First Mahavishnu and the ‘Czech Hammer’
“Only in spontaneity can we be who we truly are”. John McLaughlin
Mahavishnu Orchestra‘s original lineup featured “Mahavishnu” John McLaughlin ( Yorkshire, England) on acoustic and electric guitars, with members Billy Cobham (Panama) on drums, Rick Laird ( Dublin, Ireland) on bass guitar, Jan Hammer (Prague, Czech Republic) on electric and acoustic piano and synthesizer, and Jerry Goodman (Chicago, Illinois, USA) on violin.
McLaughlin and Cobham met while performing and recording with Miles Davis during the Bitches Brew sessions
“At the risk of sounding hopelessly romantic, love is the key element. I really love to play with different musicians who come from different cultural backgrounds”. John McLaughlin
McLaughlin was also influenced in his conception of the band by his studies with Indian guru Sri Chinmoy, who encouraged him to take the name “Mahavishnu” which means “Divine compassion, power and justice.” or simply “Great Vishnu“, an aspect of Vishnu.
Vishnu is a popular Hindu deity and is portrayed as Supreme Being in Vaishnavism and as Purushottama or Supreme Purusha in ancient sacred texts like the Bhagavad Gita.
Vishnu is also known as Narayana and Hari. The Vishnu Sahasranama declares Vishnu as Paramatman (supreme soul) and Parameshwara (supreme God). It describes Vishnu as the all-pervading essence of all beings, the master of—and beyond—the past, present and future, the creator and destroyer of all existences, one who supports, preserves, sustains and governs the universe and originates and develops all elements within.
“In my opinion, there is one singular problem with religions in general: they are exclusive. To me, this exclusivity is not right”. John McLaughlin
Mahavishnu Orchestra musical style was an original blend of genres: they combined the high-volume electrified rock sound that had been pioneered by Jimi Hendrix (whom McLaughlin had jammed with on his initial arrival in New York as part of the Tony Williams Lifetime), complex rhythms in unusual time signatures that reflected McLaughlin’s interest in Indian classical music as well as funk, and harmonic influence from European classical music.
“I find Indian music very funky. I mean it’s very soulful, with their own kind of blues. But it’s the only other school on the planet that develops improvisation to the high degree that you find in jazz music. So we have a lot of common ground”. John McLaughlin
The group’s early music, represented on such albums as The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973)
The Inner Mounting Flame – 1971
All tracks composed by John McLaughlin.
1.”Meeting of the Spirits” – 6:52
2.”Dawn” – 5:10
3.”The Noonward Race” – 6:28
4.”A Lotus On Irish Streams” – 5:39
5.”Vital Transformation” – 6:16
6.”The Dance of Maya” – 7:17
7.”You Know You Know” – 5:07
8.”Awakening” – 3:32
“I don’t have any message in the music. Music will be fine as long as you take care of yourself”. John McLaughlin
Birds of Fire is Mahavishnu Orchestra’s second album. It was released in the first half of 1973 and is the last studio album by the original Mahavishnu Orchestra line-up, before the group dissolved, although Between Nothingness and Eternity, a live album, was recorded and released later that same year
1. “Birds of Fire” 5:50
2. “Miles Beyond (Miles Davis)” 4:47
3. “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters” 2:54
4. “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” 0:24
5. “Thousand Island Park” 3:23
6. “Hope” 1:59
7. “One Word” 9:57
8. “Sanctuary” 5:05
9. “Open Country Joy” 3:56
10. “Resolution” 2:09
All tracks composed by John McLaughlin.
“I don’t have any particular goals in making a recording. In a way the recording is itself the goal. The music comes into my mind, and from there the main job is to give form to it”. John McLaughlin
Due to the pressures of sudden fame, exhaustion and a lack of communication, the original band began to tire as 1973 continued. The stress was further exacerbated by a disastrous recording session (from a personal relationship standpoint) at London’s Trident Studios that found some of the players not speaking to others.
Their project was never fully completed. The last straw came as John McLaughlin read an interview in Crawdaddy! magazine in which Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman expressed their frustrations with John’s leadership style. An effort to fix things back in New York fell short.
McLaughlin in the later 1970s stated in an interview in Gig magazine that he would like the album to come out, as he thought it was good. In its place, the live album “Between Nothingness and Eternity” was released instead, featuring material from the studio album.
Almost 30 years later, during the beginning of a renaissance of Mahavishnu’s music, the incomplete album from the failed London recording was released as The Lost Trident Sessions.
“The moment you start to talk about playing music, you destroy music. It cannot be talked about. It can only be played, enjoyed and listened to”. John McLaughlin
“The Czech Hammer”
“Emotions are the fuel to really move you along – that’s the only way you can create music. If you don’t feel any emotions, it’s not going to happen”. Jan Hammer
Jan Hammer was born in Prague, then capital of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). His mother was Vlasta Pruchová, a well-known Czech singer, and his father was a doctor who worked his way through school playing vibes and bass. Hammer began playing the piano at the age of four and his formal instruction started two years later
“Growing up, I was very much interested in jazz music”. Jan Hammer
When the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Hammer’s studies at the Academy were cut short.
“It was very hard to get any records, so the only source for us to really hear what was happening was listening to the Voice of America. We would be taping all the broadcast and then sharing the tapes and talking about it”. Jan Hammer
He moved to the United States and resolved to become a citizen after receiving a scholarship at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Upon completion of his studies, Hammer spent a year touring with Sarah Vaughan.
“I spent well over a year on the road with Sarah Vaughn”. That was amazing.Jan Hammer
Recorded with Elvin Jones and Jeremy Steig, then moved to Lower Manhattan and joined the original lineup of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. they performed some 530 shows before their farewell concert on December 30, 1973.
Hammer was one of the early pioneers who played the Mini Moog synthesizer in a touring group.