach to their structuring, with grappling build-ups and diverse approaches to playing.
But there are no build-ups at all: the guitarists just crash into whatever groove they find appropriate from the very beginning, and instead of steady climactic “rises” you get sloppy anti-climactic “falls” – after stunning you for two minutes or so with lightning-speed passages, they proceed to bore you for a couple more minutes with clearly inferior pieces. And when they skip the boring parts and proceed to a ‘never-ending cathartic groove’ on ‘Let Us Go…’, it’s actually worse: one can only experience a musical orgasm for so long, and when two guitar professionals challenge us with their inhumane skills and heavenly guitar workouts for ten years on end, the initial feeling of amazement and awe finally melts down to boredom.
I mean, it’s terrific to witness a juggler juggle his balls for two or three minutes without stopping, but when he goes on juggling until the tenth or fifteenth minute and you already understand very well that it is within his possibilities not to stop juggling until he drops dead, the novelty factor wears away and the rotten eggs make their appearance. Same here.
Some brief relief is being provided with short acoustic ‘interludes’ (‘Naima’, ‘Meditation’) which are pretty, but little else, and don’t really amount to much; McLaughlin fans probably won’t find anything new in them, and Santana fans will probably twirl their nose at such an untypical style.
It almost seems as if the duo were intentionally concentrating on just one type of sound, completely shrouded in their ‘cosmical conscience’ – this coincides with the peak of Santana’s spiritual period, and as for Mahavishnu, well, he’d always been a freaky kind of guy. So this album is not just a mindless jam session; no, it is obviously intended as some sort of ardent spiritual declaration for both (although the only lyrics on the album are the chantings of ‘a love supreme’ and ‘the life divine’, so some might not understand that). This means that some might actually tune their own soul up to the project and even find some deep religious meaning within.
Me, I just think there is a lot of beauty in these tunes, but an overabundance of beauty isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Between Nothingness and Eternity was released in 1973 and proved to be the swansong of the first edition of The Mahavishnu Orchestra. While the band had produced two truly great studio albums previously, BNE was intended to showcase its legendary live performance. Disappointingly, this recording does not fully capture that experience. Despite that failing, the album remains a powerhouse of a recording and is a fitting testament to the driving force that was the original Mahavishnu Orchestra.
BNE was recorded live in NYC’s Central Park in 1973. (The stage was set up in an outdoor hockey rink, and tickets for the event cost a whopping two dollars!) The members of the Orchestra were not getting along at this time. In fact, parts of the studio version of this album, along with new tunes from Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird, were already in the can.
However, due to creative differences, the album was never finished. In 2000, some 26 years after the fact, Columbia finally released this incomplete album as The Lost Trident Sessions.
“Dream,” a long extended piece, is often cited as one of the best all-time Mahavishnu explorations. Extensive unison playing and a guitar-drum duel that very well may be the most exciting ever-put on record highlight this tune. McLaughlin and Billy Cobham may not have been getting along off stage, but they were damn telepathic on it.
Over the course of 25 minutes, “Dream” sounds lush and ferocious. At several points during this performance, you will feel the hairs on the back of your neck stiffen. “Dream” is all about tension and release.
“Trilogy” emphasizes the amazing interplay of the band. Much of this interaction runs through Jan Hammer, who was featuring his Moog synthesizer. Conversely, this is also the main weakness of the album. The problem is not contained in Hammer’s performance. He was in top form. But for some reason, the recording does not capture his sound in an entirely pleasing way. One can only guess that the recording equipment or the sound equipment on stage was not up to the task.
Simply put, there are passages in which Hammer can barely be heard! This is a very serious problem during the call and response sections. In fact, the overall sound quality of the album is not very good. We must remember that the Mahavishnu Orchestra played very loud and perhaps the technology at the time just couldn’t handle it. Some fans may actually enjoy the fact that the M.O. seemed to overpower it equipment; this is especially true of McLaughlin’s wailing and distorted guitar that over-modulates from time to time. It was as if no man made equipment could contain the energy produced by this band!
All in all, despite the obvious sound issues, BNE is a fine production. This album and The Lost Trident Sessions are a must-have in order to appreciate how the group fleshed out their compositions in concert.
The Lost Trident Sessions contains what was meant to be The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s third full-fledged studio album. They recorded this in 1973, but it wasn’t until 1999 when this was released. The story goes that the album was shelved and subsequently lost in the warehouses, and then somebody finally found it, remastered it, and released it.
This was also the last we would see of the classic line-up. McLaughlin formed an entirely new band, and turned Mahavishnu Orchestra into more of a classical music/prog outfit. They were still excellent of course, but that surely alienated much of their fan-base.
Although the material on this “lost” album was probably not a surprise to anyone considering most of it was subsequently released on their live album Between Nothingness and Eternity and Jerry Goodman’s and Jan Hammer’s Like Children. The only completely unreleased track was “John’s Song #2.” The one thing that I miss about this album compared to their earlier two is that it doesn’t contain a track that is quite as emotionally powerful as “The Meeting of the Spirits” or “Birds of Fire.”
