Retro Review Symposium1
The Inner Mounting Flame
The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin, ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’: John McLaughlin (guitar), Jan Hammer (keyboards), Jerry Goodman (violin), Rick Laird (bass), Billy Cobham (drums); recorded August 1971, New York City, New York. Columbia Records (CK 31067), 1971.
Review I by Walter Kolosky
I have listened to The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’ at least a thousand times. During my study of the band, I have read hundreds of reviews. For various publications and books, I’ve written about the album numerous times. You can imagine trying to find a new take for Self & Society is not the easiest of things to do! Therefore, I have decided to transport myself back in time contemporaneously with the release of ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’ in 1971, and present a review devoid of hindsight, as if discovering Mahavishnu for the very first time.
Walter Kolosky, Autumn 2021
The word on the streets is that The Mahavishnu Orchestra will blow your mind. The band made its debut opening-up for John Lee Hooker in the late summer at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village. The club held them over for weeks, sometimes cancelling the scheduled headliners. Despite that, the superlatives I heard being tossed around seemed a little too much.
After listening to ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’, I now know what all the hubbub was about. If anything, they were understating things. The group’s hypnotic hyper-electric mantra-like riffs and tight ensemble playing is going to set some new hard-to-reach standards. This music is an amalgam of the blues and rock; with complex rhythms, jazz improvisation and Indian spices. If you turn your stereo up – and you should – it is all presented at decibel levels most often registered on a runway at JFK Airport. Columbia’s audio engineer walked out of the sessions because the deafening sound levels weren’t allowing him to think. The virtuosity is off the charts. The distortion is downright insulting. The speed-playing is insane. Yet, at the drop of a hat, the music can become quite serene and beautiful.
Guitarist John McLaughlin is from England and is best known for his far-out playing with Miles Davis and Tony Williams. Those familiar with his contributions to Williams’ Lifetime and Davis’ albums will notice an impossible ratcheting up. Billy Cobham is an ex-Army marching band drummer from Panama who has played with Horace Silver and the jazz-rock group Dreams. Czech keyboard player Jan Hammer was a child prodigy and played piano for Sarah Vaughan. Jerry Goodman is a rock violinist from Chicago who cut his teeth in the jazz-rock-folk group The Flock. McLaughlin knew Irish musician Rick Laird from his days in London. At one time, Laird was the house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and later played in Buddy Rich’s big band.
There are eight tunes on the album. The band has been opening its live shows with the rousing ‘Meeting Of The Spirits’. A dramatic prologue, marked by a triumphant dissonant fanfare and drummer Billy Cobham’s thrashing, calls the meeting to order. The song is in 6/4 time, with McLaughlin’s ethereal but penetrating guitar arpeggio establishing the tune’s character. Goodman’s violin and Laird’s bass usher in a repeating pattern on top of the arpeggio. Over a Cobham backbeat, Goodman and McLaughlin introduce the song’s main theme. The motif is deceptively simple, but it is not played simply. What is this I am hearing? Is the record at the right speed? A few measures of relative tranquility receive Jan Hammer’s tasteful electric piano fills. Once again, the band kicks into high gear, constantly accelerating as the theme ascends to another resolution before repeating. McLaughlin’s now familiar opening arpeggio re-emerges in the composition’s closing strains. This is elevating!
‘Dawn’ begins in the odd meter of 7, but it is so beautifully performed it doesn’t seem forced. The music bubbles up with a subtle electric piano introducing a new spring day. An intensifying head, played together by Goodman and McLaughlin, merges with Hammer’s delicate morning offering while Laird builds on his bass theme. The refined tension, already inherent in the melody, quickly rises and then subsides. McLaughlin’s solo summons the listener to an electric hoedown. Goodman’s solo, supported by McLaughlin’s rapid-change chord structures and Cobham’s drumming, is especially impressive.
