Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
Most of the musicians orbiting Miles Davis during his early explorations into electric instrumentation inevitably were inspired to form bands of their own. Few were as adept , intense, or influential as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a globally diverse group that included guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Billy Cobham, both alumni of Miles Davis sessions. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, the group also brought elements of Far Eastern, R&B, Blues and Classical music to the table. The music they created was often intricate and complex, performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences, musicians, and critics alike. They were 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 only lasted a little over two years and released just two albums and one live recording during this era, but these recordings had a profound effect, virtually redefining the jazz/rock fusion movement.
By early 1973, the Mahavishnu Orchestra had firmly established their reputation. Their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, had mesmerized musicians and listeners alike and with more than a year of live performing behind them, they had arguably become the most exciting live band on the planet. The material from the group's blazing sophomore studio effort, Birds Of Fire was now integrated into the live repertoire and they were consciously taking a more improvisational approach in their performances. This February 1973 performance captures the group six months prior to the Central Park recordings issued as their live album, Between Nothingness And Eternity. Recorded on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, this performance is a stellar example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity reaching its peak.
They begin the performance with "Birds Of Fire," the title track from the recently released second album. This intense, high energy opener segues directly into another track from that album, "Open Country Joy." After the initial onslaught of "Birds Of Fire," this strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is 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 the initial musical contrast within this set. They continue with "Hope," unfolding over its brief 90 seconds in an elegant, magisterial way, before Cobham launches the group into "Awakening." This has moments of frightening intensity and the telepathy between these musicians is astounding. McLaughlin's "Miles Beyond," titled in honor of you-know-who, follows in a funky, more relaxed manner.
The remainder of the show takes things to the next level. "One Word," a centerpiece composition from the Birds Of Fire album, begins with a haunting sequence that gives way to a relatively straightforward jam, with the band members trading solo lines. Billy Cobham gets a showcase spot midway, which begins smoothly and escalates in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the explosive second half of the piece. The group launches back in, playing in 13/8 time, continually increasing in speed, with McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer blazing away, often in unison! Within this complicated time signature, one will discover McLaughlin applying a technique where he reduces his guitar strokes by one with each proceeding line, playing six notes on the first line, five on the second and so on. Beneath all this, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while contributing to the overall searing effect.
They next perform "Sanctuary," a slower contemplative piece, demonstrating that the rhythm section of Laird and Cobham are equally effective at subtlety as they are at intensity. After all the fury that occurred during the previous piece, "Sanctuary" provides some tranquility to the proceedings. Jan Hammer's introspective synthesizer solo weeps while Goodman's wailing violin complements McLaughlin's guitar. This segues into a lengthy heavily improvised version of "The Dance Of Maya" that burns for a solid 18 minutes! There are so many moments of brilliance here, it is really beyond description, but what stands out overall is that here the group is obviously having a wonderful experience playing this composition. Following the initial theme, the rhythm section drops out completely, with the front line musicians remaining as a trio. The interaction between Goodman's pizzicato violin, McLaughlin guitar, and Hammer's electric piano is full of a humor and playfulness that is absolutely delightful. Cobham and Laird eventually join back in and after a few surprising stop/starts to jolt the audience, they launch into a cosmic jam with Jerry Goodman as the primary pilot. Around the 14-minute mark, McLaughlin rips into a pulverizing solo with Billy Cobham in tow. The unison playing here is thrilling. At times one can sense McLaughlin toying with Cobham, just to see what he'll do. Despite McLaughlin's blazing speed and unpredictability, Cobham never misses a beat—another display of musical telepathy. This eventually cools down to a delicate call and response with Hammer adding his gurgling mini-moog embellishments, before all converge and reinstate the song's theme—bringing it to a close a full 26 minutes after this continuous sequence began.
To fully pummel the audience into submission, they oblige by closing the night with "Vital Transformation." In 9/8 time, this contains some of the most furious playing that the band would ever achieve. Charismatic, powerful, and blazing with energy, this is a tour-de-force synthesis of jazz, rock, funk, and R&B condensed into six minutes of pure power.
-Written by Alan Bershaw