NORMIE MONDAY ep. 84 - The Inner Mounting Flame
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. After several articles detailing the work of the innovative fusion guitarist John McLaughlin (including albums by Miles Davis, The Tony Williams Lifetime and McLaughlin’s own solo effort), I’m going to dedicate this week’s article to the group with which McLaughlin is most commonly associated, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This dynamic fusion ensemble was one of the first groups to take fusion in a decidedly heavier, more frenzied and more “progressive” direction, and the band’s first album The Inner Mounting Flame stands as the finest testament to that.
After recording Bitches Brew with Miles Davis in August of 1969, John McLaughlin spent the next year working as a session guitarist, playing on albums by jazz bassist Miroslav Vitouš, saxophonist Joe Farrell, rock singer Duffy Power and jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. He also recorded his second solo album (1970’s Devotion), contributed to another album with The Tony Williams Lifetime (1970’s Turn It Over) and played a crucial role in Miles Davis’ A Tribute To Jack Johnson. It was through Davis that McLaughlin first met a young jazz drummer named Billy Cobham, a Panamerican-born jazz drummer with a unique open-handed lead style who’d already played with jazz greats like Horace Silver, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson and John Abercrombie. McLaughlin and Cobham made their first recordings together in a November 1969 session with Davis, but the material from this session wouldn’t be released until Davis’ 1974 Big Fun album.
As McLaughlin and Cobham continued to work together with Miles Davis throughout the rest of 1969 and into 1970, the two developed a close working relationship. This was further established when Cobham played on McLaughlin’s third solo album, 1971’s My Goal’s Beyond. By this point, McLaughlin had become heavily influenced by the teachings of the Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. McLaughlin took on the name Mahavishnu, meaning “divine compassion, power and justice” at the suggestion of Chinmoy, and began to explore incorporating Indian forms of music into his own compositions.
After recording My Goal’s Beyond together, McLaughlin and Cobham decided to establish a fusion group together. McLaughlin called upon Irish bassist Rick Laird, an old friend from his session gigging days who’d worked with McLaughlin in Brian Auger’s group. The keyboardist’s chair was filled by a young Czechoslovakian named Jan Hammer, a recent Berklee grad who’d played with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Elvin Jones and Jeremy Steig. McLaughlin wanted to add another soloist, but didn’t want to go with the more traditional saxophone or trumpet, opting instead for violin. The first quintet was rounded out by violinist Jerry Goodman, a native of Chicago, Illinois who’d played in the jazz-fusion group The Flock before also playing on McLaughlin’s My Goal’s Beyond album. Apparently, McLaughlin had first wanted to recruit French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, but the U.S. Government would not grant Ponty a work-permit visa, so Goodman was recruited instead. It is interesting to note that all five members of the band are from different countries.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra recorded their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, in the spring of 1971. With it, they pioneered a new breed of jazz-fusion that emphasized the energy and power of rock ‘n’ roll, particularly the progressive rock that was coming into vogue in the early 1970’s via bands like King Crimson and Yes. The unusual rhythms and complex time signatures also paid homage to the Indian classical music with which McLaughlin was becoming increasingly interested. The addition of Western classical music harmonic structures and funk rhythms resulted in a type of fusion that was edgier, heavier and more tightly composed than much of the more free-form and ambient jazz-fusion that had preceded it.
