Friday, November 09, 2007

Mahavishnu at Montreux

Mahavishnu Orchestra Live at Montreux
Eagle Eye Media

You know John McLaughlin must be cool—there’s a Miles Davis song named after him (on Bitches Brew, no less). The Mahavishnu Orchestra would be his post-Miles entry in the then booming fusion super-group market of the 1970’s. Fusing jazz, rock, and at times classical music, the Mahavishnu Orchestra would be very popular in the seventies, even as they morphed line-ups several times. However, the reconstituted Orchestra of the 1980’s comes front and center in the new DVD release Live at Montreux.

While the eighties Orchestra may not have been as acclaimed, and was more conventional in its instrumentation, it had the benefit of Bill Evans (the saxman, not the pianist or the New York weatherman) on reeds. An under-rated player fresh from a stint with Miles Davis himself, Evans was a great foil for McLaughlin. Some of the most rewarding elements of this release are the contributions from Evans it documents. The major drawbacks would its “eighties-ness,” represented by various electronic vocoders and guitar synthesizers.

There is indeed some great playing on the 1984 set, particularly by Evans. “Nostalgia’s” In a Silent Way vibe is aided by his sensitive soprano, a reed that his former boss Davis came to prefer during the later stages of his career. Evans also displays an up-tempo prowess on tenor during “East Side, West Side,” a burner featuring a funky keyboard solo from Mitchell Foreman, which segues into an affectionate cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” Unfortunately, here McLaughlin’s axe is outfitted with an of-its-time sounding Synclavier 2 synthesizer giving it a tinny keyboard sound.

That effect works best combined with Evans soprano on the affecting melody of “Clarendon Hills,” a feature for Evans, and also the city of his birth in Illinois. Again, it meshes well with Foreman’s keyboards in the Zawinul-esque intro to “Mitch Match,” a melodic, up-tempo jazz-rock flag-waver (in the “Birdland” tradition), which they reprise for their encore.

For many though, the real highlight will be the second disk presenting the MO live at Montreux in 1974. Of the six tunes on the disk, only two tracks have video (the other four audio tracks are accompanied by CGI solar eclipse montages), but as extended jams, together they clock in over thirty minutes. This is one of the preferred, classic MO ensembles, including Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, as well as Gayle Moran, performing the sort of wordless vocals that would mark her work with husband Chick Corea’s Return to Forever.

As presented here, the 1984 MO is more of a jazz-fusion combo, with an emphasis on solos and the 1974 MO was more of an ensemble, producing some exotic textures of sound. Having them together make for an interesting comparison study.