First The facts; The Mahavishnu Orchestra (from here on in The MO) exploded onto the fusion scene in the early 1970s, leaving shock waves that were, and perhaps still are being felt even now, over 35 years later. They played with a speed, volume and intensity the likes of which had not been seen before. The chemistry (initially) was right and the timing was spot on. They could only take off vertically from the word go. They became the first rock stars of jazz, playing to audience numbers that were the reserve of a rock outfit.
The first line up included one Billy Cobham on drums. He was fresh out of the traps with his work with Horace Silver. Billy and MO founder John McLaughlin met in NY and had both appeared on the famous Miles Davis Bitches Brew sessions.
The foundation of any good band is a great drummer, in this instance Billy was the foundation a superlative band, so it's difficult to find a sufficient word to describe his playing. Let's keep to the facts however; he played at breakneck speed in time signatures that people STILL argue about, at volumes that defy belief, but at the same time he made the music swing. In a world where so much modern music is in 4/4 or 3/4 time, 7/8, 9/8, 11/8 et al don't come naturally to most players. To give you an idea of the intensity (that word again) of his playing, he managed to break a bass drum skin whilst playing. That, ladies and gentlemen takes an impact that beggars belief.
As with all bright shooting stars, they faded quickly and the MO were no exception. Internal wrangles on writing credits (McLaughlin was the sole credit initially) plus the sheer workload all took their toll. After 3 albums the first, and definitive lineup passed into fusion history. The various members' reputations were, however, set. Cobham immediately launched into a solo career that sees him globe-trotting to this day.
Fast forward to this album that contains the playing of Billy Cobham himself. This single fact will raise the interest (and hope) levels of anyone who might wish to return to those heady days over 35 years ago. This is MO set to the big band, so there is no risk of disappointment in relation to any comparisons between the original musicians and a new line up of new whizz kid electric players. Big Band music is a genre apart, with it's own rules, and in this sense it would be fair to give the idea a chance. To be fair, the sleeve notes say this, so the creators themselves immediately hold their hands up and say that the idea is a bit off the wall. With all this in mind, I asked for this CD as a present. When it arrived my feelings were mostly curiosity, tinged with the hope that once again some magic may be burned into the CD.
The live recording is excellent, the mix is superb and the sound is marvellous. All the old tunes are there and you recognise them but find them difficult to place them in the big band context. Gone are Jerry Goodman's lyrical violin lines and Jan Hammer's keyboards. Here we have glass cutting brass and ever present electric guitar. Listening to this music is like meeting a TV presenter in the flesh in an airport; at first you know that you know them but you can't immediately place or name them, but you are convinced that you know them.
Two or three tracks in and it starts to dawn on you that you are waiting for something profound to happen that never does; Billy still commands the band as only he can (and he was there at the inception, remember, so who better on the drum stool?). But I have to say that in the big band set up there are better big band drummers who might have actually made a better job, absurd as it seems.
You reach the end and the ride has been pleasant enough but you are still hungry. It pains me to say it, because I wanted this album to move me.
Now, I talk as an MO fan. What would a person make of it as the first MO listening experience? Again, I am sorry to say that I would say buy the originals, perhaps moving to this CD after. For the above reasons I don't think it stands alone as a big band CD in it's own right. There are others that will lift you higher and further.
I hope that you have made it this far with me. I have written much more than I anticipated but even now, so many years on it is testament to the MO that people still have the music in their hearts. This, in the end, will always taint any new interpretation, even with the right credentials, as this disc has.