by Polar Levine June, 2002 for popCULTmedia

The Mahavishnu Project is the freshest new music anywhere. Its indie. Punk. Pugnacious. Phat grooves that are totally unpredictable. Loud, ugly, psychedelic; and harmonically, rhythmically and melodically perverse and complex enough so that only a few dozen people in whats left of the Free World can play it.

The astounding fact is that the music that The Mahavishnu Project plays was created thirty years ago. And what it did to the worlds musicians then is what only a handful of artists have ever done: it changed the way people experience art.

Great art -- the stuff that changes everything around it -- is the synthesis of seemingly incompatible creative streams. Theres a kind of synthesis that sounds like one thing stapled onto another like Barry Manilows Copacabana, or certain classical musicians trying to play Jazz. Then you have the kind that blends its sources into a completely new and unique brew: military brass brands of the turn of the twentieth century mixed with african groove science to make jazz. Jazz mixed with contemporary classical harmony to get bebop. Blues, R&B and C&W honky tonk to make rock & roll. The African American church with R&B to get soul. Straight up African drumming plus soul to get funk. Etc.

In 1971 guitarist John McLaughlin, direct from Mile Davis genre busting Bitches Brew, borrowed the ear-ripping fuck-you brickness of Jimi Hendrix with its simple, loud and hard repetitive figures. He mixed it up with the virtuosity, harmonic and polyrhythmic depth of Coltrane-era jazz and classical. The superfast unison playing of Indian ragas also found its way into the mix. McLaughlins Mahavishnu Orchestra ripped through the early rock FM stations. Back then FM music radio was the creative medium of DJs putting together their own stream-of-consciousness mix; not suits with polling data serving up their playlists from some remote central headquarters. Mahavishnus effect on listeners was a collective vertigo -- like hearing Hendrix for the first time, Ornette Coleman, Bird, Armstrong, Stravinsky, Bob Dylan, Citizen Kane, Mean Streets, Les Desmoiselles DAvignon, Muhammed Ali. What The Fuck Is This?!

McLaughlin wrote his music in -- well, not 4/4 time or even 3/4. Most Americans will only hear music in those time signatures. In the 50s Dave Brubeck made big waves by recording alto sax player Paul Desmonds Take Five. It was elementary math as written but, damn it, it was 5/4 time and you could even count it out and impress your friends with your heptitude. Pink Floyd tried it with Money in 7/4. Bacharach did all kinds of funny time stuff. But until jazz in the 70s, Western pop music was 4/4 and an occasional waltz or 6/8 jazz waltz.

The first Mahavishnu Orchestra (with the groundbreaking lineup of Billy Cobham-drums, Jan Hammer-bass, Jerry Goodman-violin and Rick Laird-bass) served up 15/8 and 19/8. The grooves were generally broken up in a variety of patterns within the basic time signature. If the piece was in 18/8, the rhythm section might play three groups of 6 while the melody would be three groups of 5/8 and one bar of 3/8.

Supersonic riffs that sounded like the climax of a gonzo guitar solo were actually scored note for note and played in unison by guitar and violin. Billy Cobham sounded like four Keith Moons playing four different songs at the same time -- but totally in the pocket. McLaughlin played so fast, so loud and so wild. I mean -- there was nobody in rock or jazz who could do it. And he was playing blues raga bebop. This was music that required a slide rule to listen to except for one very visceral fact: it had a punk spontaneity and audacity about it that just ripped through our cultures sad phobia toward intelligence.

The band was around for three years and then their music disappeared. What followed was similar to the folk/rock that followed Dylans first electric band. In Mahavishnus wake was a movement called fusion. Some bands were great, but all were softer, if not less complex and virtuostic. Their spirituality was more Hallmark than Mahavishnu and more romantic. Almost everybody hated it or resented it for one reason or another, and Wynton Marsalis propagandized for its dismissal to a fawning press. Then fusion, as a vital creative musical force, was gone forever, neutered and homogenized into New Age and lite smooth jazz. But today were seeing a new generation of rock bands like Tool making some Mahavishnu-like funny math in a metal context.

When bebop is played as background music at Starbucks and every office has an abstract expressionist painting in the atrium, its hard to envision the horror and resentment the work of people like Armstrong, Picasso, Pollock and Parker had in their time.

But now theres The Mahavishnu Project and thirty years after the fact, the music is only a decade or so ahead of its time. Is this crew videogenic? Lets say theyre just slightly less dorky-looking than the guys on Meet The Press. But when they play, theyre Guns & Roses. Just take a few extras tugs off your beer during their set if The Look is high up on your entertainment checklist.

The Mahavishnu Project was the brainchild of drummer/vibraphonist, Gregg Bendian. He says that the Project maintains the integrity of the original music as written, but the bands musicians treat solos and the grooves played under the solos in their own way.

It will be interesting to see what happens when prog rock geeks meet head on with The Mahavishnu Project.


Polar Levine
Editor, popCULTmedia