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Quick CD Review: The Mahavishnu Orchestra/The Lost Trident Sessions

By Brian L. Knight

I first came across jazz guitarist John McLaughlin when I lived on Martha’s Vineyard during the summer of 1989. My friend happened across an abandoned VW bus, that had been parked along side the road for a couple of weeks. Our first reaction to our discovery was that we had a free bus on our hands. We quickly devised a plan, in which we figured that the only problem with the van was its battery. We bought a battery with what little money we had and cruised down to the van to try out our amateurish approach. We installed the battery but the van still did not start. It was at this point that local police cruiser informed us that we were breaking the law and that our activities should immediately cease. Since one of our friends had already gotten in trouble with the law (donuts on the golf course will do it every time), we gave up our visions of owning a purple VW bus.

Personally, I could not leave the bus without a memento, so we searched the van for some goodies. Some of the fine items we procured were a machete, random Chinese coins and a somewhat beaten up record collection. One of the albums that arose from this collection was Love, Devotion, Supreme by Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin. Being a typical high school graduate, I knew "Evil Ways" and "Black Magic Woman", so I knew that a Carlos Santana album was a good find and at the time, I didn’t really care whom John McLaughlin was. When I went home, and listened to the opening track, an electrified version of John Coltrane’s "A Love Supreme", my wind was immediately blown away by the two guitarists trading incredible licks.

In retrospect, my discovery during this not so innocent summer had quite an impact on my musical future. For one, the album eventually turned me onto jazz. After listening to versions of "Naima" and "A Love Supreme", the floodgates for infinite Coltrane listening were wide open (I am still going at it ten years later). More importantly, the unearthing of John McLaughlin would have a tremendous effect on me. >From Love, Devotion, Surrender, I looked to McLaughlin’s solo albums, his work with Bitches Brew era Miles Davis and ultimately his own project – the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

For years prior to my summer escapades, I had pilfered my older sister’s record collection for the works of the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. During these annual raids, I would often see albums by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but I wrote them off for exactly what the name of the band sounds like – religious big band music. I couldn’t have been further from reality. After my Martha’s Vineyard discovery, I spent my college years immersed in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Through albums like Birds of Fire, Inner Mounting Flame and Between Nothingness and Eternity, I was turned onto the searing electric leads of McLaughlin, the polyrhythmic and aggressive drumming of Billy Cobham, the hillbilly gone psychedelic violin playing of Jerry Goodman, the steady rhythm of bassist Rick Laird and the "Gee this a lot better than the Miami Vice Theme" keyboards of Jan Hammer. The music itself was the ultimate in a jazz-fusion experience – the compositions, time signatures and technical dexterity belonged to jazz but the music rocked out beyond belief.

For two studio and one live albums, the Mahavishnu Orchestra maintained this all-star lineup and then broke up. A couple years later, McLauglin reformed the band but with a completely different lineup. The new Mahavishnu Orchestra, albeit better talented than any music around at the time, did not capture the same energy of those first three albums.

After an intense Mahavishnu/McLauglin stage, the band/guitarist left my lexicon for quite some time. Besides a random Hendrix/McLauglin jam session bootleg that landed in my lap and a phenomenal concert in Burlington’s Flynn Theater with McLaughlin, drummer Dennis Chambers and organist Joey DeFransesco, I barely listened to Mahavishnu or McLaughlin. The artists would often revisit me in other forms – for instance, drummer Billy Cobham’s work with Jazz is Dead or Jan Hammer’s collaborations with Jeff Beck. McLauglin’s work on Miles Davis albums such as Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, his equally frantic acoustic guitar playing in his Indian band, Shakti and his fusion playing in Tony William’s Lifetime are all instances in which I have since been captivated by his prowess

My Mahavishnu drought came to an end during the fall of 1999 with Columbia/Legacy’s release of The Lost Trident Sessions. When producer Bob Belden was searching through Columbia’s archives to re-master Birds of Fire, he came across two extra and unknown Mahavishnu Orchestra tapes. It was like Indiana Jones finding the Ark of the Covenant. After some quick research, it was revealed that the tapes came from a studio session dating June 25, 1973 from London’s Trident Studios. The sessions were originally slated to be the third Mahavishnu Orchestra studio album, but the band opted to release the live Between Nothingness and Eternity, a live performance from New York City’s Central Park, instead. Soon afterwards, the original incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra felt the pressures of the road and the band was no more. Along with a new lineup of the Mahavishnu Orchestra came a memory lapse of the tape’s existence.

For any fan of Mahavishnu Orchestra, imagine where Birds of Fire and Inner Mounting Flame left off and The Lost Trident Sessions take it from there. The music possesses the classic Mahavishnu blend of Indian music, instrumental virtuosity and transitions from jazz serenity to full blown rocking chaos. What makes The Lost Trident Sessions differ from previous Mahavishnu albums is the presence of compositions written by somebody else than McLaughlin. The Lost Trident Sessions features Jerry Goodman’s "I Wonder", Jan Hammer’s "Sister Andrea" and Rick Laird’s "Stepping Tones". John McLaughlin contributed "Dream", "John’s Song #2" and "Trilogy". This collaborative effort to the "third" album most likely was the largest contributing factor to the tape’s disappearance after the breakup of the band.

Now, like a gift falling out of the sky, the never heard before (unless you are a lucky owner of a poor sounding bootleg) sounds of the classic lineup of the Mahavishnu Orchestra are available to hear for all. It is like opening a time capsule and listening to the band for the first time. Thanks to the Lost Trident Sessions, ten years after hearing my first McLaughlin lick, my draw is still dropping to the ground in McLaughlin amazement.