Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection

The collected works of Mahavishnu Mk1, with extra live goodness.

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Back in the day it looked like there was no stopping the Mahavishnu Orchestra. They had the juice, the chops, the can-do philosophy. Above all they had the velocity to catapult them from a New York rehearsal loft in the spring of 1971 and out onto the worldwide stage. Cue best-selling albums and concerts at packed auditoriums, where they’d cause legions of unsuspecting rock fans’ heads to explode with their heat-seeking virtuosity.

As thrilling as that speed undoubtedly was, it also shook the band apart. The story goes that in September 1973 John McLaughlin, Rick Laird, Jerry Goodman, Jan Hammer and Billy Cobham were on a long-haul flight to Tokyo. In-flight reading for McLaughlin included a preview copy of Crawdaddy magazine, to whom he’d given an interview a few weeks earlier. Unbeknownst to him so had the rest of the band, venting their frustrations at being perceived as playing second fiddle to their white-clad leader in public. Following some verbal turbulence on the remainder of the flight, they discharged their contractual obligations, coming to an abrupt halt three months later.

With just two studio recordings and one live album released during their short lifetime, their output was scant. Yet such is their monumental presence, when The Lost Trident Sessions was eventually, posthumously, issued in 1999 it went into the top five of the Billboard Jazz Album chart. Bill Milkowski’s insightful essay from that release is sadly missing here. Featuring only the scantiest of introductory notes The Complete Columbia Albums Collection brings together that incarnation’s five discs, all in attractively sturdy card sleeves with neatly-replicated original artwork.

Most MahaHeads will already own the original run of albums, so it’s the inclusion of previously unreleased live material that will be the major lure on this set (which’ll only set you back around £20). Tacked onto the end of The Inner Mounting Flame is a 15-minute version of Noonward Race. As good as the frantic studio version is, this one, recorded at the Mar Y Sol festival in Puerto Rico (with The Allman Brothers, Dr John and ELP also on the bill) knocks the ball clean into the stratosphere.

The furious live renditions of material drawn from Mounting Flame were originally intended for inclusion as a second disc for Between Nothingness And Eternity, but were fated to gather dust for the next 40 years. These occasionally reveal the band only just in control of the precariously twisting energies they routinely unleashed.

Being in a group that pushes exceptional musicianship almost as far as it’s humanly possible to go creates at least two major problems: the amount of energy required to feed the beast in creative and personal resources is simply colossal, and, once you’ve broken the sound barrier and turned everything up to 11, where next? Their solution was to increasingly punctuate the set with extended solo spots. Given the gale-force pace, these act as a breather for band and audience alike.

An oft-repeated criticism of jazz rock is that its appeal is largely cerebral. Yet the gut-wrenching physicality of their performance here is hard to ignore. Bassist Rick Laird famously described being on stage with the band as akin to being in front of a 747 and the rapid momentum. The roar of Vital Transformation or the atomising blast of a truly searing Awakening (including a cheeky quote from Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson) certainly bears this out. However, as welcome as this live material is, one can’t help but feel that there’s a redundancy in reissuing albums already available, and this might be a missed opportunity on Sony’s part. A properly curated set of in-concert recordings, including the now-legendary April 1972 concert in Ohio (frequently bootlegged as Wild Strings), certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

Due to the festering distrust and enmity in the camp, such an idea would’ve been impossible in the past. Now, given the passage of time and a rapprochement between the different factions, and the esteem with which the band is regarded with both jazz and rock audiences, such a release is surely long overdue.

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.