Starting somewhere in the mid-1970s, the word fusion had its definition severely distorted. Earlier, fusion could be used neutrally to describe any musical match - the provocative 1950s Third-Stream confluence of classical music and jazz championed by Gunther Schuller and John Lewis, for instance, or John Coltrane's towering, anguished 1960s appropriations of Indian and Middle Eastern sounds, or the Adderley brothers' easy-grooving, pop-charting soul-jazz. Now, for the last decade or so, we've been inundated with sounds from literally around the globe that are reacting to the 30-year floodtide of American rock by taking its basic electric-instrument premises and infusing them with local beats and instruments, indigenous cultural heritages and approaches. But virtually nobody wants to - or dares to - describe the many and various cross-pollinated results as fusion.

Why? Fusion is a dirty word, almost an unword. And this despite the fact that fusion is simpler and more accurately descriptive than some mealy-mouthed coinage like "world-beat". But it just goes to show once again (thanks, Mr. Orwell!) how a word can crystallize powerful misperceptions, then flatten and distort our understanding of history and culture. Fusion has become a dirty word because of the 1970s jazz-rock hybrid it got pasted onto, and is practically unusable in any other context.

Jazz purists then - like their descendants today - managed to forget that the music they so dearly love itself started and continues only as a hybridization of sounds, so for them the idea of welding rock beats and electronics to jazz's improvisational ways was the equivalent of scrawling a crayon mustache on the Mona Lisa. But they were a minority if an authoritative and vocal one. For others - especially younger folks getting turned onto jazzers because they showed up the venues like The Fillmore East and West alongside rock heroes - fusion started out as something almost self-evident and positive. After all, rockers, especially in San Francisco, had exploded AM radio's three-minute song requirements, and over their backbeats were exploring extended free-form jams that drew on jazz models, especially Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Wherever you put the beginnings of jazz-rock fusion - Miles Davis' Bitches Brew is the usually cited departure point, but it's easy enough to argue in favor of In A Silent Way or Cream's Wheels Of Fire or Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland - one thing is clear enough: the musical omalgam that flowed from those fountainheads was soon transformed into a morass of self-indulgence and abuse. Legions of trendoids and wannabes swarmed into the openings created by the original pioneers, thumped their chests, strapped on their axes, and let their fingers do the running while their brains idled. No surprise that it didn't take long for this new musical language to shrink to a predictably boring set of cliches: endless and flatulent solos, flat-looted rhythms, and general all-around egotism that was about a musically stimulating as a shark's belch. And no wonder the term fusion functions almost as a blanket putdown of a period and style better forgotten, or at least overlooked.

And yet, like Miles' On The Corner or Pangaea, or Weather Report's first album, or Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters, The Mahavishnu Orchestra's recordings remind us that it shouldn't. For if there was ever an offbeat blend of influences that deserved to be called fusion, it's the musical grab bag guitarist/composer Mahavishnu John McLaughlin has dipped his magic fingers into time and again. When applied to him, the word eclectic becomes an understatement, as even a quick glance at his background reveals.

It's astonishing when you consider how radically he's redefined his instrument, and it's almost unbelievable in these days when music-school diplomas are handed out like lottery tickets, but John McLaughlin, born in Yorkshire, England, in 1942, is largely self-taught. Being born into a family of musicians helped: as a child he listened to classical music and studied some piano and violin (his mother was a violinist). But fusion began early for the youngster, who was also hearing the American bluesmen, like Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly, then in vogue in the U.K., especially among folk musicians. Taught a handful of guitar chords by one of his brothers, the 11-year-old McLaughlin set out to duplicate what he heard.

Only a couple of years later, the fiercely yearning attack of flamenco attracted him; he would later say that the passion, the naked emotional impact, is what grabbed his blues-educated ears. Probably inevitably, his next find - at 14 - was the merry-abandon-meets-gypsy-melancholy of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. The immediate impact of their fiercely lilting, daredevil loop-de-loops captivated the boy so completely that he took up the pick for the first time, hoping to duplicate Django's jagged, skittering attack.

