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Jazz fusion has never been the same since John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra hit the scene in the 1970s.
in 1971, The Mahavishnu Orchestra was conceived and organized in New York City by jazz guitarist John McLaughlin. The band underwent several line-up changes throughout its history. There were two main incarnations of the band – the first from 1971 to 1976, and the other popped up in the late mid-eighties.
My favorite and I think, the best group had Billy Cobham on drums, Jan Hammer on keyboards and synthesizers, violinist Jerry Goodman and bassist Rick Laird.
Mahavishnu Orchestra started to get famous because of the complex, intense music they generated live. Often the sound was a blend of Indian classical music, jazz and psychedelic rock. Live performances were extremely dynamic, and generated a lot of excitement. Check out some of the videos on this page to get an idea.
Mahavishnu Orchestra Band Members Biographies
John Mclaughlin (Guitarist, Composer and Band Leader, 1971 – 1987)
John McLaughlin was born in 1942 in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, England. His entire family was musical and his mother was a concert violinist. John studied piano and violin as a child. He eventually started to learn guitar at age 11. He was particularly interested in flamenco and jazz – particularly capturing his interest were Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli of the Hot Club of France.
Eventually John moved to London from Yorkshire in the early 1960s, where he was able to work with musicians Alexis Korner and the Marzipan Twisters, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, the Graham Bond Organization (in 1963) and Brian Auger. John also did gigs doing session work which really helped him step up his sight-reading game. Believe it or not – during those days, John McLaughlin actually gave guitar lessons to Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. In 1963, Jack Bruce formed the Graham Bond Quartet with Bond, Ginger Baker, and John McLaughlin. They played an eclectic range of music genres, including bebop, blues and rhythm, and blues.
In January 1969, McLaughlin recorded his debut album Extrapolation in London. It prominently features John Surman on saxophone and Tony Oxley on drums. McLaughlin composed the number inky’s Beam’ as a tribute to his friend, the innovative bass player Binky McKenzie. The album’s post-bop style is quite different than McLaughlin’s later fusion works, though it gradually developed a strong reputation among critics by the mid-1970s.
McLaughlin moved to the U.S. in 1969 to join Tony Williams’ group Lifetime.
A recording exists that was made in the Record Plant studios in New York City (dated March 25th, 1969) with McLaughlin and Hendrix jamming. McLaughlin recollects “we played one night, just a jam session. And we played from 2 until 8, in the morning. I thought it was a wonderful experience! I was playing an acoustic guitar with a pick-up. Um, flat-top guitar and Jimi was playing an electric. Yeah, what a lovely time! Had he lived today, you’d find that he would be employing everything he could get his hands on, and I mean acoustic guitar, synthesizers, orchestras, voices, anything he could get his hands on he’d use!”
He played on Miles Davis’ albums In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew (which has a track named after him), Live-Evil, On the Corner, Big Fun (where he is featured soloist on “Go Ahead John”) and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. In the liner notes to Jack Johnson, Davis called McLaughlin’s playing “far in”. McLaughlin returned to the Davis band for one night of a week-long club date, recorded and released as part of the album Live-Evil and of the Cellar Door boxed set. His reputation as a “first-call” session player grew, resulting in recordings as a sideman with Miroslav Vitous, Larry Coryell, Joe Farrell, Wayne Shorter, Carla Bley, the Rolling Stones, and others.
In the 1970s he created an electric band named Mahavishnu Orchestra. the Mahavishnu Orchestra, included Jerry Goodman on violin and Jan Hammer on keyboards with bassist Rick Laird and Billy Cobham on drums. They performed a difficult and technically complex style of music that fused electric jazz and rock with Eastern and Indian influences. This band helped establish fusion as a new and growing style. McLaughlin’s playing at this time was distinguished by fast solos and non-western musical scales.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s personality clashes were as explosive as their performances, and consequently, the first incarnation of the group split in late 1973 after two years and three albums, including a live recording entitled Between Nothingness & Eternity. In 2001, a “shelved” recording called “the Lost Trident Sessions” was released as an album; it had been recorded in 1973 and warehoused when the group broke up.
