Mahavishnu Orchestra: Smile of the Beyond
Smile of the Beyond
Apocalypse (Columbia CK 46111)
Gayle Moran (keyboards), Michael Tilson Thomas (piano), Carol Shive (violin), Marsha Westbrook (viola), Philip Hirschi (cello), Ralphe Armstrong (bass), Michael Walden (drums), London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.
Composed by John McLaughlin; orchestrated by Michael Gibbs.
Recorded: London, England, March 1974
Rating: 88/100 (learn more)
In the jazz-fusion world, vocals are always a tricky proposition. Should they be jazz-like or rock-like? How do you find the in-between? Rarely are vocals up to the standards of the superior musicians playing behind them. Return to Forever's Flora Purim had the formula down, but even she was part of the more acoustic version of that band. I think by acclamation the worst fusion vocalist of all time was Tony Williams. Long story short: there has been a paucity of effective fusion singers.
When John McLaughlin put together the second and larger version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he went an entirely different route by bringing singer and keyboardist Gayle Moran aboard. Moran, who was recommended to John by Chick Corea, had an operatic range and a Broadway background. She was certainly not a typical jazz or rock singer. But she was the perfect vocalist for the role McLaughlin had envisioned. Her ethereal sound gave the music a spiritual bent. I could describe her singing as powerfully angelic. Her voice was distinct enough to sound pleasant over the horns and strings of a symphony orchestra and penetrating enough, in a contrasting way, to sound good over the heavy electronics that McLaughlin and Jean Luc-Ponty were displaying in the band. That being said, Moran is still somewhat of a controversial voice in fusion history. The argument isn't whether she was a good singer. I think the universal answer to that is that she clearly was. Rather, it was more a question of whether she was right for the material she was asked to perform. This would become an even greater issue after she left Mahavishnu and joined her (by then) husband Chick Corea's later Return to Forever band. The fact that there is still controversy about her contribution to the genre is evidence that she did contribute.
"Smile of the Beyond" is a cosmic spiritual. Of all of the Mahavishnu tunes over the years, it contains the most dominant vocals. Moran is heard in the song's extended opening over a spare background. Her upper-register voice reverberates around a cloudless sky. It is beautiful and moving. The opening melody is presented at a snail's pace and continues for one or two minutes too long. Finally the electric core of the Mahavishnu Orchestra enters and destroys the serene setting Moran has established. "Smile of the Beyond" is now a kick-ass fusion explosion. It's as if, after the angel call, Armageddon arrives. The high-energy synergy of the band has never been more evident than on this performance. This is music taken to the stratosphere. At song's end, Moran returns in full glory to reassure that the answers still lay out there in the cosmos.
So why is this reviewer giving a 94-point jazz.com performance only an 88 rating? It is not Gayle Moran's fault, but I think McLaughlin gave the vocal section one or two more choruses than it needed. The growing momentum of the tune is somewhat stilted by this. You take away a minute of the vocal section and "Smile of the Beyond" would have been better.
Reviewer: Walter Kolosky