John McLaughlin - guitar; Jerry Goodman - violin; Richard Laird - bass; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Billy Cobham - drums
Most of the musicians that recorded and performed with Miles Davis during his early explorations into electric instrumentation went on to form bands of their own. Of these groups intent on further exploring the new ground that Miles was forging into, few were as adept or as influential as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a globally diverse group formed by legendary English guitarist John McLaughlin. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, the group - who also brought elements of Far Eastern music, R&B, Classical and occasionally even Country to the table - created music that was often intricate and complex, performed by musicians who's virtuosity thrilled audiences and critics alike. The group had a firm grip on dynamics and were equally adept at dense, aggressive flights of musical intensity as they were at creating moments of impassioned, spiritual contemplation.
This performance, significantly captured between their groundbreaking first and second album releases, finds the group at the peak of creativity and power. Recorded at the intimate Berkeley Community Theater, this concert is not only a stellar example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity, but is one of the longest and most intense performances to ever be captured on tape.
The first half hour features highly expanded versions of the yet to be recorded opening tracks of the group's second album. Opening with the title track "Birds Of Fire," followed by McLaughlin's tribute to the master himself, "Miles Beyond," the group displays their breathtaking improvisational abilities, expanding both pieces to almost three times the length of their studio counterparts.
Following this segment of initial intensity, the group settles into a more relaxed groove with a track from their debut album, "You Know, You Know." A much slower piece, the song's dominated by an R&B influenced bassline and contains tasteful arpeggios and unusual accent placements. The rhythm section of Laird and Cobham is showcased here, and is shown to be just as adept creating subtlety as intensity. One of the band's most popular first album tracks, "The Dance Of Maya," is featured, and likewise gets a highly expanded treatment. Many subtle changes occur during its extended explorations, and the track is certainly one of the most intriguing and accessible pieces for newcomers to the band.
After all the fury that occurred during the last hour of the show, the comparatively tranquill "Sanctuary" provides a wonderful contrast in mood. Jan Hammer's introspective synthesizer solo weeps while Goodman's wailing violin compliments McLaughlin's guitar. The "A Lotus On Irish Streams" continues in a contemplative mode with a gentle, serenading atmosphere. Hammer's keyboards propel the track, but it's the occasional speed soloing from McLaughlin, and especially the poignant violin contributions of Jerry Goodman, that provide the flavor and spiritual atmosphere of this track.
Many consider the Mahavishnu Orchestra to be the most influential of all the jazz-rock fusion groups to follow in the wake of Miles Davis' groundbreaking Bitches Brew sessions. While the genre would continue to grow and diversify in the years to come, few groups would approach the originality or musicianship that the Mahavishnu Orchestra displayed.