The Inner Mounting Flame opens with the high octane “Meeting Of The Spirits,” which begins with about forty seconds of the band hitting bombastic accents and then wringing them out with sheets of manically strummed guitar chords and washing cymbals. After all of this madness, a heavily effected electric guitar begins playing hypnotic arpeggiated chords, soon joined by a quiet drum beat. The violin and bass begin to play a quick ascending-then-descending melody in unison while the organ adds textural chords in the background. As the bass and violin continue their unison melody, the electric guitar jumps in and begins to play a simple three note motif. After a few passes of this motif, McLaughlin takes the electric guitar through a fanciful flight that plummets down to the deepest depth and stretches out to the highest of highs. His solo here is otherworldly, and his guitar tone is light-years ahead of its time. At the end of the solo, he retreats to the three-note motif from earlier before engaging in some breakneck unison riffing with the violin and drums. Then, the band brings it down for a spacey middle section where the guitar and violin play a soaring melody as the other three musicians create a din of ambient noise. I am particularly impressed with the tonal combination of the guitar and violin here, as the two sound slightly out of tune with each other, resulting in a distinctly jarring effect. After this, McLaughlin returns to the hypnotic arpeggiated chords from earlier as Jan Hammer takes an impressive electric piano solo. I really enjoy the tone of Hammer’s keyboards on this album, which is surprising because I find myself to be fairly critical of his later cheesy keyboard sounds. As his solo progresses, McLaughlin and Goodman begin to interject some blazingly fast unison riffs that spiral together dizzyingly with Hammer’s solo. After the solo, McLaughlin begins to play the three-note motif from earlier until, once again, the guitar violin and drums play a breakneck unison riff that leads to a similar spacey section from earlier, complete with soaring guitar and violin. After this comes the end of the song, in which McLaughlin plays the hypnotic arpeggiated chords from earlier and Goodman begins to solo wildly on the violin. The song fades out as the band gradually crescendos.
The next song, “Dawn,” begins as a mellow ballad. After one loud accent right at the start, the rhythm section begins to pad out a gentle beat in 7/8 as the electric piano sprinkles in textural chords. After a bit of this, the guitar and violin fades up with a searing unison melody. While I’m impressed with the saturation of McLaughlin’s guitar here, I find it to be a bit out of place given the delicate nature of the song at this point. This is exacerbated as McLaughlin takes a sizzling guitar solo here that I find to be at odds with the fragility of this song. However, this is soon remedied as the band picks up the tempo and the violin joins the guitar to pluck out some dexterous unison melodies. This gives way to a bluesy violin solo over the newly quickened pace. The violin solo ends with a restatement of the unison melody from the beginning of the solo, as McLaughlin steps back in. At the conclusion of this, the band brings the tempo back to the original gentle feel of the beginning of the song. McLaughlin and Goodman play their searing unison melody from earlier over the mellow backing. The song ends especially gently as the guitar and violin drop out, leaving only the rhythm section and Hammer’s atmospheric electric piano.
The next track, “The Noonward Race,” is one of my favorites on the album. It begins with a frenzied beat from Billy Cobham as McLaughlin strums out some fuzzy electric guitar stabs. The two then engage in some funky synchronized rhythmic riffing before McLaughlin spins off into some dizzying solos. It continues to be only a duet for the first minute or so of the song before the other three join in for some more synchronized riffing. After this, the rhythm section brings things to a slow rolling boil as Goodman takes an impressive violin solo, his violin enhanced with some sort of modulation effect. Cobham is in fine form here as he gradually builds the tension of the beat via quick cymbal work and tasty fills. At the end of the violin solo, McLaughlin jumps in with a nimble little melody that he plays once by himself, then again with the rest of the band. This acts as a transitional passage that signals the start of an electric piano solo from Hammer. His solo here is one of the highlights of the entire album, as it’s effected to sound like some weird alien language. It’s also incredibly agile and utilizes interesting modes and scales. Hammer ends his solo with a restatement of the nimble little guitar melody from earlier. McLaughlin picks up on this and joins in, playing the melody with Hammer twice before launching in to his own solo. His playing here is the usual blazingly fast runs and emotive wails, typically awesome McLaughlin. Again, the solo ends with the nimble little guitar melody, first by himself and then in unison with the rest of the musicians. After the final unison melody, the intro of the song is revisited as McLaughlin thrashes out dissonant chord stabs and Cobham gets a brief moment to shine. He lays down some impossibly fast drum fills as McLaughlin’s stabbing chords churn in the background. After the drum solo, the guitar and drums engage in some more breakneck riffing, and the rest of the band joins in for one more big unison riff to end the song.
