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Jazz was in a transitional phase as the 1970s began. The rise of experimental pop and soul music had caused widespread genre ooze, with rock bands like The Doors and The Grateful Dead leaning into jazz territory, and jazz greats like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock reaching into rock and funk for new avenues. In 1973, British guitarist John McClaughlin found himself right in the center of that Venn diagram. He’d played in The Graham Bond Quartet with keyboardist Bond and future Cream members Ginger Baker (drums) and Jack Bruce (bass). He’d played on four Miles Davis albums including the breakthrough Bitches Brew in 1970. By the time he launched the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971, McLaughlin was a torchbearer for a dawning era of what was suddenly not an American but a World music with tentacles in several continents and electronic peaks yet to scale.
Mahavishnu Orchestra—with McLaughlin on guitar, Billy Cobham on drums, Jerry Goodman on violin, Jan Hammer on keys and Rick Laird on bass—combined highly skilled instrumental jazz with loud concert rock, putting the dextrous McLaughlin in the role of Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page. And like those guitarists, he mixed in big spoonfuls of R&B, blues, Far Eastern and classical sounds. It was a potent mix at the time, feeding growing popular appetites for globally minded music and tight, exploratory jams. The group’s first album, The Inner Mounting Flame, reached No. 11 on the U.S. Jazz charts. Their second, Birds of Fire, crossed over and hit No. 15 on the U.S. Pop charts—a bona fide hit. Those were the only two studio albums recorded by the original lineup (there would be several more), but they stand as totems of jazz fusion and as blueprints for everyone from Frank Zappa to Phish.
Listen to Mahavishnu Orchestra play “One Word,” a stunning roller coaster of a piece from Birds of Fire.