Prog-rock, art rock, and jazz rock have their equivalent of hardcore Trekkies, the Spock-eared enthusiasts who help populate Star Trek conventions. Their fan-boyism extends to the far borders of passion to nudge up against mania. Such is Walter Kolosky’s relationship to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a group of early 1970s fusion trailblazers whom the author repeatedly calls the world’s greatest band.
As a fan-boy love song, Power, Passion and Beauty is quite melodious. Kolosky’s writing style is clunky and mechanical, but his enthusiasm and occasional peaks of breathlessness make his account of Mahavishnu’s five-year run and the subsequent fortunes of the original members an entertaining ride. The Natick resident also has the instincts of a meat-and-potatoes journalist. He does not interpret much, and he knows when to pull himself out of the story, which he does often, to allow the principals to speak in their own voices.
For Mahavishnu lovers, or even those curious to learn how a major band operated creatively and business-wise during rock’s golden era, the anecdotes from founder and guitarist John McLaughlin, his foil and drummer, Billy Cobham, electronic-keyboard pioneer Jan Hammer, electric-violinist Jerry Goodman, and bassist Rick Laid — the original Orchestra — as well as a host of later members including violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and various roadies and managers are insightful. The group’s Eastern-spirituality-based MO, radical sonic onslaught, and improvisational processes undergo a great deal of self-examination, as do the personality conflicts that drove those five players apart.
Kolosky and McLaughlin, in particular, put the band in context. Miles Davis, who makes a few cameos in the book, birthed fusion, but McLaughlin and his highly tempered virtuoso cohort put it on the rock-and-roll map. They took Davis’s ideas about electronics and jazz improvisation and amped them up with a level of all-around technical musicianship that hasn’t been surpassed — and with raw volume. Nobody was louder than Mahavishnu. And with McLaughlin’s conceptual genius for creating exciting improvisational frameworks, his impeccable mastery of his instrument (which made him a showman without the need to move anything more than his fingers on stage), Cobham’s rhythmically and sonically innovative approach to drumming, and the unerring melodic instincts of Goodman and Hammer all at their service, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s influential first albums — The Inner Mounting Flame, Between Nothingness and Eternity, and Birds of Fire (all on Columbia) — sold not like jazz discs but like rock and pop hits. They also became a huge international concert attraction.
FLAME ON: Miles Davis created fusion, but McLaughlin and his band put it on the rock-and-roll map.
More important, they were the kind of band — fresh, daring, philosophically principled, beautifully fluid — who had the power to change the lives of some of their listeners. So it was for Kolosky, whose spiritual and musical inclinations were indelibly marked by Mahavishnu’s music, to the extent that this book is part of his mission to promote the band to others who might have the same reaction.
Kolosky has created an on-line component to Power, Passion and Beauty that the curious should explore. At www.abstractlogix.com/mahavishnubook there’s a detailed musical analysis of some of the band’s classics, a comprehensive list of their gigs, a gallery of album-cover art, and Mahavishnu Orchestra–related Web sites.
Power, Passion And Beauty: The Story Of The Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra | By Walter Kolosky | Abstract Logix Books | 314 pages | $24.95