Mahavishnu Orchestra Audio Rarities
While it would be an exaggeration to suggest that a wealth of unrecorded compositions was aired in concert during the brief careers of both the first (1971-73) and second (1974-75) Mahavishnu Orchestras, the diligent student of ‘recordings of independent origin’ will certainly find a few extemporisations within long stage workouts of other tunes which might conceivably have morphed into stand-alone compositions had there been time. Click on the titled examples below to hear some of this music.
The First Mahavishnu Orchestra: MO1 (1971-73)
John McLaughlin (guitar), Jerry Goodman (violin), Jan Hammer (keys), Rick Laird (bass), Billy Cobham (drums)
Both ‘Resolution’, which emerged out of a coda to ‘One Word’, and ‘Dream’, which began tentatively as a 10 minute stand-alone number in late 1971 before being resurrected as an extension of ‘Noonward Race’ in 1972 and then re- emerging a year later in the 20-minute form we now know it, could be said to have reached their final form via the midwifery of other compositions.
We could add to this Jan Hammer’s ‘Full Moon Boogie’, recorded commercially on his Like Children LP with Jerry Goodman in 1974, which began life as a solo spot within late ’73 stage versions of ‘Awakening’.
Indeed, by late ’73, as the first Mahavishnu Orchestra was hurtling towards its cumular limit, ‘Awakening’ could be described as the Mother Of All Musical Midwives, stretching out up to half an hour on occasion and incorporating numerous solo, duo and ensemble sections within it which really bore no relation to the host piece.
Here are three examples of essentially stand-alone John McLaughlin themes found within onstage versions of ‘Awakening’ – pretty much John McLaughlin/Billy Cobham duets.
We’ll call the first ‘Spanish Theme’. This version was recorded at Yale University, 28/10/73, and is surely the closest we have to an otherwise unrecorded John McLaughlin ‘composition’ – as opposed to improvisation – from the Mahavishnu era, as he would, uniquely, revisit the theme during 1974 concerts by the ‘second Mahavishnu Orchestra’.
The next fragment we’ll call ‘Miami Riff’. Recorded at Miami University, 24/11/73, it’s a relatively rare example of John coming up with a straightforward, thuggish rock riff, somewhat akin to the sort of thing Mountain’s Leslie West would do during half-hour versions of ‘Nantucket Sleighride’.
This final example of John and Billy going off on a tangent from ‘Awakening’ was recorded at MO1’s third-from-last-ever concert, and final New York concert, at Avery Fisher Hall, 28/12/73. We’ll call it ‘New York Swansong’.
The Second Mahavishnu Orchestra: MO2 (1974-75)
February – August 1974 personnel:
John McLaughlin (guitar), Jean-Luc Ponty (electric violin), Gayle Moran (voice/keys), Ralphe Armstrong (bass), Michael Walden (drums), Steve Franckevich (trumpet, flugelhorn), Bob Knapp (trumpet, flute), Steve Kindler (first violin), Carol Shive (second violin), Marsha Westbrook (viola), Phil Hirschi (cello)
Many themes and extemporisations from within the long pieces from the Apocalypse album (recorded in March 1974) performed onstage by the second Mahavishnu Orchestra during 1974 would eventually become stand-alone pieces on the next album, Visions Of The Emerald Beyond (recorded in December 1974). ‘Opus 1’, ‘Pastoral’, ‘Pegasus’ and ‘On The Way Home To Earth’ all began in this way.
Both the string section and brass section were allowed, by John, to incorporate short written sections into the stage performances. This example, recorded at what would appear to be trumpeter Steve Franckevich’s final show with the band, at Wichita, 8/8/74, gives us the otherwise unrecorded scored trumpet duet followed by solos from both Steve and Bob Knapp, followed by a reprise of the ‘Spanish Theme’ first essayed in late period MO1 concerts. We’ll call it ‘Wichita Brass/Spanish Theme’.
Often during 1974 concert performances, John would have fun interpolating up to a minute or so of Derek & The Dominos’ ‘Layla’ into duals with Jean-Luc Ponty. During the MO1 era he often quoted from the same song, as well as from a couple of Beatles’ songs and Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’.
Periodically, John (or others) would write new parts for use within certain MO2 pieces. As mentioned above, 1974 performances of Apocalypse material often include short, written string and brass interludes which were never officially recorded, while 1975 versions of ‘Vision Is A Naked Sword’ (the Apocalypse number which remained longest in the stage repertoire) appeared to include new string parts. Steve Franckevich left in August 1974; violist Marsha Westbrook in November 1974; and vocalist/keyboardist Gayle Moran called it a day just after the December 1974 sessions for Visions Of The Emerald Beyond, without performing any of it onstage. Jean-Luc Ponty would leave immediately after a January-February tour of Europe.
