THE MAGIC OF MAHAVISHNU

By Mike Bourne


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



The Mahavishnu Orchestra is not, as some might interpret, the John McLaughlin Quintet. The striking singularity of each player in the creative synthesis of the ensemble transcends the usual lead-plus-sidemen locus. But McLaughlin is nonetheless an inspiring figure; he indeed emits the essential energy of the band. After all, the Mahavishnu Orchestra is titled after the holy name given McLaughlin by his guru, Sri Chinmoy. And even more: the music altogether becomes an extension of his life, or rather, is his life itself.
Not that his brother artists exemplify his same Eastern fervor exactly, yet each, individually and in communion with the other (and with the audience) summons the spirit, the Inner Mounting Flame, the fervor that is not simply Eastern but is universal, immediate, and at times tangibly cosmic. And to penetrate McLaughlin himself, even in casual conversation, is to recognize that same direct and intense communion.
"I am not the Creator. The Creator created me!" This is the balance of his faith and the insight into McLaughlin most easily misinterpreted. Before each performance, he dedicates the music to the Supreme Being ("The maker of all music"), and in his playing he seeks the ecstasy of divine inspiration - "Inspiration is the highest ideal!"
Therein is the fulfilling element of his art and his life - because to McLaughlin, life is an assimilation of all experience evolved into an ideal discipline of being. "I am a disciple. Discipline and disciple come from the same root just like ignore and ignorance," and the fruition of his life is to achieve that degree of discipline wherein the Creator will manifest himself. That is, to be inspired is to become the cosmic instrument of God.
Up front, I admit my appreciation of his mystical idealism seems facile and rhapsodic. But it is difficult to verbalize the experience of the person of McLaughlin. As man and artist, he radiates that characteristically awesome presence of the self-determined spirit. Yet at the same time, McLaughlin expresses a rarefied innocence, the illuminating esprit that is beyond explication; it is esthetic, indefinable, yet it is real.
How it is transformed into actual music is thus simple and complicated (at least cosmically). Accepting the Eastern ideal that "the Sound is God", McLaughlin as an instrument of being is inspired, in one sense as if played upon. "If my life is in tune, then I am in tune!" To McLaughlin, the form of music (the notes) is mainly inconsequential; the expression of the music (the sounds) is all.
In response to questions from two guitarists, McLaughlin explained that the structure of his music is determined naturally by the spiritual impetus: "Music is beyond thought!" But in answering my own questions about practical spirituality, about the necessity of technique in the act of playing, McLaughlin proved that his artistry is far more than elevated idealism. "Spirituality is worthless if it isn't practical! Music is my work. I am a musician!"
As such, his virtuosity on the guitar becomes an integral element in his discipline of being; it is the necessary capacity to perform the inspiration. And given the intensity of his inspiration, the technical capacity of McLaughlin is truly phenomenal. His speed, stamina, profound lyricism and his very presence in sound - all of this is wrought through his sublime mastery of the guitar. Yet the true force of his music is divine, and believably so - an experience of pleasure and energy, and yet sincere and exhilarating worship as well.
Ironically, McLaughlin didn't know the word "kinetic" when I applied it to his music. Yet it is undeniably kinetic - in constant motion and throughtout the band - in the ever-explosive drumming of Billy Cobham and the boisterous joy of pianist Jan Hammer especially, but above all in the mystical figure of McLaughlin.
"I want to move people", he concluded - and in the brilliance of his inspiration and the absolute virtuosity of his instruments (his guitars and himself), John McLaughlin proves his ideals with that zeal that in the Western holy-roller tradition is usually adjectivized as "righteous!"