Side one ends with the most tranquil song on the album, the gorgeous “A Lotus On Irish Streams,” a trio for acoustic guitar, acoustic piano and violin. This track possesses a delicate grace and melodic beauty that is occasionally interrupted by McLaughlin or Hammer pulling out fiery runs and riffs. However, unlike the needlessly saturated tone on “Dawn,” I don’t feel that these fast riffs detract from the overall serenity of the piece. Based on the title of the song, I view the piece as being programmatic of a flower gently coasting down a stream, occasionally getting swept up in the faster currents and rapids, indicated by the faster riffs. Overall, it is a sublimely moving piece of music that is at once transportative and musically impressive.
Side two opens with “Vital Transformation,” another of my favorites on the album. Cobham kicks things off with a propulsive groove in 9/8, playing by himself for a while until the other members join in with a funky riff. The band keeps vamping in 9/8 until they bring it down to a soaring violin and guitar melody. First it descends, but then it reascends and crashes back into the 9/8 groove. As the rhythm section bubbles and simmers, McLaughlin takes the first solo, weaving a tapestry of distorted notes and fiery runs. Eventually, Goodman starts to interject little violin riffs and chordal vamps, gradually building them until he is fully playing the funky riff from earlier. By this point, Cobham is flailing wildly and thrashing the cymbals, but this quickly gives way to a restatement of the mellow descending-and-reascending melody on the violin and guitar. Cobham then reemerges with the funky 9/8 beat, and the band vamps on this for the last minute of the song, with Hammer throwing in some more of his weird alien keyboard sounds for flavor. The song fades out as the band climaxes the vamp.
Up next is the longest song on the album, “The Dance Of Maya.” It begins with a dissonant melody from the guitar, doubled by the electric guitar and aided by a supportive bass line from Rick Laird. A steady build up on the toms signals the entrance of the drums, which then supply a bluesy shuffle to go with the dissonant melody. The drum beat here is especially strange sounding, as it starts off as a simple 6/8 shuffle, but occasionally adds a couple of extra eighth notes, giving the beat an off-kilter vibe. After the band vamps on this odd shuffle for a bit, the guitar ceases its dissonant riff and begins to play something much more akin to a traditional blues figure (although the odd meter remains). Over this, Goodman takes a bluesy solo, his violin screeching and wailing in agony as he pulls sustained notes out of the ether and turns in lightning-fast runs. As the violin solo comes to a close, Cobham shifts the feel of the drums from the bluesy stomp to a brisker jazz beat (still in the odd meter). McLaughlin begins another rocking guitar solo here, bending and slashing his notes. As the guitar solo ends, Cobham falls back to the bluesy stomp. His ability to seamlessly shift the feel and metrically modulate from slow to fast and back again is simply remarkable. As the guitar and violin play a bluesy riff, the dissonant melody from the beginning of the song begins to slowly creep back into the mix. It becomes more and more prominent, until it is the main feature. The band hits some slowly falling synchronized notes before an energetic rock-out finale signals the end of the song.
The next track is one of the more well known on the album due to it being sampled in recent years by artists such as Massive Attack, Mos Def, Black Sheep and David Sylvian. “You Know, You Know” begins with a mellow guitar arpeggio that gets repeated with ample space left between each restatement. Gradually, the bass and drums are added. Although this song can be thought of as being in straight 4/4, it feels more like a sequence of measures that goes; 3/4, 3/4, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 5/4. After a while, the violin joins in and begins to play with the guitar, sometimes playing in unison and sometimes pulling out a harmony to the guitar’s mellow arpeggio. Jan Hammer’s keyboard then enters and begins to gently fill and solo between the guitar arpeggios. Right at the 2:18 mark, the guitar throws in one single slashing chord, but then drops back to mellow arpeggios. In the second half of the song, Cobham begins to play a more fleshed out beat and gradually crescendo the drums. The band responds by tossing out some startling accents, with Goodman’s screeching violin quickly pulling upwards. In the last minute of the song, Cobham takes center stage by adding savory drum fills between the guitar arpeggios. The song ends with the band accenting one note together.