‘The Noonward Race’ is pure energy from the outset. McLaughlin’s insistent chords are all over Cobham’s percussive attack. The two propel each other limitlessly in an uncanny telepathy. The pair’s frenetic forays are joined by Goodman and Hammer. Another introductory segment is birthed by Jerry Goodman, who plays through a Leslie speaker. At this point the players restate a resolving riff, increasing velocity with each cycle. The musicians play cues coming out of their solos by adding an extra repetition each time around. Jan Hammer’s electric piano solo is filtered through a ring modulator. McLaughlin unleashes a scorching guitar solo, full of fire and light, improvising on the main theme. He is eventually reunited with his cohorts. The band then slowly retreats, as McLaughlin and Cobham re-establish the vibe of their opening volleys to bring the race to the finish line. No one has time to ask why it is so important to race to noon. I am having trouble breathing.
‘A Lotus On Irish Streams’ features McLaughlin on acoustic guitar, Goodman on violin and Jan Hammer on acoustic piano. With ‘The Noonward Race’ still bouncing against the now mushy walls inside of my head, along comes this tranquil, classically influenced excursion. It seems incongruous to be shocked by such a placid piece of music. In this sense Mahavishnu’s quieter moments can be just as jarring as the band’s most explosive ones. McLaughlin and Goodman play the melody in a pleasing unison. The piece is beautiful and the chops displayed throughout are ridiculous.
Cobham’s drum shuffle begins ‘Vital Transformation’. Actually, it isn’t a shuffle. Cobham can play in 9/8 time in such a natural flowing manner that it sounds like a shuffle. McLaughlin introduces a dastardly multi-note pattern. Goodman enters, playing in quick time; first high on the neck and then sliding down it. The repetition builds tension. En masse, the band balances the tune’s restless anxiety with a powerful but soothing section dominated by Goodman and McLaughlin’s soaring lines. Cue another preposterous McLaughlin solo. The piece reverts again, only to be diverted by the reappearance of Cobham’s muscular shuffle. A group fadeout, accented by Hammer’s ring-modulated electric piano, completes the transformation.
The subterranean ‘The Dance of Maya’ doubles as an electric foot-stomper. Its lengthy opening guitar riff and Laird’s bass accompaniment are both haunting and bluesy. Cobham’s boogie beat, with an extra one thrown in for good measure, supports it. This section would make a good soundtrack for a modern remake of Dracula. A clarion call of a melody is squeezed in via John McLaughlin’s guitar and Goodman’s violin. Suddenly, without warning, there is a hard right turn. The Mahavishnu Orchestra gets down like Papa John Creach and Hot Tuna! Listen to that violin! Listen to that guitar! Listen to those drums! Listen to that electric piano. Listen to that bass! The 20/8 time foot-stomping section dissolves into some serious shredding before the tune is overlapped by the reappearance of the opening riff.
‘You Know You Know’ enters slowly and deliberately. Surprisingly, for this LP, the tune is in a basic 4/4; but Mahavishnu’s 4/4 doesn’t sound basic. A repeating nine-note pattern on electric guitar is seamlessly joined by Cobham’s accents and eventual backbeat. Goodman’s violin mimics McLaughlin’s lines. Bassist Laird joins as Jan Hammer contributes light, but emphatic, electric-piano runs. A focus on the main pattern increases the tension. Short outbursts impose themselves. ‘You Know You Know’ wants to be played faster, but the players will not oblige. Cobham’s rhythmic solo leads to the sudden end of the piece. Strangely, the tune goes nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. We are left hanging, but sated.
After an opening guitar and drum salvo, ‘Awakening’ is reinforced by the addition of violin and electric piano. The Orchestra is a juggernaut. The melody, played way too fast to grasp, is secondary to the furious execution. Billy Cobham’s turnaround leads to a repeat of the initial segment. An aggressive groove serves as underpinning for a righteous Goodman solo. McLaughlin’s chords punctuate. Jan Hammer solos next on electric piano played through a ring-modulator. McLaughlin’s turn features highly distorted exclamations. A short Cobham feature is followed by a restatement of the main theme. It all ends in a chaotic crash.
Not everyone will be able to get their heads around this music. I think some may think they will, but they won’t. The concept of mixing jazz and rock has been floating around on the edges of the ether in recent years. Until now, however, no one has harnessed the idea as well as Mahavishnu. There are already signs that the band may even be embraced commercially, especially by rock fans. This would be a major breakthrough for a music that contains so much improvisation. The music’s Eastern spiritual sub-text – much embraced these days – that underpins the presentation may also aid in its popularity.
The name of the band, ‘Mahavishnu’, comes from the spiritual name bestowed upon McLaughlin by his guru, Sri Chinmoy. It is said that McLaughlin’s deep spiritual leanings are the driving force in the formation and the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The song titles, all McLaughlin compositions, certainly give a clue. A small album insert that features a poem by Chinmoy provides even further evidence of this. Chinmoy stresses a life of study and meditation. According to the guru, this pathway becomes a person’s very essence. He teaches about developing the inner self in order to become self-realized, self-actualized and then, transcendent. It is a form of devotion to your own highest ideals.Accordingly, John McLaughlin seeks to become self-realized through his music; for him it is an offering to the Supreme. Although Rick Laird is said to have a strong interest in Eastern thought, the other members in the band, for the most part, take a more secular view of their art.
As a listener, how do you square music that comes at you like a freight train, beating your eardrums to a pulp, with any sort of spiritual vision or devotion to self-improvement? Perhaps you have to be willing to surrender yourself to a sonic imperative – so that just you and the music exist – using it as a vehicle for a higher self-understanding. Or you simply enjoy The Mahavishnu Orchestra for what it is: the most exciting development in both jazz and rock in our lifetime.
Walter Kolosky is the author of the acclaimed book about the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Power, Passion and Beauty. His Follow Your Heart studies McLaughlin’s music, song by song, since 1969. Both books have featured on the Berklee College of Music curriculum. Walter is currently working on a project chronicling the band’s tour history. He is also co-host of the popular Jazz Rocks Podcast.
Review II by Ken Trethewey
The Passage of Time
My new friend Alexa is both helpful and voluble on the subject of religion. Clearly, the word can mean different things to different people. One thing seems certain: some of the major religions have been diverted from their course of common humanity by those with ulterior motives, principles of love and peaceful co-existence hijacked into tenets of hate and greed. Whatever its meaning today, religion was a result of our inner desires to understand our place in the grand scheme of things. How did we get here?
For both theists and atheists, capitalism has become the religion par excellence, the ambition to acquire more and more wealth being trumped only by a perpetual dissatisfaction with its unattainability – another form of Chasing the Dragon. In utter contrast to the earth upon which we walk, there is nothing more abstract than money. Once we dealt in gold, its beautiful solidity promoting confidence and satisfaction in those lucky enough to have it. Then the precious metals were debased with nickel and copper, and strange pieces of paper took on a life of their own. Today, as even our coins and banknotes disappear for good, money itself has become digital, as worthless to our souls as the electrons that store it.
So where is all this taking us? Capitalism is leading us farther and farther away from the spiritual undertaking of our ancestors. In past millennia, the Earth’s population lived in a basic and fundamental harmony, appreciative of the roles of the sun, moon and stars, and the fundamental forces of time and tide. The deep wisdom of the ancients enabled them to do great things; the planet was balanced for the future of humankind. That wisdom of our place in Nature has now been lost. Our only hope seems to be escape from the Earth in spaceships constructed by those who have hoovered up much of the planet’s material wealth. In this doom-laden scenario there may yet be hope. As capitalism grinds inexorably towards its catastrophic conclusion, the chances are that people will turn more and more towards religion of one sort or another – perhaps one in which humans are more concerned with their deep beliefs and common ancestry and care for the planet that gave us life.
About 50 years ago, John McLaughlin chose a spiritualist route in preference to a capitalist one and, since then, has never wavered in his decision. At a time in the early 1970s when isolated musical genres were melted in the fusion pot, John was perfectly placed to burn an indelible mark, both within himself and his profession. His creativity was channelled with unparalleled virtuosity through his chosen instrument using the medium of jazz. Then his turn to the East for spiritual guidance proved to be as wise as his desire to immerse himself in music without boundaries.