McLaughlin then put the band back together with Narada Michael Walden on drums, Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, Detroiter Ralphe Armstrong on bass, and Gayle Moran (keyboards and vocals), and a string and horn section (McLaughlin referred to this as “the real Mahavishnu Orchestra”). This incarnation of the group recorded two more albums, Apocalypse with the London Symphony Orchestra and Visions of the Emerald Beyond. A scaled-down quartet was formed with McLaughlin, Walden on drums, Armstrong on bass and Stu Goldberg on keyboards and synthesizer, which generated a third “Mahavishnu 2” recording in 1976 largely due to contractual obligations, Inner Worlds.
Jan Hammer (Piano & Synthesizers, 1971-1973)
Jan Hammer (Czech pronunciation: [ˈjan ˈɦamɛr]) (born 17 April 1948) is a Czech-American musician, composer and record producer. He first gained his most visible audience while playing keyboards with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 1970s, as well as his film scores for television and film including “Miami Vice Theme” and “Crockett’s Theme”, from the 1980s television program, Miami Vice. He has continued to work as both a musical performer and producer, expanding to producing film later in his career.
Hammer has collaborated with some of the era’s most influential jazz and rock musicians such as John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck, Al Di Meola, Mick Jagger, Carlos Santana, Stanley Clarke, Tommy Bolin, Neal Schon, Steve Lukather, and Elvin Jones. He has composed and produced at least 14 original motion picture soundtracks, the music for 90 episodes of Miami Vice and 20 episodes of the television series Chancer. His compositions have won him several Grammy Awards.
Jerry Goodman (Electric Violin, 1971- 1973)
Jerry Goodman was born on March 16, 1949, in Chicago, Illinois. His parents were both members of the string section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Jerry had a talented member of the family in the noted composer and jazz pianist Marty Rubenstein, who was Jerry’s uncle. Jerry was conservatory-trained prior to beginning his musical career as The Flock’s roadie and subsequently as a violinist.
After appearing on John McLaughlin’s 1970 album My Goal’s Beyond, became one of the original members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and stayed until the band broke up in 1973, and was viewed as a soloist of equal virtuosity to McLaughlin, keyboardist Jan Hammer, and drummer Billy Cobham.
Rick Laird (Bass Guitar, 1971-1973)
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Laird played music from a young age and enrolled for guitar and piano lessons. He started playing jazz after moving to New Zealand at the age of 16 with his father. He played guitar in jam bands in New Zealand before buying an upright bass. After extensive touring in New Zealand he moved to Sydney, Australia, where he played with many top jazz musicians including Don Burrows.
He moved to England in 1962 and became house bassist at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, playing with many greats including the guitarist Wes Montgomery and Sonny Stitt and even with Buddy Rich, most notably the residence at The Talk of the Town in 1969. From 1963 to 1964 Laird was at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He was recorded on Sonny Rollins’s record Alfie and played in The Brian Auger Trinity (July 1963-February 1964) and The Brian Auger Group (February–October 1964).
His next step was to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston, the US, where he studied arranging, composition and string bass. He then teamed up with John McLaughlin and The Mahavishnu Orchestra to play electric bass until 1973, when the band broke up. After that, he moved to New York and played with Stan Getz (a tour in 1977) and Chick Corea (a tour the following year). Laird put out one album as a leader, Soft Focus. He was interviewed in Guitar Player in 1980 and Bass Player in 1999. Today, he is a successful photographer as well as a private bass tutor and an author of a number of intermediates- to advanced-level bass books.
Billy Cobham (Drums, 1971-1973)
Born in Colón, Panama, Cobham moved with his family to Brooklyn, New York, when he was three. His father worked as a hospital statistician during the week and played piano on weekends. Cobham started on drums at age four and joined his father four years later. When he was fourteen, he got his first drum kit as a gift after being accepted to The High School of Music & Art in New York City. He was drafted in 1965, and for the next three years, he played with a U.S. Army band.
After his discharge, he became a member of Horace Silver’s quintet. He played an early model electric drum kit given to him by Tama Drums. He was a house drummer for Atlantic Records and a session musician for CTI and Kudu, appearing on the albums White Rabbit by George Benson, Sunflower by Milt Jackson, and Soul Box by Grover Washington Jr.