But what The Lost Trident Sessions has is a whole lot of phenomenally entertaining and masterful jamming pieces. I’d even wager to say that this is the most wholly entertaining and accessible Mahavishnu Orchestra album ever released.
Take a whiff of “Sister Andrea.” Do you remember the Mahavishnu Orchestra writing such a catchy, bad-ass riff before? That’s like the Rolling Stones; I can listen to it over and over again and never grow tired of it! Seeing that this is the Mahavishnu Orchestra, there is quite a lot more to this song than the riff. It contains extended, sort of spaced-out solo movements, which of course are phenomenally interesting to listen to. “Trilogy” by all accounts is a typical wandering and rambly piece from them.
It starts out quietly and subdued guitar and keyboard solos weave in and out of crescendos while a disparate drum rhythm plays. But then one at one point, it almost seems to threaten to turn into a crunchy heavy metal anthem! They’re previous stuff never even hinted at heavy metal, so in all possibility, this might be the perfect place to begin listening to Mahavishnu Orchestra!
The one thing that this album has over the previous two Mahavishnu Orchestra albums is that there isn’t a single moment I’m bored with. For the most part, every quiet part seemed well deserved and they were masterfully and beautifully evolved loud and booming sections. They’re all interesting to hear develop, and as a listener I’m hanging onto everything. The last three tracks are by far the shortest; “I Wonder” and “Steppings Tones” are three minutes each.
Of course they don’t develop like their 10-minute tracks do, but each of them have their own distinct tones and textures. The former is a thunderous jam that’s based on a rather compelling Bach-like chord progression, and the later is brilliantly subdued and creepy with a particularly excellent violin theme.
The last track, “John’s Song #2” contains some of the wildest, tightest drumming that I’ve ever experienced in rock ‘n’ roll… I mean, just listen to the guy go at it! It’s like he’s trying to give his drum kit a slow death. Of course all the other soloists deliver their lightning-fast noodles with gusto, but I’d say it’s the drummer who steals the spotlight. And he didn’t need a full-fledged solo to give that to him, either! There’s another area The Lost Trident beats their first two albums. There are no stupid drum solos!
Anyone who lovesThe Inner Mountain Flame and Birds of Fire should without question own this album, too, since it completes the trilogy, and also because it is a fantastic jazz-fusion record in its own right. I’m sure that it’s one of the most completely dazzling instrumental rock albums ever released.
Two guitar giants. A collective band comprised of virtuosic instrumentalists. One shared goal. And one tremendous album, commonly referred to as the equivalent of aural nirvana. Still the only meeting of Santana and John McLaughlin, Love Devotion Surrender more than lives up to the promise offered by its principal creators as it’s a spiritual journey based in divine faith, religious toleration, and the forward-thinking philosophy that music can take us closer to the truth. These enlightening concepts are reflected in the playing of Santana and McLaughlin, who repeatedly hit a higher plane on this stunning 1973 set.
Re-mastered from the original analog master tapes, Love Devotion Surrender benefits from Mobile Fidelity’s meticulous engineering, with the windows on the finite give-and-take passages, sustained notes, and acoustic textures thrown open on hybrid SACD with palpable transparency and exquisite detail. Brimming with atmospheric textures, three-dimensional spaciousness, and sterling microdynamics, this version follows on the heels of Mobile Fidelity’s definitive, critically acclaimed editions of Santana, Abraxas, and Caravanserai.
Having each become a follower of Indian guru Sri Chinmoy, Santana and McLaughlin began playing together in 1972, with each legend currently in the midst of personal and creative transition. Santana was moving away from rock-based songs in favor of exploratory jazz-rock fusion. McLaughlin had already achieved fame with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, on the brink of collapse due to disagreements within the band. On Love Devotion Surrender, the duo pools its interest in spirituality and transcendence into expressively gorgeous art steeped in improvisational lines, ecstatic chords, and sensitive organ accompaniment courtesy of the record’s best-kept secret, Larry Young.
In addition to the search for sacred soulfulness, the common denominator throughout is John Coltrane, who engaged in similar pursuits during the 1960s. Two of the five compositions are interpretations of Coltrane standards while the lynchpin, a nearly 16-minute investigation into the traditional “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord,” seamlessly integrates melodic structure, jazz phrasing, gospel mysticism, and tonal shaping into one of the most hopeful and uplifting pieces of music you’ll ever hear.
Laden with delicate acoustic touches and gentle piano touches as well as powerful staccato bursts and fast-paced bongo percussion, Love Devotion Surrender contains a highly dynamic mix of tempos, textures, and contrasts that have never shone like they do on Mobile Fidelity’s numbered, limited-edition hybrid SACD. This audiophile edition brings the performers’ spirituality to the fore with extraordinary realism, while the pinpoint imaging—Santana primarily on the left, McLaughlin on the right—allows each musicians’ contributions to soar. If you’re a fan of the guitar, jazz, or music that literally elevates you to an ethereal place, this is a must.
Once upon a time, Carlos Santana was a guitarist with lofty thoughts in his mind. Loftier than playing soulless licks over Michelle Branch and Rob Thomas hits, anyway. In 1972, under the tutelage of Shri Chinmoy, he teamed with John McLaughlin, guitarist and leader of the fusion pioneers Mahavishnu Orchestra, to put together an album celebrating the themes of Chinmoy’s teachings. Their intent was to create a work of art that dedicated itself to God and man, and love and dedication to both.
Love Surrender Devotion is the resulting work. The album finds the two with a seasoned group of their buddies: Khalid Yasin (Larry Young) on organ, James “Mingo” Lewis and Armando Peraza on percussion, Doug Pauch on bass and Billy Cobham, Don Alias and Jan Hammer on the drum kit.
The album opens with a raucous take on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, which sets the template for everything that follows. McLaughlin supplies his usual speed-demon technique, sweeping furiously across the fretboard with plenty of overdrive, while Santana opts for more elongated arcs, often bending and stretching notes in a restrained, yearning fashion. Another Coltrane reading follows, and “Naima” finds the two guitarists hushed and reverent, employing acoustic guitar and fingerpicking. It’s the first (and last) time the album relaxes before the end, and it’s over before you realize it.
McLaughlin’s composition “The Life Divine” closes side one, and from its first, stuttered drum beat, one can hear the template for everything The Mars Volta are still trying to pull off. The bass guitar pulses in sync with the galloping drums, while Santana and McLaughlin hold absolutely nothing back. Over prayerful vocal incantations, the two play tug of war with each other, occasionally allowing their parts to dissipate to mere feedback before roaring back to life. It’s brilliant and terrifying, the kind of statement you might expect from Pharaoh Sanders or Sonny Sharrock, not the guy who played “Oya Como Va.”
“Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord” also echoes Sanders, who would later go on to try his own hand at the song. It features touches of the Latin rock sound that Santana was employing to great success with his own group. Here Young’s organ playing gets as far out as either of the guitarists, pushing the song into near atonal territory, while McLaughlin and Santana plow through aggressive runs, mimicking with their guitars the qualities Coltrane and Davis exhibited on their instruments. While the MC5 talked about the same thing, and helped invent punk rock in their attempt, their approach lacked the spirituality Santana and McLaughlin are dealing with here. I want to call it destructive, but that’s just not the right term. Passionate, frightening, fierce; all fall short of describing just how on fire these two guitarists sound.
Another McLaughlin composition, “Meditation” closes the album (it’s funny that this is listed as a Santana album, considering he didn’t actually write any tunes for it), allowing the peacefulness of “Naima” to return. Santana contributes graceful flamenco runs over McLaughlin’s subtle piano, and the two bring the album to a mellow close.
If Santana had kept up this sort of sonic freakiness up, you might hear his name tossed around more by esteemed noisemakers like Thurston Moore. And while McLaughlin is well regarded in jazz circles, allowing soulful collaborators like Santana to help balance his often overwhelming approach would certainly have endured him to the rock world at large. Rarely would their following work reach the heights of this album. McLaughlin would continue to hone his chops, and Santana’s work would spiral into the depths of commercial pop. Regardless of record sales, I find it hard to believe that Carlos is still “reaching” while he’s playing over that Nickelback dude’s jam. I guess he must have surrendered to someone or something other than God.
This recording never attained the lift-off that should have accompanied an effort from two mega-stars. Perhaps it was cultish feel of the album, starting with the title and the images of McLaughlin and Santana on the cover, both dressed all in white and standing meekly in awe of their guru, Sri Chinmoy.
However, the music was not the devotional new-age fare one might expect from the album cover. Instead, there was a jazz nonet with Santana and McLauglin backed by organ, bass and five percussionists playing two John Coltrane standards and other tunes composed by the two leaders.
Take away the album’s title and cover and there is really nothing here that should scare lovers of jazz fusion. The music is some of the best of its type to come out of that period. But there was another reason this record may not have enjoyed the success it deserved, and it’s the sound of the original LP. Most of the fusion released in the 1970s was recorded by Columbia, which was not turning out its finest pressings during that decade.
To make matters worse, the mastering engineer seemed to have a much heavier hand on the controls than a decade earlier. Some of Columbia’s worst 1970s masterings were of jazz-rock fusion recordings, perhaps because the loudness of the music inspired more limiting to keep cartridges from mistracking.
This SACD helps repair the damage. It joins the ranks of several ’70s jazz LPs have come alive on digital and LP remasterings in the 21st century, the products of more sensible mastering. Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters was released on Blu-Spec CD in the last couple years. While the original LP was a massive hit, the improved sound of this CD is equally massive. An album I never quite connected with in 1973 now sounds fresh.
The same can be said for Weather Report’s Heavy Weather, which was released on 45rpm vinyl last year, sounding far better than the original. This newly buffed-up SACD mastering from Rob LoVerde is equally fine and improves upon the original LP in similar ways. You can now turn the music up (and this music calls for it) without having your whole system plunge into a sea of distortion.
If you love hard-driving guitar backed by jazz greats Larry Young on organ and Billy Cobham on drums, playing a memorable version of “A Love Supreme” along with other equally fine tunes, this is the SACD for you. Just close your eyes if you don’t want to see Carlos and John with their heads bowed in prayer.
It’s what’s inside that counts.