The Mahavishnu Orchestra were a jazz fusion band formed in New York City in 1971, led by English guitarist John McLaughlin. The group underwent several line-up changes throughout its history across its two periods of activity, from 1971 to 1976 and from 1984 to 1987. With its first line-up consisting of musicians Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, and Rick Laird, the band received its initial acclaim for its complex, intense music consisting of a blend of Indian classical music, jazz, and psychedelic rock as well as its dynamic live performances between 1971 and 1973. Many members of the band have gone on to acclaimed careers of their own in the jazz and jazz fusion genres.
By mid-1971, McLaughlin had been a member of Miles Davis' band and Tony Williams' Lifetime, and released three solo albums. He then set about forming his own jazz fusion group, the first line-up of which featured Panamanian drummer Billy Cobham, Irish bassist Rick Laird, Czech keyboardist Jan Hammer, and American violinist Jerry Goodman. Cobham and Goodman had played on McLaughlin's third solo album My Goal's Beyond (1971). McLaughlin's first choice for violinist was Frenchman Jean-Luc Ponty, but he was unable to join due to immigration problems. After listening to various albums he hired Goodman, formerly of The Flock. Though American bassist Tony Levin was the first person McLaughlin wanted, Laird had known McLaughlin for several years and accepted the invitation. Hammer was found through a mutual friendship with Miroslav Vitous of the jazz fusion group Weather Report. The group's name originates from Indian spiritual leader and guru Sri Chinmoy, of whom McLaughlin had become a follower, who gave him the name Mahavishnu, "Maha" meaning "great" in Sanskrit and "vishnu" after the Hindu deity Vishnu.