Cobham started the jazz-rock group Dreams with Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, and John Abercrombie. He moved further into jazz fusion when he toured with Miles Davis and recorded Davis’s albums Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. In 1971, he and guitarist John McLaughlin left Davis to start the Mahavishnu Orchestra, another group that fused rock, funk, and jazz. Cobham toured extensively from 1971 to 1973 with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which released two studio albums, The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973), and one live album, Between Nothingness & Eternity (1973). The studio versions of songs on the live album were released on The Lost Trident Sessions (1999).
Gayle Moran (Piano and Vocals, 1974-1975)
Gayle Moran is a vocalist, keyboard player (piano, organ, and synthesizer), and songwriter born in 1943. She was a member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra during the mid-1970s, appearing on Apocalypse (1974) and Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975).
She later appeared on recordings by Return to Forever’s 1977 album Musicmagic and the Chick Corea solo albums The Leprechaun (1975), My Spanish Heart (1976), The Mad Hatter (1978), Secret Agent (1978) and Touchstone (1982). She also had a part in the making of a song titled “Afterlife” in the 2007 film War Starring Jet Li and Jason Statham.
Jean-Luc Ponty (Electric Violin, 1974-1975)
Ponty was born into a family of classical musicians on 29 September 1942 in Avranches, France. His father taught violin, his mother taught piano. At sixteen, he was admitted to the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, graduating two years later with the institution’s highest honor, Premier Prix (first prize). He was hired by the Concerts Lamoureux symphony in which he played for three years.
While still a member of the orchestra in Paris, Ponty picked up a side job playing clarinet (which his father had taught him) for a college jazz band that regularly performed at local parties. It proved life-changing. A growing interest in Miles Davis and John Coltrane compelled him to take up the tenor saxophone. One night after an orchestra concert, and still wearing his tuxedo, Ponty found himself at a local club with only his violin. Within four years, he was widely accepted as the leading figure in “jazz fiddle”.
At that time, Ponty was leading a dual musical life: rehearsing and performing with the orchestra while also playing jazz until 3 a.m. at clubs throughout Paris. The demands of this schedule eventually brought him to a crossroads. Critic Joachim Berendt wrote that “Since Ponty, the jazz violin has been a different instrument”.
Ralphe Armstrong (Bass Guitar, 1974-1976)
Ralphe Armstrong (born in 1956 in Detroit) is an American fusion – and jazz – bassist.
Armstrong had a classical education at the Michigan Interlochen School of Fine Arts; He became a member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at the age of 17 in the mid-1970s, with albums including Apocalypse, Visions of the Emerald Beyond, and Inner Worlds. In Detroit, he worked with Phil Ranelin, Dr. Lonnie Smith, also with Jean-Luc Ponty (Enigmatic Ocean) and Bennie Maupin (Cosmic Passenger, 1976). In the 1980s and 90s, he also played with Eddie Harris, Earl Klugh, Geri Allen (The Gathering) and the Michigan Jazz Masters (starring Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, and Harold McKinney). A replay of the Detroit Jazz Festival appeared in 2014 on the album Home Bass. In 2001, he appeared with James Carter in Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. In the field of jazz, he was involved 1974-2001 to 27 recording sessions,  Outside the Jazz even with Dave Mason, Aretha Franklin, and Patti Austin. He also works as a theater musician in Detroit and teaches bass at the Oberlin Conservatory.
Narada Michael Walden (Drums, 1974-1976)
Alden was a member of rock bands in Miami, Florida, after he graduated from college. Atlantic released his first album, Garden of Love Light, in 1977 with a single that reached the R&B chart. This was followed by I Cry I Smile and The Awakening. The latter album reached No. 15 on the R&B chart. His singles continued to be popular in R&B during the 1980s. These included a duet with Patti Austin and an appearance on the soundtrack for the movie Bright Lights, Big City.
He built his studio in 1985 and produced music for The Temptations, Stacy Lattisaw, Aretha Franklin, Angela Bofill, Lisa Fischer, Sister Sledge, Herbie Hancock, Patti Austin, Whitney Houston, Clarence Clemons, George Benson, Kenny G, Lionel Richie, Al Jarreau, and Mariah Carey.
