Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
Many of the musicians who participated in Miles Davis' explorations into electric instrumentation eventually moved on to create groups of their own. Few were as adept or as influential as Mahavishnu Orchestra, a globally diverse quintet formed by British guitarist, John McLaughlin. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, this group also brought elements of Far Eastern, R&B, Blues and Classical music to the table. The Mahavishnu Orchestra created music that was often intricate and complex, performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences and critics alike. The group had a firm grip on dynamics; equally adept at dense aggressive flights of feverish intensity as they were at creating moments of passionate spiritual contemplation. This diversity and technical ability dazzled audiences the world over and helped to expose jazz and world music to a younger audience. The initial "classic" lineup of the group lasted less than three years and, despite releasing only two studio albums and one live recording during this era, they had a profound effect, redefining the jazz/rock fusion movement in the process.
By the tail end of 1973, Mahavishnu Orchestra had firmly established their reputation and was now a world-class headlining act. Their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, and its follow-up, Birds Of Fire, had mesmerized musicians and listeners alike and they had become one of the most exciting bands on the planet. Material from the group's sophomore studio effort, Birds Of Fire was now firmly ensconced into the group's performances. Tracks destined for their ill-fated third studio album (released 26 years later as The Lost Trident Sessions) was also now integrated into their live repertoire. The newer material was now formulated around riffs and repetitive patterns established by the various band members and were intentionally designed as a looser framework. With considerably more stage time, they were consciously taking the improvisational approach to its extreme.
This performance is a prime example of that extreme, capturing one of the final performances of the classic lineup, headlining a double bill, which also included Weather Report, at Cornell University's Barton Hall. The recording begins shortly in progress with "Meeting Of The Spirits." More adventurous than its studio counterpart, this is an incendiary opener that sets the stage for what is to come. The next nearly 40 minutes of the performance consists of "Trilogy" and "Sister Andrea," two compositions that had been recorded a few months prior, both during the Trident Sessions and at the Central Park concert partially released as their live album, Between Nothingness And Eternity. Not surprisingly, these performances are similar to the live album versions, but by this point both compositions have become far more improvisational. The first section of "Trilogy" is a relatively laid-back passage that soon develops into a more elaborate trade-off between McLaughlin and Hammer, with the guitar dominating. The second section is similar to the first, but with Goodman's violin dominating and Hammer providing birdcall effects via his synthesizers. Cobham's drumming is particularly impressive during this passage. Then the group suddenly launches into the third section—an aggressive hyperactive jam, first featuring a brief violin solo followed by a scorching solo from McLaughlin. The entire group develops an impressive repetition based on McLaughlin's lead riff that remains captivating for several minutes, before they revert back to the original theme, bringing "Trilogy" to a close nearly 20 minutes later.
Jan Hammer's "Sister Andrea" has also become an improvisational launch pad by this time, beginning with a bluesy funk-flavored opening sequence. After a brief spatial break, McLaughlin takes a remarkable solo with surprising twists and turns. When he reaches a crescendo and one expects another member of the band to take over, he takes off again on another impressively developed solo. Following McLaughlin's initial solos, the piece becomes dominated by Hammer and Goodman, with Laird and Cobham establishing a funky backdrop for them to improvise over. Goodman takes the initial flight with a riveting solo that features plenty of wah-wahed violin. Near the nine-minute mark, Laird reestablishes the primary statements and Hammer takes flight, complementing the bass line. Approximately a minute was lost due to a change in tape stock near the 11:30 mark, but when the recording resumes a minute or so later, Goodman is off again for a second blazing solo, followed by a second flight by Hammer on synthesizer as Cobham's hi hat dances between channels. Like the version of "Trilogy" that preceded it, the group explores "Sister Andrea" for nearly 20 minutes, before easing into the Birds Of Fire track, "Open Country Joy." This strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is perhaps the least complex, most easily accessible music the classic lineup ever played. Vacillating between a laidback county feel and frenzied rocking power, its disarming rustic theme provides musical contrast to conclude this first half of the performance. (Note: Part 2 of this performance coming to Concert Vault soon!)
Following this lineup's demise, the popularity of Mahavishnu Orchestra would only continue to increase. The profound influence they would have inspired countless less talented imitators to carry the jazz/rock fusion torch forward, but with decreasingly satisfying results. Although McLaughlin would continue with subsequent lineups of the band, all capable of devastatingly intense music, the finesse and elegance of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra would never be replicated. These musicians would occasionally work together in various combinations, but after the group completed the dates scheduled for the following month, all five would never perform together again.