From there on, McLaughlin's musical education flowed like concentric ripples from a stone dropped into the middle of a pond. By age 16 he was sitting in with jazz bands; at the same time, he was digging into a broad cross-section of greats that included Charlie Parker and Tal Farlow, Charles Mingus, and Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. Soon, he's discovered and started mimicking the inimitably lyrical trumpet of his future employer, Miles Dewey Davis III. But the man who burned into his guts was John Coltrane, whose bristling tenor often sounded, especially on the privotal Miles albums Milestones and Kind Of Blue, as if he were trying to squeeze out several lines at once. Floored as he was by Trane's sound, it wasn't until he was 21 that McLaughlin felt he really understood what the dynamic sax great was up to well enough to translating it to the guitar. (As an aside, it's worth noting Trane's enormous impact on other key jazz-rock guitarists, like Bill Connors and Allan Holdsworth.)

The budding axslinger soon got the chance to apply what he'd learned from his self-imposed studies. In 1963 he was in London, where he hooked up with the Graham Bond Organization, one of the seminal English bands of the time. Like Yardbirds or John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the Bond group's family tree looks like a genealogy of late '60s rock and roll. So it's not surprising that McLaughlin's bandmates included bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, who a scant few years later would join Eric Clapton in Cream.

Bond developed McLaughlin's interests in other vital directions as well, especially by introducing him to a batch of books on occult phenomena and beliefs. His mind opened in this spiritual direction for the first time, McLaughlin joined the Theosophical Society and devoured Eastern philosophic thought while beginning to practice yoga. Not surprisingly he also discovered ragas, those complexly organized systems of composition and improvisation, and their most famous master, sitarist Ravi Shankar. Soon he was struggling with the vina, an Indian stringed instrument with movable frets and a resonating gourd that he thought might be better equipped than the guitar to yield the flowing lines he loved in Miles and Trane. (Later, inspired by the vina, he'd design his own idiosyncratic guitars, with scalloped fingerboards and extra strings.)

London, then as now, was a small town, musically speaking. Everybody knew everybody else and played in a handful of clubs, like Ronnie Scott's and The Flamingo All-Nighter, where McLaughlin, as a member of Georgie Fame's Blue Flames, worked the same stage that Alexis Korner, the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Clapton, and countless others had. In the late 1960s, McLaughlin shared a flat with a rising young jazz bassist named Dave Holland; at one point an American drummer pal of Holland's, Jack DeJohnette, jammed with the roommates. Normal player-type business, right? But history's coiled workings sometimes turn the run-of-the-mill into something wild.

For not long after that jam, Holland was asked to join the band of McLaughlin's idol Miles Davis, and told drummer Tony Williams, who was looking to start his own group, about his ex-roomie. Now, it happens that the guitarist had been poring over Miles Davis At Carnegie Hall largely because of an amazing young drummer named Tony Williams. If those aren't enough fateful coincidences for you, DeJohnette had returned to the States at about that time; when his friend Williams mentioned McLaughlin, DeJohnette played him the tape he'd made of the session. So, in November 1968, Williams called the London guitarist and asked him to come to the U.S. and join his band. Within two days of his arrival in early 1969, McLaughlin was recording with Williams' boss (In A Silent Way) and jamming with one of the main inspirations gooding Miles toward electric music, Jimi Hendrix.

Out of the tumult emerged Tony Williams' Lifetime. At first, a kind of crazily updated organ trio with keyboard great Larry Young, Lifetime became a quartet about a year later when McLaughlin's old musical sparring partner, Jack Bruce, signed on. The band wormed its way so deep under the guitarist's skin that he actually turned down the chance he'd spent half his life dreaming of, when Miles asked him to join his lineup. (After Bitches Brew, which he played on, McLaughlin did do some live gigs with Miles, where he met drummer Billy Cobham.)

It was during his Lifetime stint that McLaughlin became a disciple of Sri Chinmoy and adopted the name Maha (the creator) Vishnu (the preserver). When the Lifetime finally fractured in 1970, thanks to bad handling and business problems, McLaughlin headed into the studio with Young and Hendrix Band of Gypsys drummer Buddy Miles to cut Devotion. A year later, he picked up his acoustic guitar and joined Cobham and violinist Jerry Goodman for the Indian-drenched My Goal's Beyond.

