Thursday, 16 February 2012

Apocalypse - The Mahavishnu Orchestra

Whilst in Wellington in January Keri Ford and I (who has commented here previously) fell into conversation about our admiration for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. However I realised I had never given Mahavishnu 2 a chance. The first "2" project, which was effectively a new band, included Jean Luc Ponty and Narada Michael Walden. John also decided to broaden the forces available to him and orchestrations were provided by Tilson-Thomas and the production, most interestingly, was handled by George Martin. For those interested in the kind of jazz stylings that informed much of Sound Chaser I think this project will be of considerable interest. Its also fascinating to see whether the use of orchestra leads to tokenism or a lack of the essentials. 

"Power of Love" opens the proceedings a tinkling piano with tubular bells then some languorous late night New York brass sounds. A change and the strings emerge and the acoustic guitar states the melody and the melodic figure suggested by the brass is with us, a classic Mahavishnu tune.  The guitar, strings and Jean Luc’s electric violin dance around each other seductively.  This exudes a very tangible warmth and joy and brings all the forces together in an expansion of the language of the Mahavishnu. The final bars are delicate and theatrical leaving only the tinkling piano beautifully exposed.

Narada Michael Walden strikes the gong offering a shimmering mystical opening to “Vision” and then a slow dirge like string riff begins low and insistent before a brighter brass section takes it up a key but retains the intensity. This is huge music built on the promise of” Hope” from “Birds of Fire”. NMW ecstatic and full of energy hurtling round the kit playing round the riff before the McLaughlin grove enters at 3.01 a more relaxed mood, classic rotating arpeggios from John.

The music enters a new phase of intensity with Jean Luc providing a soaring solo at 4 minutes, we have a drum cadenza from NMW and then the rotation starts again and a beautiful electric piano joins the party, the bass player gently grooving along. Another transition as the whole piece goes up a level with a furious interjection from the orchestra. This is a perfect example of how well it integrates; the mood is more energised by the orchestra’s involvement.

Now down to small forces and John takes up the riff with NMW vibing along on the high hat. This is great wonderful progressive jazz rock utterly believable and real. Jean Luc puts in a bravura performance, improvising over the vibing rhythm section. Very neatly and gently and cleanly “Howe like” John takes up the baton and NMW is still there full of minimalist energy. This is wired up ensemble work pushing prodding John on more flights of fancy.

At 11.58 a pure “Birds of Fire” moment where the guitar catches fire and the big riff returns ascending until the tension breaks and the rotating arpeggios take the piece out with a nice relatively calm climax from Jean Luc  followed by the strings and then John brings it down to a beautifully volume restrained ending. 

12 minutes of unrestrained bravura performances but at its heart a focused creative mind whose vision informs all the forces involved.

“Smile” begins with an aria from Gayle Moran. Gayle has a wonderful mezzo soprano voice which can stand alongside the giants that surround her. The orchestra states the melody with a haunting beauty, before a swift change of pace, with NMW flexible and lose and propelling John forward and some nice chorus’s linking the aria. Vintage contrapuntal exchanges from all the forces,  captured so well by Mr Martin, before Gayle returns giving the piece a logic and shape.  This is the soft/loud contrasts of the original progressive rock but it has never sounded more comfortable and adult. Categorising is dangerous because the loud/soft elements appear organic and evolutionary whereas the loud/soft of progessive rock are more self consciously deliberate.  
“Wings of Karma” starts with a haunting woodwind weaving around the strings.  Building tension and a sense of expectation and at 1.30 the main melody emerges before the piece goes electric. This operates in the same mode as “Vision” so the approach does not surprise but the attack and flair provide sustenance and pleasure.

 “Hymn to Him” Gentle repeating strings ushers in this piece and then a gorgeous “bent” violin sound dances round the orchestra full of joy and yet that hint of late night New York jazz and then John produces arguably his most seductive foray, over the orchestra stroking the music, NMW quiet and sympathetic. This is followed by an uplift from John supported by snare roles from Michael the music full of anticipation this gives me the goose bumps. Then amid tempo solo from John a little Santana like and the electric piano plays the harmony riff. This is evocative and a romantic affirmation of the spirit. One of the critiques of John is his music making is cold and technical. For whatever reason I think his performance on this project avoids such concerns its full of passion, lyrcisism and the virtuosity is from the spirit not the ego. I am sure that the enviroment, sympathetic players and orchestration, help magnify that sense and spur him onto his most wired emotional and spiritually romantic performance.     

At 5.10 the music surges forward the solo operating in the same territory as Steve and Awaken but the production values and rhythm section are something else. At this point this work is brimming with explosive energy.. At 7.37 the soloing stops and the orchestra takes it to a crescendo before a drop down at 7.51 after the fireworks now we can relax and build again.

Late night jazz sounds mid pace and funky electric piano and violin trade, the bass prodding and pushing allow the player and listener alike to breath. The first climax is over now a different vibe and the music is just so organic and natural,  NMW funking it up on the hi-hat, leaving the other guys to chill and giving a little for the hips rather than the mind. Some great work from Jean Luc as they all step out and improvise as only musicians with a jazz feeling can.

Then out of nowhere back to the furious pace of earlier. Strings, violin and guitar counter pointing, hurling, trading riffs at each other think Starship Trooper and then some. This is no token orchestral performance its performance is as wired as any of the contributors.  At 15.20 big ascending chords interject with the strings sawing away in the background. Uplifting exciting onward to the peak the music finally calms.

At 16.57 and the guitar becomes lyrical and plaintive and the beauty of the first idea returns.  A cor anglais briefly takes the tune and finally Jean Luc and John take it down to a beautiful delicate conclusion.  This piece is a genuine progressive jazz rock suite with four distinct movements and a recapitulation at the end there is no let up, no wandering and all the forces are fused together in a magnificent whole.     

38 years late I have discovered a gem to add to my collection. Why did I not inquire back then. By 1974 music ambitious expansive music was already on the retreat. Many progressive rock bands were said to have over extended themselves and Gabriel and Fripp walked away from the genre. Apocalypse with its mezzo soprano and orchestra was in the firing line just as Passion Play, Topographic Oceans and Lamb were and I remember a negative review closed out my enquiry. Some of these works may or may not justify the criticism they received but this work stands the test of time. Better late than never!!