His decision to form his own band incorporating the name ‘Mahavishnu’, inscrutable to some like me, proved deeply inspired with the passage of time, as did the name he chose for the title of their first album, ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’ (IMF). It was common in those days to hear comments like, ‘I’ve never heard anything like it’. Music itself had at last thrown off the shackles of classification into genres, and there were many innovative approaches from jazz musicians inspired by the likes of Miles Davis. For John, it was Tony Williams who opened doors with his no-rules approach to jazz. Many of those fortunate enough to hear the band Lifetime under Tony’s leadership came away with the stunned admission that they had, indeed, never heard anything like it. More than the impression left by Miles’ ‘Bitches Brew’ album, it was the sound of Tony Williams’ Lifetime that was carried over to the IMF album, with the added ingredients of eastern tonalities. The result was another instance of previously unheard-of sound that would bewitch most of those exposed to it. And in remarkable contrast to many other innovative bands of the time, John’s future groups were destined to carry his unique brand right down to the present day.
John’s selection of his fellow band members was the great enabler. Jerry Goodman’s violin – an instrument that was not generally to be found in jazz at this time – played a big role in achieving that special sound, and the speed with which he accompanies John’s lightning riffs is extraordinary. Jan Hammer was benefiting from the rapid developments in keyboard technology and applying his virtuosity to John’s complex melodic frameworks. Billy Cobham, largely unrecognised as a top flight drummer at this point, would demonstrate just how far ahead of the competition he actually was. Suddenly the world began to realise that anyone who could perform at the intensity and pace demanded by tracks like ‘The Noonward Race’ and ‘Vital Transformation’ must be truly extraordinary. As a result, after IMF, Billy was rewarded by being placed at the very top of his profession by most informed commentators. We must not ignore Rick Laird’s contribution, for the many changes to musicianship were affecting different instruments at different rates. Rick was ahead of his time on electric bass, and another five years needed to elapse before the sound of Jaco Pastorius made a transformational impact on the sound of the electric bass. Bassist Etienne Mbappe’s place in John’s present band is light years away from the sound of Laird’s vital foundations to explosive tracks like ‘Meeting Of The Spirits’ or ‘Awakening’.
The freedom of expression John found at last in his own band, with such astonishing support from his colleagues, is boundless in IMF, where Coltrane’s sheets of sound were now presented on guitar at unimaginable speed. It is as if the spirits themselves are flowing past our ears with the energy of some Caribbean hurricane. Yet the serene calm of ‘A Lotus On Irish Streams’ and ‘You Know, You Know’ are just the eyes of the storms that are to return. For me, there are no favourites. ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’ represents a complete work of sublime art that cannot be subdivided in the way that digital streaming demands. How can today’s listeners achieve the same spiritual reward by hopping randomly through play-lists?
John’s religion linked spirits with flames of enlightenment by means of instrumental music abstracted by the omission of distracting lyrics. This has always been John’s muse and, over the 50 years since that first album, it has continued to offer his listeners a bridge into a beautiful spiritual world where global politics thrust upon us by a new breed of short-sighted oligarchs is irrelevant to life as a citizen of the Universe. We need only remember later album titles like ‘Between Nothingness and Eternity’, ‘My Goal’s Beyond’, ‘A Handful of Beauty’, ‘Natural Elements’, ‘To The One’, and many others, to appreciate the depth of John’s conviction that there is more to life than this world alone.
To eulogise that science denies the possibility of the spiritual world is to deny reality itself, for science is deeply troubled at present. Some 90 per cent of the matter in the Universe is ‘dark’ and unknown. Scientists have resorted to ridiculous ideas like string theory and parallel Universes because they cannot answer the most fundamental questions. They, like us, have become too remote from Nature. To indulge their fantasies, scientists have abused philosophy to underpin capitalism and drive us still further from a full understanding of the meaning of life. Those like McLaughlin with true spiritual insight are far closer to Awakening than atheists, materialists and those with hate in their souls.
This condemned planet, engulfed by capitalism, now works only by the flow of money, a quantity as far removed from Nature as Pluto. The passage of time removes us ever farther, with continuous reduction in our chances of survival, destroyed by climate change, pollution and over-population. Our only hope of evading catastrophe is to rediscover our relationship with Mother Earth and abandon this fruitless contract with wealth creation.
The music of the Indian subcontinent remains today as close to Nature as it ever was. John’s immersion therein, from day one of his fusion career, continues to be translated into music that penetrates our souls and reminds us whenever we listen that John set sail on his true course all those years ago. Undeviated by the world around him, still he invites us to join him with every note of his guitar. The reality is that between nothingness and eternity is just one, time-drenched universe. Our lives are a minuscule part of the passage of time.
Dr Ken Trethewey is a retired marine engineer based in Cornwall. He has written books about corrosion engineering, lighthouses – and jazz. When not pursuing his interest in pharology, Ken operates his own publishing business, Jazz-Fusion Books. As well as Ancient Lighthouses, and Other Lighted Aids to Navigation, published in 2018, Ken is himself a prolific jazz writer, with books on John McLaughlin, jazz-fusion, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, the band Weather Report and the Brecker Brothers. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Review III by James Watson
‘The Inner Mounting Flame’ by the Mahavishnu Orchestra is very aptly named, as the playing on the album from all band members has an intensity and fire which is plain to see from the very first track. Every musician in the band has such mastery over their instruments, which gives a feeling of excitement and awe to the listener. The track listing is: side one – 1. ‘Meeting Of The Spirits’; 2. ‘Dawn’; 3. ‘The Noonward Race’; and 4. ‘A Lotus On Irish Streams’; and side two – 1. ‘Vital Transformation’; 2. ‘The Dance Of Maya’; 3. ‘You Know You Know’’ and 4. ‘Awakening’. In this review I would like to focus on three tracks that particularly stood out for me.
‘Meeting Of The Spirits’ begins with some powerful and sophisticated chords; the overall impression is one of drama and mystery, with prominently guitar, keyboard and drum flourishes. This gives way to a propulsive groove with an Eastern flavour, then a fantastic passionate melody. John McLaughlin then plays some very tasty pentatonic licks over the form with an overdriven distorted tone on his Gibson SG, then the song becomes more reflective for a while. The original motif comes in again with the Eastern flavour, and this structure repeats a few times, building to crescendos and then releasing to more quiet moments. I love this track as the musicians’ interplay seems so organic, and the atmosphere they create is so alive and electric.
‘The Noonward Race’ packs a real punch, and I can hear some influence of Jimi Hendrix on this track. [Jimi and John famously jammed together in the late 1960s – ed.] The first chords sound like ‘Purple Haze’ with a similar rhythm, and at one point Jerry Goodman is given free reign to go wild on the violin, then Jan Hammer plays a solo with a crazy tone on his keyboard at breakneck speed. Then John McLaughlin plays a full-on speedy solo with a distorted guitar tone again, and Billy Cobham’s drumming is a powerhouse of propulsive rhythm throughout.
My third pick for this review, ‘A Lotus On Irish Streams’, has such a beautiful melody reminiscent in places of the Irish folk song ‘Women of Ireland’ by Seán Ó Riada. The wonderful sensitivity of the playing between McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer is very moving, and also the impressive virtuosity cannot be underestimated or unappreciated by the listener. I love the flow of this piece and the sincerity of the performances.
Overall, this record holds many pleasures and is well worth a listen.
James Watson, born in the year of ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’s release, is a classical guitarist who also plays jazz and other musical styles. With solo concerts throughout Europe, he has released seven CDs playing solo classical repertoire, and his own compositions, including collaborations with, for example, saxophonist Patsy Gamble, flamenco guitarist Cuffy and pianist Raymundo Fernandez. James has also appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Petroc Trelowny morning show.
1 This review symposium appears in Self & Society: International Journal for Humanistic Psychology, 49 (2), 2021 – reproduced here with kind permission of the AHPb (www.ahpb.org).