By Jagajivan

(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: June 8, 1972)

Winterland, San Francisco

Personnel: Mahavishnu (John McLaughlin), electric guitar; Jerry Goodman, amplified violin; Jan Hammer, electric piano; Rick Laird, electric bass; Billy Cobham, drums.

Even upon first meeting, players in this echelon are capable of uncanny rapport. Last August, at Greenwich Village's Gaslight, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, together only three weeks, so mesmerized audiences that it immediately was held over. It is only a testament to its mammoth musicianship that in the spring of this year the band did not sound drastically improved, although surely it honed the fine points of shading and interplay. Their first album,The inner Mounting Flame (Columbia), captures the group's genius even though it went down on tape just after the stay at the Gaslight. And primed by the frequent airing of the record and by word-of-mouth reports from back east, the people of the Bay Area were warmly receptive. Mahavishnu commented: "These people are beautiful; they met us right in the center."
The Orchestra appeared after the newly resurrected Blues Project and before Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It felt as though the people were at least as enthusiastic about the Mahavishnu band as about EL&P, the main attraction. Hendrixian histronics (the EL&P organist kept rocking his instrument back and forth, then went behind it, let it topple, and continued playing while pinned under it) seem to have lost their savor. Although EL&P had some "heavy" moments, one sensed that the center of gravity lay in the Mahavishnu Orchestra - to be exact, at Billy Cobham's drum throne. There was no other applause on either evening like that which went out to Cobham, who played with overwhelming passion and power. No doubt he and the others cleared up for many people the distinction between talent and true gift.
Mahavishnu opened: "We would like to dedicate our music to the Supreme Lord, the Supreme Musician," and what followed was straight-on playing. The qualities were starkly apparent: these men are virtuosos, and they are true artists. Whereas so many groups, even if competent, betray a commercial perspective, the Mahavishnu Orchestra conveys the feeling that they have transcended "practical" mundane considerations.
Thus their music was instantly attractive to an audience aware of the "real thing" through exposure to such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and when they played, there was awe in the air at Winterland. On the second of the band's two nights, impressario Bill Graham introduced them with these words: "Once in a while we're able to present really great musicians. And tonight we have five great, great, great musicians - the Mahavishnu Orchestra."
If memory serves, on both nights the Orchestra began their set with Meeting of the Spirits. The piece seemed to be in 12/8, and within each solo there was a build from eerie-peaceful arpeggiated guitar work to a chugging violin pattern to wailing upper-register guitar. In this manner, the intensity went full-circle within each solo, all the way back to the eerie-peacefulness, and the people showed vigorous appreciation of this dramatic touch. Meeting of the Spirits embodied some of the group's most attractive features. The sound coming from the interplay of guitar, violin, and electric piano varied from broiling to lilting. (One might have wished that the Orchestra had spotlighted the latter quality more by doing a piece calling for acoustic guitar, as A Lotus on Irish Streams on their record.)
Mahavishnu, Goodman, and Hammer all soloed with articulate musical and emotional direction and with ingenious use of electrical sound-benders. In particular, Hammer often made his piano lines ring and buzz and break up as though the axe had gone blissfully berserk. Throughout, bassist Laird was rock-solid - a firm foundation never to be taken for granted. (On one later piece he soloed, refreshingly free of the usual "oh-my-God-look-how-fast-he-plays-the-bass!" approach, with simplicity and impact.)
Whether supporting or soloing, drummer Cobham was spellbinding in his fleetness, imagination, and sheer energy.
The repertoire for the two evenings consisted of the aforementioned Meeting, Vital Transformation, Dawn (a melancholy theme alternating with a shuffle - all in seven), Awakening, You Know You Know, The Noonward Race, and an as yet unrecorded piece. The writing, all by Mahavishnu, sounded direct and clear and evoked a breadth of feeling. The odd meters of most of the pieces sometimes conjured a sensation of floating, or - as in the shuffle-seven part ofDawn - of everything being fly-reeled back each time a new bar began.
(At the same time, it would be a pleasure to hear them really lay into some walking four-four once in a while. Mahavishnu has played with Tony Williams and with Miles Davis, Hammer has played with Elvin Jones, and Cobham has played with Davis and Horace Silver. The band can swing if they wanted to.)
On both nights, there were several standing ovations after individual pieces, and, also on both nights - with stamping and clapping and whistling and cries of "MORE!" - the people demanded and got an encore. Mahavishnu told them, "How can we refuse?" After the final note they lavished applause as Mahavishnu introduced the band members, with an extra burst for Cobham.
How beautiful that at last music of this quality is being heard and taken to heart - not just by the few but by the many.