The late 60s and early 70s saw an unprecedented influx of new and genre-busting ideas in the music scene whose repercussions (literally) are still being felt today. From the bossa nova cum pop/rock stylings of Sergio Mendes, whose immense popularity presaged today's ubiquitous "World Music" scene to the newly electrified bands of Miles Davis, who pointed the way to the nascent jazz fusion movement, that era's major league players defined whole new niches in formerly fairly cut and dried formulas. And no one was more innovative than guitar master John McLaughlin, whose Mahavishnu Orchestra managed to appeal to both the intelligentsia, with their jazz leanings, and the more down to earth rock fans, who were just as likely to be listening to Zeppelin. Along with Chick Corea's Return to Forever, the original incarnation of Weather Report and, to a lesser extent, Frank Zappa (lesser if only because of his purely symphonic ambitions, which sadly failed to find a large audience), the 70s version of Mahavishnu created a blend of rock, jazz and world elements that had simply not been heard before and has rarely been equalled since.
This stellar 2 DVD set features two concerts 10 years apart, 1984 and 1974, with two different versions of Mahavishnu. The 1984 version (and longer of the two concerts) is anchored by McLaughlin on both guitar and Synclavier (a synthesizer attached to a guitar) and incredible saxman Bill Evans (not the legendary jazz pianist, though this Bill certainly does no disservice to the patina associated with his same named compatriot). Whether romping through the funk-inflected "Radio Activity" or serenely beautiful ballads like "Clarendon Hills," the interplay between Evans and McLaughlin is simply awe-inspiring.
After Mahavishnu's initial success in the early 70s, McLaughlin became an even more avid student of Indian music and formed the largely acoustic band Shakti. That Indian influence is abundantly on display in the 1984 Mahavishnu Orchestra (not that it was absent in earlier incarnations of the band). McLaughlin's raga-like solos simply flow off of his fingers as if he were channeling Ravi Shankar on speed (and he of course played with Shankar, obviously learning well from the master).
The rest of the 1984 band is similarly excellent, if not always featured as extensively as Evans. Mitchell Forman's keyboards, Jonas Hellborg's bass and Danny Gottlieb's drums all provide impressive support, and Forman's multi-keyboard solos are always right on the money.
The second DVD features a somewhat shorter 1974 concert, augmented by several audio only live tracks, including several from the then-current "Apocalypse" album, which featured a Mahler sized orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson-Thomas. This earlier version of the band features a who's-who of fusion royalty, including Jean-Luc Ponty on electric violin, Gayle Moran (the future Mrs. Chick Corea) on vocals and keys, Ralphe Armstrong on bass, Michael Walden (soon to adapt "Narada" as his middle name after McLaughlin's eastern mystic influence) on drums and a backup band of several strings and horns. Though ostensibly more orchestral than the later version of Mahavishnu, this 1974 band actually tends to rock a bit harder, if that's possible. McLaughlin here plays his famous two-necked guitar, which is barely enough combined frets to keep his prodigious fingerwork in check.
There is such a vast amount of talent and genius on display in these two DVDs that even non-aficianados of the jazz rock fusion era should find plenty to enjoy. Any fans of McLaughlin (of any era) are going to be in seventh heaven with this release.
The unenhanced 1.33:1 image is surprisingly sharp. There really is no noticeable quality difference between the 1974 and 1984 concerts. This was obviously shot on video and on the fly, so expect the occasional wobble or strange momentary framing.
Three superb soundtracks are offered: PCM stereo, Dolby 5.1, and DTS. The DTS seemed crispest to me, with the best separation, but your system's capabilities may lead you to prefer one of the others. All three are uniformly excellent, however.
If you count the bonus audio tracks as extra (as advertised on the DVD), you have another mini-concert to enjoy. There's also an unusually well-written insert covering not only Mahavishnu's genesis, but the jazz-rock idiom in general.
John McLaughlin is rightly a legend not just to guitar players, but lovers of finely wrought, beautifully played music everywhere. Able to leap tall compound time signatures with a single sweeping riff, McLaughlin quite simply leaves most other guitarists in his dust. Collaborating here with the very finest musicians available, there is nothing but joy to be heard here from the first note to the last.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet