By Michael Bourne

(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: July 1974)

Personnel: John McLaughlin, guitars; Jean-Luc Ponty, violin, baritone violin; Gayle Moran, keyboards; Ralphe Armstrong, bass; Michael Walden, drums; Steve Frankovich, trumpet, fluegelhorn; Bob Knapp, trumpet, flute; Stephen Kindler, Carol Shive, violins; Marsha Westbrook, viola.

The Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

If there hadn't been a Mahavishnu Orchestra before, the debut of John McLaughlin's present Mahavishnu Orchestra might've been a greater event. As it was, the expectations were greater than the music ever could've been.
There were immediate questions, comparisons of the band then and now, of the music then and now. In player-to-player comparisons, the band then was better-but then, the music now isn't the same. It's actually orchestral with the strings and the horns - except that they're not playing music all that orchestral. The sound is different, but it's really what the other Mahavishnu played as a rock band only now being played as a chamber ensemble. And isn't as interesting.
What McLaughlin creates is a music at once simple and complex-a mantra-like simplicity of melody, a mercurial complexity of rhythm. It's lyrically soaring yet rocking. But the band now isn't together enough to play all that. The lyricism is as fervant as ever, but the rocking isn't - and many in the audience were dissappointed. And I don't mean the assholes shouting, "Boogie!" Nor that the band ought to be rocking - I mean they try to rock and they don't.
I hesitate to return to comparisons, but I think the inertia of the concert was due to the band, whether inexperienced or under-rehearsed or whatever. And despite the presence of the horns and the strings, the music is mainly played, as before, by McLaughlin, the violin, and the trio-and they're simply not as great. Jean-Luc Ponty is a great player, but somehow not in this context. Ponty's solos seemed the same every time and he never had the rocking lyricism to equal Jerry Goodman. Gayle Moran has an ethereal voice, but except for an everpresent enchanted smile, I never sensed her presence in the music - unlike the ubiquitous energy of Jan Hammer. Rick Laird vs. Ralphe Armstrong is a closer contest (though it isn't a contest). And overall is the ghost of Billy Cobham. The guitar, drums duets were as prevalent as before, and McLaughlin and Michael Walden inspire each other, but nowhere is that funky ferocity of Cobham - nowhere is that spirit that energized it all.
And therein is the irony. The Mahavishnu Orchestra is a spiritual ensemble, reverent about their music - and yet their playing, though inspired, isn't inspiring. It actually somnolized me.
But, despite all these doubtings, the music is good - or it will be. It isn't what was expected, but that isn't their fault. It's that what McLaughlin is creating seems not so much an evolution into something greater as into something else not yet great. As it were, it's not the apocalypse as advertised, but another inauguration.