ALTHOUGH the Mahavishnu Orchestra didn't invent fusion jazz, it did quite a lot to set standards within the genre. Between the impossibly fast solos of guitarist John McLaughlin and the awesome muscularity of Billy Cobham's equally virtuosic drumming, this group served as the model for a whole generation of glib wunderkinder, possessed of unnerving technique and no idea of what to do with it. As the original Mahavishnu Orchestra found out, fusion was something of a dead end, particularly for those only interested in becoming the fastest gun in town. As audiences made abundantly clear, Speed Bores.
Which, no doubt, goes a long way toward explaining why "Mahavishnu," McLaughlin's resurrection of the name he renounced eight years ago (along with his then-guru Sri Chinmoy), lacks the hyperkinetic fire of old. Sure, McLaughlin is still incredibly fast, but he no longer plays as though speed were his only interest. For one thing, his Synclavier II digital guitar has placed an additional dimension of tonal color at his command, giving his playing a new area to explore.
Mostly, though, the new Mahavishnu seems reflective of an entirely different aesthetic than its predecessor. McLaughlin certainly isn't afraid to strut his stuff, whether through the high-speed hijinks of "East Side West Side" or the sophisticated funk of "Nightrider." But far more of the album is devoted to subdued pastorals, such as "Clarendon Hills," which match the added texture of McLaughlin's digital guitar with soft washes of synthesizer and the warm lyricism of Bill Evans' saxophone. Even with the mighty Cobham churning behind them, these pieces capture something of the peace McLaughlin's earlier output alluded to at best. Mahavishnu -- "Mahavishnu" (Warner Brothers 25190-1); appearing Sunday at the Wax Museum.