Walden has been nominated for eight Grammy Awards, winning three: Best R&B Song for “Freeway of Love” (1985); Producer of the Year, Non-Classical (1987); and Album of the Year for The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album (1993).
Stu Goldberg (Keyboards, 1976)
Stuart Wayne “Stu” Goldberg (born July 10, 1954, in Malden, Massachusetts) is an American jazz keyboardist.
Goldberg was born in Massachusetts but raised in Seattle, and played with Ray Brown at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1971. He attended the University of Utah, taking his bachelor’s in music in 1974, then relocated to Los Angeles. He played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1975 and subsequently worked in the 1970s with Al Di Meola, Freddie Hubbard, Alphonse Mouzon, Michal Urbaniak, and Miroslav Vitous. He booked a tour of Europe in 1978 as a solo keyboardist and released several albums under his own name and with Toto Blanke [de]’s Electric Circus. Returning to Los Angeles in 1985, he worked extensively in film soundtracks (including with Lalo Schifrin and Ira Newborn) and as a studio musician.
Mahavishnu Orchestra Band Versions
1971–1974: First incarnation
John McLaughlin was often referred to as “Mahavishnu John McLaughlin” and the first incarnation of the band included drummer Billy Cobham originally from Panama, Rick Laird originally from Ireland, Czech keyboardist Jan Hammer, and violinist Jerry Goodman from the USA. McLaughlin had worked with Cobham and Goodman on his third solo album My Goal’s Beyond (1971), and when he asked Cobham to become the drummer in the new jazz-rock fusion band he wished to form, he accepted. The violin was an instrument that had interested McLaughlin since childhood. He could not have Jean-Luc Ponty, his first choice, due to immigration problems. One day McLaughlin heard the playing of Jerry Goodman on an album by the Flock and hired him for the band. Although bassist Tony Levin was the first person McLaughlin wanted to join the band, Laird had known McLaughlin for several years and accepted the invitation. Bassist Miroslav Vitous of Weather Report ended up recommending Jan Hammer to the group, and the rest is history, as they say 🙂
The group first met in July 1971 and rehearsed for one week. Their first live performance followed at The Gaslight Cafe in New York City, where they were the opening act for bluesman John Lee Hooker. McLaughlin recalled: “The first set was shaky but the second set just took off and every night it was great. They wanted to hold us over and a few days after the second week … we went into the studio”.
McLaughlin had specific ideas for the instrumentation of the group in keeping with his highly original concept of genre-blending in composition. A violinist was essential as an integral contributor to its overall sound. McLaughlin started sporting (and shredding with) what turned out to be his visual trademark — a double neck guitar (six-string and twelve-string) which allowed for a great degree of diversity in musical textures — and Hammer became one of the first to play a Minimoog synthesizer in an ensemble, which enabled him to add more sounds and solo more freely alongside the guitar and the violin.
Their musical style was an original blend of genres: they started with high-volume electrified rock, the sound that had been pioneered by Jimi Hendrix (with whom McLaughlin had jammed on his initial arrival in New York as part of the Tony Williams Lifetime). To that, they added complex rhythms, unusual time signatures, and modal tonalities that reflected McLaughlin’s interest in Indian classical music. This was often served up on a bed of funk mixed and a framework familiar from European classical music.
The group’s early music, represented on such albums as The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973), was entirely instrumental; their later albums had songs which sometimes featured R&B or even gospel/hymn-styled vocals. In the aforementioned two albums, the group goes from an energetic fusion of upbeat genres (a representative example of which is the song “Vital Transformation”) to very serene, chamber music-like tunes, such as “A Lotus On Irish Streams,” a composition for acoustic guitar, piano and violin, and “Thousand Island Park,” which drops the violin and incorporates double bass; or from low-key to extremely busy in a single piece, such as “Open Country Joy.”