Beyond was, as things turned out, an embryonic statement. By 1972 the group added keyboard whiz Jan Hammer, who'd been backing Sarah Vaughan, and bassist Rick Laird, with whom the 18-year-old McLaughlin had played in a guitar-bass-baritone trio years before. After two weeks of rehearsal, the Mahavishnu Orchestra settled into a long residency at New York's Gaslight Club and waxed The Inner Mounting Flame. That album's bristling, ferocious combination of sheer spirituality and physical firestorms dropped the jaws of critics and fans alike, as did its no-less terrorizing followups, Birds Of Fire and the live Between Nothingness And Eternity.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra soon blew apart because of business and personal problems that McLaughlin has characterized as "a lack of mutual spiritual consciousness, a continuous tension". His own continuous musical probing led him to link up with fellow Chinmoy follower Devadip Carlos Santana for their 1973 effort, Love Devotion Surrender.

Within a few months, McLaughlin reformed the Mahavishnu Orchestra with different personnel, key among them violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and percussionist Michael (now producer Narada Michael) Walden. In 1974, that lineup expanded to attempt one of the braver, more thoughtful fusions of the time, when they joined producer George Martin, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and the London Symphony Orchestra to record Apocalypse.

From the gently dissonant piano chords opening the leadoff cut, "Power Of Love", you know you're entering a different world; as Ponty's wah-wah fiddle skates over the orchestra's gradual, primal stretching and awakening, you begin to sense that McLaughlin is, as ever, serious. Certainly the experiment-couching a smaller improvising unit within a larger, scripted, classically oriented context-hearkens back to Third-Stream ideas. Equally certainly, meshing classical music with contemporary sounds was something very much in vogue at the time. Producer Martin, after all, made his name partly by importing classicisms into the Beatles' music, the Siegal-Schwall Blues Band had performed with Arthur Fiedler's Boston Pops, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer had saturated radio with their unconsciously kitschy versions of classical chestnuts.

But, as you'd expect from McLaughlin's own rich and variegated musical background, Apocalypse is more complex than dropping a baroque trumpet flourish into "Penny Lane" or putting rock drums to a 19th century tone poem. One line from the Sri Chinmoy poem that gave the album its title indicates how the guitarist-composer was seizing this chance to, in a sense, tie together his studies, ambitions, and ideas: "In joyful sweep I loose forth and draw back all". It's as if McLaughlin had decided to use his musical life, from the early classical training on, as the canvas for this album.

So "Vision Is A Naked Sword" opens with a bluesy guitar figure that gradually speeds up and explodes into a hurtling Trane-ish solo over a Milesian modal backing; rock licks flicker and flame around the edges. "Smile Of The Beyond" starts as a kind of art-song, then shifts gears into rock with throaty guitar overdrive, hardscrabbling fiddle, burbling bass runs, and fierce beats punctuated by slower orchestral washes.

Nor are the rest of McLaughlin's grab-bag influences ignored. The nasally oriental oboe snaking through the beginning of "Wings Of Karma" leads into a section that proves that the composer (aided by orchestrator Michael Gibbs) has some very clear ideas about how he wants to use that mammoth instrument called symphony orchestra. No mere drones or soaring- string backdrops, the symphonic sections work as music in their own right, and are integrated as well or better with the electric band than most other efforts along these potentially slippery lines. McLaughlin's guitar aches and moans and spits Hendrixy fire while his loose-limbed band and the orchestra's shifting textures create kaleidoscopes. And what could be less predictably formatted than the loping, mid-tempo, funk kickoff, "Hymn To Him"?

Apocalypse marked the end of an era - for McLaughlin himself, and for the music in general. Soon after the album came out, he wrapped himself in brilliant Indian musicians and the acoustic guitar to form Shakti, while all around him the jazz-rock fusion epigones were missing the point, focusing their energies on how to play faster, and louder, and longer. In that way, they're a lot like the metalheads of our own day, who think invoking Yngwie Malmsteen and Paganini is enough to excuse their own excesses, their own lack of creative shaping or taste.

McLaughlin, by contrast, plays from the heart but never abandons what he, like any good musician, worked so hard to find: a unique voice of his own that speaks from his deepest concerns in a language that's accessible to anyone willing to take some time to listen. Which is why McLaughlin could - and did - reshape the conception of his instrument through his astonishingly agile, endlessly inventive playing, and the conception of the music itself through his probing, unsimplistic writing. He is, in any language, a master.

by Gene Santoro
Album Info