Power, Passion, and Beauty

Last month I had the opportunity to read Power, Passion, and Beauty, the story of the Mahavishu Orchestra, published by AbstractLogix. As many of you can imagine, I’m a huge fan of John McLaughlin, and as a fan, the book did not disappoint. Meticulously researched the book’s organizing structure of a timeline lets history tell the story without the author getting in the way. And what a history it was…

Mentored by Miles Davis, John McLaughlin was destined by a few words from the great trumpet player to start his own band and bring to this world a glimpse of John’s cosmic music. Like the author (only moreso), I learned of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra well after there was any chance of me seeing them play live. And thanks to the author, I was better able to understand why it was that I liked their music so much while also having such a difficult time with some of his recordings. (Hint: one record was released based on edits they could find after the master tapes were destroyed.)

The book was rich with insights valuable to me: the absolute hell that is touring, the challenge of maintaining an authentic vision, and, perhaps most importantly, the fundamental issue of copyrights and credit-sharing amongs musians who live and work together over an extended period of time. And it is that last point upon which I wish to expand.

The form of Jazz music seems uniquely suited to absolutely defy both conventional copyright law and the fair expectations of the musicians who play it. I am not a lawyer, but I am told that copyright can lock down a specific melody, lyrics, and even the soundwaves of a recorded instrument (samples), but copyright does not cover chord changes or rhythmic forms, and it is the chord changes that form the sturdy structure of any jazz composition. As my bass teacher Kai Eckhardt once taught me, there are forms of jazz where the idea is to solo entirely outside of any of the conventional melody notes, thereby creating an infinite world of non-melodic possibilities. (And as numerous lawyers have reminded me, in America, anybody can sue anybody for anything, no matter how frivolous.)

It seems that in the Jazz world there evolved two schools of authorship (and crediting): one in which the band leader got all the credit and one in which any participating player would get credit for whatever they wanted to claim was theirs. The book tells the story of the Miles Davis tune “Right Off” which, when you hear it, is all John. But in Miles’s band, it was Miles’s tune, and that was fine with John. He didn’t leave to get the credit, he left to write his own songs, which he did with Miles’s blessing.

But over time, the extraordinarily talented and hard-working band members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra began to feel as is the music they were playing was not 100% John’s–they wanted credit, and they didn’t know how to talk about it, so things festered until the band split up, never to reform.

I’m a big believer in sharing credit, and a big believer in authenticity and integrity. How does one split up the creative credit of a group of musicians playing off each other, legally or otherwise? Are the Creative Commons licenses enough? Or will they only accelerate the disenhantment of the various parties who all play some role? And what of Tagore’s premise?  I can tell you that several musicians start to spit at the idea that the listener has anything to do with the creation of their music!

All in all, the book does a great job of just telling the story and letting the reader draw their own conclusions (or at least consider very general questions in the context of the greatest band that ever was).

Highly recommended!

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