The album ends with its shortest song, the raging “Awakening.” Probably the most kinetic and frenzied song on the album, it begins with some unbelievably fast unison riffing from the band, with all members playing at a breakneck speed. As this subsides, the rhythm section falls into a quick groove that has an unyielding intensity. First, Goodman solos with all of his usual awesomeness. Then, the band falls into a cool swaying groove as Hammer begins another of his weird alien electric piano solos. Some more breakneck riffing signals the end of the keyboard solo, which is followed by a fiery guitar solo from McLaughlin. The smoothness of his notes here is simply staggering. Some more breakneck riffing follows, which gives way to a short drum solo (no other instruments involved) from Cobham. After this, the band returns with some more breakneck riffing, ending the song with one last big flourish.
The Inner Mounting Flame was released in August of 1971 and was an instant smash with the critics, who still hail the album as one of the most important entries in the jazz-fusion catalog. It went to #11 in the Billboard Jazz Albums chart and #89 in the Billboard Pop Albums chart, a huge feat for a jazz-fusion album. The original lineup of Mahavishnu Orchestra only recorded one more album (1973’s Birds Of Fire) before dissolving amidst infighting and personal conflicts, the worst of which occurring after McLaughlin read an interview of Goodman and Hammer in Crawdaddy! magazine, in which to two openly expressed their dislike for McLaughlin’s leadership style. The group had been recording their third album at the time, but sessions were aborted and the group decided to release a live album entitled From Nothingness To Eternity (which contained several of the songs from the aborted session) in its place.
After the original group fell apart, McLaughlin reassembled the group twice and continued to release albums under the Mahavishnu Orchestra banner. Three were released in the mid-70’s, and two more in the mid-80’s (one of these later albums even featured original member Billy Cobham on drums). McLaughlin also released several solo albums and albums in collaboration with Carlos Santana, Paco De Lucia, Al DiMiola and many other musicians. The other four original members went on to successful careers in music. Cobham enjoyed a successful solo career, as well as making guest appearances on albums by several notable musicians, including George Duke, Bob Weir, Jack Bruce, Mark-Almond and Stanley Clarke. Rick Laird toured with Stan Getz and Chick Corea, as well as putting out one solo album in 1977 before retiring completely from music in 1982. He now works as a photographer and teaches bass guitar. Jan Hammer released several solo albums, as well as collaborative albums with Jerry Goodman and Neal Schon (of Journey fame). He also worked regularly with Jeff Beck and Al DiMiola, as well as composing several television and film scores, most notably the music for the Miami Vice TV show. Jerry Goodman also found work in scoring films and performing as a session musician, appearing on albums by Hall & Oates, Styx, Derek Sherinian, The Dixie Dregs and Dream Theater. He also released three solo albums in the 1980’s, as well as a sole collaborative effort with Jan Hammer, 1974’s Like Children.
In summary, The Inner Mounting Flame can be enjoyed by people of vastly differing tastes. Those who are into rock and metal will enjoy the hard-rocking riffs and the saturated guitar tones, those into jazz will enjoy the improvisational nature of the music and the virtuosity of the musicians. All in all, it represents one of the truest “fusions” (for lack of a better word) of jazz and rock. The compositions are tight and perfectly executed, but not so tight as to lose the freewheeling spark that makes it rock so hard. Overall, it is one of my favorite albums of all time, an album that has inspired not only fusion musicians, but bands such as Black Flag, The Mars Volta and Cynic. This is what jazz-fusion can and should sound like, not the cheesy, overly-produced stuff that came in the later 70’s and 80’s, music that was more for showing off skills. The music on The Inner Mounting Flame is raw and powerful, capable of evoking the deepest of emotions. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/6XHQCPGwvSaqv9MZ2tauqr