Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
The initial classic lineup of the Mahavishnu Orchestra lasted less than three years and only released two studio albums and one live recording during this era, but these recordings had a profound effect, redefining the jazz/rock fusion movement. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, the group created music that was often intricate and complex, performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences, musicians and critics alike.
By 1973, the Mahavishnu Orchestra had firmly established their reputation and had become one of the most exciting bands on the planet. Midway through the year, the band took a brief hiatus from the road, convening at London's Trident Studios to record a third studio album. Although the new material was strong and McLaughlin consciously loosened his control to allow Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, and Rick Laird to contribute their own compositions to the sessions, the album (later released as The Lost Trident Sessions) would not see the light of day for another 26 years. Instead, the band decided to record a live album, featuring much of the same material, which became the final release during the band's existence, Between Nothingness And Eternity.
This October 1973 performance at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine captures the group as they were at the peak of their improvisational abilities, with the newest material now integrated into the performing repertoire. Despite the personal problems and the grueling schedule of the past two years, the group is still blazing with energy here. Although the first half of this performance was not captured, the second half is another intriguing listen to the group during their final months together and yet another stellar example of the band's improvisational creativity and fluid virtuosity.
This recording is also unique in that it serves notice that bassist Rick Laird, who always solidly anchored the band's incredible flights, is eager to extend his role within the group dynamic. Laird unquestionably becomes a prominent leading force on this performance. Things begin with the closing sequence of the evening, starting with "Steppings Tones," Laird's writing contribution to the group's ill-fated third studio album. Based on a repeating cycle of pummeling bass notes, this remains close to the studio recording in execution and is relatively short in terms of the later era repertoire, serving as a calming prelude to the staggering intensity of "One Word." However, it also serves notice that Rick Laird is prepared to step up and on this particular night, he is a prominent leading force in the "One Word" to follow.
This version of "One Word" is unique for that very fact. Beginning in the normal way, with Cobham's extended snare roll that triggers the haunting and frightening opening sequence, this gives way to a short but staggering speed metal sequence from McLaughlin. However, the band drops back out setting the stage for Laird to assume control. Over the next several minutes, Laird develops a fascinating bass solo, with only the faintest of accompaniment from Hammer's synthesizer. Rarely one to step out within the context of this group, this allows listeners to hear just how creative and unique Laird's approach to his instrument can be. This solo is thoroughly captivating, becoming more complex as it develops. Around the 7:45 mark, Hammer and Cobham join back in, percolating underneath the bass, which is getting funkier by the minute. Just shy of the nine-minute mark, Mclaughlin joins back in, firing off searing guitar leads. At times this jam is reminiscent of Miles Davis' Tribute To Jack Johnson album, with similar deep funky grooves. By ten minutes in, Goodman has also returned to the fray and he, Mclaughlin and Hammer begin taking turns trading a barrage of powerful solos. Billy Cobham also gets a showcase in the middle, beginning smoothly and continuously escalating in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the explosive second half of the piece. When the group launches back in, playing in 13/8 time, continually increasing in speed, McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer all blaze away in a manner that is nothing short of telepathic. Beneath all this, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while contributing to the overall searing effect. This spectacular performance brings the show to a close, but they return for an encore.
Presumably, the encore began with "Hope," which was not captured, but when the recording resumes they have blasted back off into "Awakening," the concluding track from their debut album two years earlier. This has moments of frightening intensity and the telepathy between these musicians is functioning at an astounding level. There's aggressiveness to this performance that may be reflective of problems within the band, but the chemistry between these musicians is undeniable. After nearly 18 minutes of high tension playing, this performance comes to a frenetic close, proving once again that the improvisational abilities of the group were at the most astonishing level during the latter part of 1973. This music burns with an intensity few groups have ever matched in live performance and is a vivid example of the band taking improvisation to the extreme. All of the musicians are clearly challenging themselves to push the envelope here, with constantly surprising and utterly compelling results.