The Hard Rubber Orchestra will be revisiting the highly technical hybrid of jazz/rock of the Mahavishnu Orchestra — an international grouping of spectacular virtuosos formed in 1971 — this Saturday.
Formed in 1971, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was an international grouping of spectacular virtuosos playing a highly technical hybrid of jazz/rock which took the group to international stardom and major rock festival stages.
Lead by guitarist John McLaughlin, the band included Czech keyboardist Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman, bassist Rick Laird and drummer Billy Cobham. Over the course of its first two albums — The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973) — the quintet would go on to inspire the entire fusion jazz scene of the mid-seventies as well as progressive and technical rock genres to this very day. Vancouver composer/bandleader/trumpeter John Korsrud was deeply influenced by the band and this week revisits the Mahavishnu Orchestra catalogue with the Hard Rubber big band.
“The Mahavishnu Orchestra was so significant in pushing the envelope, and even if McLaughlin got most of the credit which lead to the demise of the first and best version of the group, it was such a collaboration between the five of them,” says Korsrud. “The odd time signatures, virtuosity and truly exciting catchy tunes that came out of that grouping made for a great project to put together with Hard Rubber. But I have to tell you, it’s really very tough stuff to play and equally tough to arrange.”
Korsrud, pianist Fred Stride and guitarist Bill Runge all contributed arrangements of Mahavishnu material from the first two albums for the 18-piece orchestra to perform. Additionally, guest drummer Randall Stoll and keyboardist Chris Gestrin join the group to further flesh out the sound. The first time the project was presented was a great success, so the decision to reprise the performance with some new tunes came about with Hard Rubber New Music and SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs presenting.
“How challenging is this music? Let’s just say that in the 24 yearlong history of the Hard Rubber Orchestra, whenever there is beer available in the band room during the halfway break, it gets finished,” he says. “When we did this show before, nobody touched a drop, because everyone needed their A-game all the time.”
The composer admits that he believes the statements that fatigue was also a contributing factor to the fracturing of the first version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He says that the arranging styles of the contributing artists really arrived at different launching off points.
“Everyone has a different approach, and mine was to not stray too much from the original music, but just to flesh it out more, whereas Bill Runge’s was to really reimagine the work and stretch it out all over,” he says. “Fred Stride went for four big orchestral versions, including one where the piano parts alone runs 12 pages. He’s a massive talent.”
The first time around, Korsrud admits that everyone was wondering what they had gotten themselves into as the music was so challenging. But it came together marvellously and this time the key components are raring to go.
“I think it is probably the best show that we’ve ever done in the orchestra’s history, and that’s why we’re repeating it, which we really haven’t done before,” says Korsrud. “Mahavishnu was a big influence on me when I was getting started at age 17, 18 and I really liked the grey darkness of the music at the time. If metal bands go for minor chords, this band went three steps further and brought in an incredible rhythmic intensity.”
This will be a rare opportunity to hear the music that has influenced everything from King Crimson to Meshuggah and EDM producers played by some of the city’s finest musicians. In future, Korsrud is considering a Weather Report tribute and an opera based around the 2011 hockey riots is in the works.