Due to the pressures of sudden fame, exhaustion and a lack of communication, the original band began to tire as 1973 continued. Unfortunately there was a very negative-vibey recording session that happened around that time at London’s Trident Studios – you know how it is with bands, this one’s not speaking to that one, attitudes were flying and so forth. So sadly, that project was never fully completed. John himself finally threw in the towel when he read an interview in Crawdaddy magazine where Jan and Jerryexpressed deep dissatisfaction with John’s management style – even some efforts to reunite back in New York didn’t go well. Later on in the 1970s, McLaughlin stated in an interview in Gig magazine that he would like the album to come out, as he thought it was good. In its place, the live album Between Nothingness & Eternity was released featuring material from the studio album. Almost 30 years later, during the beginning of a renaissance of Mahavishnu’s music, the incomplete album from the failed London recording was released as The Lost Trident Sessions.
Even though McLaughlin himself has referred to the “second incarnation” as the “Real” Mahavishnu Orchestra, in this writer’s opinion the first one was the best 😉
1974–1976: Second Incarnation
After the original group dissolved, it reformed in 1974 with a new cast of musicians behind McLaughlin: Jean-Luc Ponty (who had performed with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention) on violin, Gayle Moran on keyboards, Ralphe Armstrong on bass, and Narada Michael Walden on percussion with Steven Kindler on violin along with Carol Shive and Marcia Westbrook on viola and Phil Hirschi on cello with the added spice of Steve Frankevich on brass along with Bob Knapp. This “new” Mahavishnu Orchestra was largely the same personnel between 1974’s Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond which was released in 1975.
Apocalypse was recorded in London with the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, with George Martin producing and Geoff Emerick engineering the sessions. The band was then reduced to a four-piece for 1976’s Inner Worlds, with Jean-Luc Ponty leaving after a heated disagreement about writing credits on the Visions album, and Gayle Moran being replaced with Stu Goldberg. Ponty would later settle over the royalties for the tracks Pegasus and Opus 1 for an undisclosed amount of money.
McLaughlin then worked with a number of incarnations of the John McLaughlin Guitar Trio featuring Trilok Gurtu on percussion and Jeff Berlin, Kai Eckhardt, and Dominique di Piazza on bass. He then formed the Free Spirits, a guitar, organ and drums trio, with Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond organ and trumpet plus Dennis Chambers on drums and touring and recording again with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucía.
Billy Cobham went on to perform as a solo artist, recording many albums including Total Eclipse, Crosswinds, and Spectrum, and toured with the “Billy Cobham & George Duke Band” for many years.
Jan Hammer went on to collaborate with Jeff Beck (together with Narada Michael Walden) in Beck’s acclaimed album Wired; and also recorded a live album with the latter. He released several solo albums and composed the theme and incidental music for the hit 1980s TV show, Miami Vice.
Mahavishnu alumnae Jerry Goodman and Jan Hammer recorded the album “Like Children”. Starting in 1985 he recorded three solo albums for Private Music and went on tour with his own band, as well as with Shadowfax and the Dixie Dregs.
Rick Laird played with Stan Getz and Chick Corea as well as releasing one solo LP, Soft Focus, but retired from the music business in 1982. He has worked both as a bass teacher and photographer since then.
The Legacy of the Mahavishnu Orchestra
The Mahavishnu Orchestra has influenced a lot of bands and musicians of many genres. Greg Ginn, the guitarist from hardcore punk band Black Flag and the writer behind many of their tracks, claims that Mahavishnu’s early records inspired him to record more progressive guitar work and even record instrumental albums.
There has been a resurgence of interest in the Mahavishnu Orchestra lately – lots of bands, like The Mars Volta, Cynic, Opeth, and the Dillinger Escape Plan naming them as an influence. There have been no less than five major tribute recordings released.
In addition, a book Power, Passion, and Beauty: The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra by Walter Kolosky (AbstractLogix Books) has been published. It contains interviews with all of the band’s members and quotes obtained specifically for the book from many famous admirers such as Jeff Beck, Pat Metheny, the artist Peter Max, Bill Bruford and many more.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra has also been sampled in contemporary music. One great example of this is “Unfinished Sympathy” by Massive Attack. In that song you will hear samples from “Planetary Citizen”. In fact – Massive Attack was sued by bassist and author Ralphe Armstrong and ended up paying a healthy out-of-court settlement. “You Know, You Know” was sampled on Massive Attack’s “One Love” and Mos Def’s “Kalifornia.”