January – February 1975 Personnel:
John McLaughlin (guitar), Jean-Luc Ponty (electric violin, keys), Ralphe Armstrong (bass), Michael Walden (drums), Russell Tubbs (soprano saxophone, keys), Bob Knapp (trumpet, flute, keys), Steve Kindler (first violin), Carol Shive (second violin/voice), Phil Hirschi (cello)
The changes and rearrangements in the line-up, with Carol Shive handling Gayle’s vocal parts and various members (Jean-Luc Ponty, Russell Tubbs, Bob Knapp) doubling on keyboard parts – along with the extensive change in repertoire to debut many of the Visions Of The Emerald Beyond pieces - made the January-February European tour a unique experience and a potential treasure trove of rearranged and rare music. Alas, only two and a half concert recordings are known from the tour: Croydon, Stockholm and Copenhagen. This consequently rare version of ‘If I Could See’ with Carol Shive on vocal comes from Stockholm, 7/2/75, and segues into an exciting rearrangement of ‘Be Happy’ – introduced as a slow funk number with new brass parts before hitting the high-speed groove of the album arrangement, and finding space to allow new member Russell Tubbs to shine on soprano sax. Here then is the rare live arrangement of ‘If I Could See/Be Happy’.
March - June 1975 Personnel:
John McLaughlin (guitar), Steve Kindler (electric violin), Stu Goldberg (keys), Ralphe Armstrong (bass), Michael Walden (drums), Russell Tubbs (saxophones), Norma Jean Bell (saxophones, voice) Carol Shive (first violin), Phil Hirschi (cello)
Following the European tour Bob Knapp was let go with keyboard virtuoso Stu Goldberg and Detroit funkster Norma Jean Bell arriving, completing a significant transformation of the band from the funk-tinged symphonic outfit of 1974 to a more obviously funk/rock ensemble, with a wind section rather than brass section and only the vestige of a string section left. Barring a handful of dates in March, this version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra existed solely for the duration of a long tour across America as a double Bill with Jeff Beck, who had just released his career-defining first instrumental album Blow By Blow.
A couple of exciting re-arrangements of MO repertoire were aired during this tour. John added a blistering cadenza to ‘Eternity’s Breath’, which opened the MO set, and wrote a dramatic horn fanfare part for saxophonists Russell Tubbs and Norma-Jean Bell. Here is a performance of the re-arranged ‘Eternity’s Breath’ from Boston, 3/5/75.
Towards the end of 1974, reviews of MO2 shows reveal that a couple of MO1 tunes were tried onstage for the first time, including ‘You Know, You Know’. By the January-February European tour this had been excitingly rearranged at two or three times the original speed and by the time of the Beck tour it allowed short, sharp improvisational moments for all the frontline players in the band. Here is ‘You Know, You Know’ from Boston, 3/5/75.
During the MO2/Jeff Beck tour each act would take it in turns night by night as to who opened the show. Whenever Jeff’s band closed the show either John or the whole core of MO2 (Steve, Stu, Ralphe, Michael) would join Jeff’s quartet for a jam at the end. This recording of Stanley Clarke’s ‘Power’ from Milwaukee, 10/5/73, features just John joining the Beckmeister.
The Third Mahavishnu Orchestra: MO3 (1975)
July - November 1975 Personnel:
John McLaughlin (guitar), Stu Goldberg (keys), Ralphe Armstrong (bass), Michael Walden (drums),
After the Beck tour it was all change in the MO camp. The result was essentially a whole new band, and their first activity was going to France to record a new album, Inner Worlds, followed immediately by a month-long tour of Europe with a host of other bands (Caravan, Soft Machine, Wishbone Ash, Climax Blues Band) billed as ‘Star Truckin’ 75’. Almost no MO2 repertoire was ever performed onstage by this quartet: instead, MO3 resurrected a lot of MO1 repertoire and included onstage three or four new pieces from Inner Worlds (which would not be released until early 1976, by which time the MO in any form was defunct).
A great deal of pretty wild improvising went on during the MO3 era. It doesn’t seem to me that much of this could be said to resemble the germ of any stand-alone composition. Occasionally, John would perform lengthy cadenzas to pieces and this one, from ‘the French Woodstock’ – a three day festival at a Roman amphitheatre at Orange, a tiny village in the south of France, recorded around 3am or 4am on the final night, 17/8/75 – is a fun example, including an improvisation of ‘Happy Birthday’. Presumably it was someone’s birthday…
Audience recordings of many of the ‘Star Truckin’ 75’ MO performances exist, consisting of solely MO1 and MO3 material and rather indulgent jams. However, the final night of the MO’s involvement in the tour, at Vienna, 29/8/75, was broadcast on local FM radio and was remarkable in not only being a tighter performance all round but in including a lot of unusual repertoire.
Vienna, uniquely, includes the only known performance by any version of the MO of ‘A Love Supreme’ (from the 1973 McLaughlin/Santana LP Love, Devotion, Surrender); a very rare performance of ‘Be Happy’ (from MO2’s Visions Of The Emerald Beyond, and aside from this concert only performed during the sparsely-documented Jan-Feb 1975 European tour ) bookended by playful quotes from the Viennese waltz tradition and Mendelsohn’s ‘Hebrides Overture’; and, most remarkably, the only known performance by any MO line-up of ‘Faith’ (from MO2’s Visions Of The Emerald Beyond). One can only assume the band felt like having some fun that night and pulled a few unlikely suspects out of the bag. This means, incidentally, that the only track from Visions Of The Emerald Beyond which cannot be shown to have been performed onstage by any version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra is the Michael Walden vocal feature ‘Earth Ship’. Finally, from that remarkable Vienna concert, comes a funk extemporisation: ‘Vienna Funk’.
The final performance by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, in any guise, seems to have been at Toledo University, 29/11/75. John often used a funk jam as a vehicle to introduce band members during 1974-75; at Toledo, a jam on a blues structure provided the vehicle for this. Here then is ‘Toledo Blues’, up to the point where John decides to restart it and introduce the band.
Finally, and also from Toledo, here is a solo John McLaughlin performance of ‘My Foolish Heart’. He also performed as a solo number during the 9-piece group’s Beck tour, and would eventually record it on Electric Guitarist (1978).
The concerts described above are all circulating already. Here’s a download of all 15 tracks in chronological order. No mastering or restoration has been applied.
Download 1: Mahavishnu Orchestra Rarities 1973-75
1. Spanish Theme (Yale University, 28/10/73)
2. Miami Riff (Miami University, 24/11/73)
3. New York Swansong (New York, 28/12/73)
4. Wichita Brass / Spanish Theme (Wichita, 8/8/74)
5. If I Could See / Be Happy (Carol Shive vocal - Stockholm, 7/2/75)
6. Eternity’s Breath Part 1 (New brass arrangement - Boston, 3/5/75)
7. You Know, You Know (New arrangement - Boston, 3/5/75)
8. Power (John with Jeff Beck - Milwaukee, 10/5/73)
9. Happy Birthday (Orange, 17/8/75)
10. A Love Supreme (Vienna, 29/8/75)
11. Faith (Vienna, 29/8/75)
12. Be Happy (Vienna, 29/5/75)
13. Vienna Funk (Vienna, 29/5/75)
14. Toledo Blues (Toledo University, 29/11/75)
15. My Foolish Heart (Toledo University, 29/11/75)
The European tour during January-February 1975 remains a regrettably dark corner of the MO’s live adventures. Only three ‘recordings of independent origin’ are known – Croydon, Copenhagen and Stockholm – and, of these, only Stockholm appears easily available/widely circulating. I’ve been unable to source the Copenhagen show (only 40 minutes of which, I understand, exists) but I had a cassette copy of the Croydon show (the first date in the tour), acquired in the mid ‘80s. My friend Cormac O’Kane, a professional producer/engineer with significant mastering and audio restoration experience, has applied his skills (for a modest fee) towards getting the best out of the recording – of what was widely reviewed at the time as being a show with sound problems – and I’m happy to make the results freely available here:
Download 2: Croydon, 19/1/75
1. Eternity’s Breath Part 1 (4:40) / Part 2 (9:41)
2. Lila’s Dance (11:00)
3. Vision Is A Naked Sword (18:48) - part 1 [tape cuts out]
4. Vision Is A Naked Sword (17.47) - part 2
a. Pegasus [0.00 - 5.50]
b. Opus 1 [5.50 - 6.15]
c. Guitar Solo [6.15 - 15.15]
d. Outro [15.15 - 17.47]
5. Band Intros (3.14)
6. Cosmic Strut (0.36) [incomplete]
7. Sanctuary (14.52)
8. Can’t Stand Your Funk (7.41)
9. Smile Of The Beyond (2.50) [incomplete]
From the same batch of cassettes acquired in the mid ‘80s there appeared to be one other MO show not readily available in the digital era, the only MO3 performance in Britain. Again, with Cormac O’Kane’s sound wizardry, here it is:
Download 3: Reading Festival, 24/8/75
1. Meeting Of The Spirits (8:19)
2. Dawn (10:41)
3. Band Intro Jam (4:40)
4. Open Country Joy (8:00)
5. Sanctuary (8:27)
6. You Know, You Know (3:45)
7. One Word / Funk Jam (18:00)
And finally, also benefitting from Cormac’s restoration, here is the Stockholm 7/2/75 show, seemingly from a local FM broadcast, though only circulating in a rather imperfect copy. If Sony/Columbia were ever to set their will and resources towards enhancing the MO2/MO3 catalogue, one would hope they might endeavour to secure the various European FM recordings that may still exist at source (in France, Sweden and Austria).
Download 4: Stockholm, 7/2/75
1. Eternity’s Breath Part 1
2. Eternity’s Breath Part 2
3. You Know, You Know
5. Band Intro Jam
6. If I Could See / Be Happy
7. Cosmic Strut
8. Vision Is A Naked Sword [incomplete]