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.
In July of 1973, Mahavishnu Orchestra convened at London's Trident Studios to record their ill-fated third studio album. Despite the strength of the material, which for the first time featured compositions by band members other than McLaughlin, the Trident sessions would not see the light of day for several decades. With insufficient rehearsal time and relationships within the band becoming strained, the results were deemed unsatisfactory and a plan was hatched to record the new material live instead. McLaughlin and Cobham would soon embark on a tour to promote the Love, Devotion, Surrender album with Carlos Santana, further straining relationships within the band, which would dissolve by the end of the year. Between the Trident sessions and the Santana/McLaughlin tour, Mahavishnu Orchestra continued touring the United States and two of the most noteworthy performances occurring on August 17th and 18th, 1973 before outdoor audiences ten thousand strong at the Schaefer Music Festival in New York City's Central Park, Columbia Records recorded these performances on a 24 track mobile unit and released three excerpts (Trilogy, Sister Andrea and Dreams) from the second night as the group's one and only live album, "Between Nothingness And Eternity."
Until now, only those three compositions were available from this now legendary two-night stand. Thanks to sound engineer Dinky Dawson's raw board tapes, listeners now have the ability to hear just how magnificent these performances were. For this pair of concerts, Dawson assembled the largest sound reinforcement system of his career up to this point. Utilizing the entirety of his Acoustic Suspension System in addition to The Byrds' WEM system just to reproduce the bass frequencies, Dawson had the Mahavishnu Orchestra (especially Cobham's drum kit) loud, clear and sonically resonating across the massive outdoor space. More than four decades after the fact, listeners can finally experience the live album material in context of the much longer performance and listen to both of these Central Park performances in their near entirety.
Like the following night (also available here in the Concert Vault), presented here is Dawson's recording of the August 17, 1973 Central Park performance, which not only contains alternate versions of everything on the Between Nothingness and Eternity album, but a wealth of material from The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire albums performed by the original lineup at their peak. This extraordinary recording begins with Cobham's gong ringing through Central Park, as McLaughlin's phase-shifted guitar begins washing over the massive audience, gradually increasing in volume until the band kicks in to state the melody. Although the following night's performance of "Trilogy" would be the version chosen for the band's live album, this alternate take is equally thrilling. Cobham and Laird anchor a 7/8 time signature while McLaughlin and Hammer explore "The Sunlit Path," its initial sequence. The introspective middle section, "La Mere de la Mer," is a stellar display of the group's command of dynamics. McLaughlin plays delicate 12-string arpeggios; Hammer interjects bird calls from his mini-moog as Goodman and Laird begin a tranquilizing duet. This gently weaving second serves as a tranquil prelude to the pummeling third section, "Tomorrow's Not The Same." Just when one least expects it, Cobham signals the sudden transition with a monstrous snare roll that propels the band into a blazing jam, featuring hyper speed improvisations. Goodman, McLaughlin and Hammer all take opportunities to solo, before the entire band miraculously returns to main theme once again and ends with the discerning New York City audience roaring its approval.
With only a few seconds to collect their breath, they continue with Jan Hammer's signature composition for the group, "Sister Andrea." The band had been developing this piece for some time, but here it is coming to full fruition. Uncharacteristically funky, this highly elastic groove fest features sizzling 12-string solos from McLaughlin, wild bursts from Hammer and highlights the grittier rock side to Goodman's violin virtuosity, which pumps his amplified violin through a wah-wah pedal. The initial Hammer-led opening sequence is longer here than on the live album take (recorded the following night), but likewise dissolves into a more tranquilizing middle section that inspires a spectacular solo guitar outburst from McLaughlin, who is simply overflowing with creativity here. With the band joining back in, this rapidly builds to a white-hot frenzy that features a series of bluesy exchanges between Goodman and Hammer before ending spectacularly.
The remainder of the performance focuses on older material, beginning with the Birds Of Fire composition "Hope." This unfolds in an elegant, magisterial way, before the band suddenly blasts off into "Awakening" from their debut album The Inner Mounting Flame. Awakening has moments of frightening intensity and the telepathy between these musicians is 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 and astonishing. Of particular note is an impressive sequence featuring McLaughlin playing alone between the second and third reinstatements of the theme. He burns for several minutes unaccompanied before Cobham joins back in. Both interject a rapid barrage of ideas, while Cobham does more with a hi-hat and snare drum than most drummers are capable of with an entire kit. Cobham concludes with a brief solo of his own before the band wraps things up with the compositions' dizzying conclusion. After nearly 15 solid minutes of high tension, the gentle acoustic prelude section to "Dream" comes wafting over like a cool summer breeze.
By the time of these Central Park performances, "Dream" had become one of the group's finest explorations, allowing the group to thoroughly flex their improvisational muscles. A masterpiece of tension and release, "Dream" is equal parts lush and ferocious and features four distinct time signatures! It begins in a tranquil manner, with McLaughlin and Goodman establishing the initial theme in 15/4 time. The Central Park performances of this composition are notable as McLaughlin plays the meditative opening on acoustic guitar, which he would continue to do during the band's final months together. At approximately five minutes in, Cobham signals the rest of the musicians to join in. The main theme is first presented, serving as a periodic bridge between the improvisational flights, as the composition morphs into 15/16 time. Rick Laird establishes an insistent groove on bass, which is reinforced by McLaughlin's and Hammer's leads that dart in and around each other. The main theme is reinstated again several minutes later, before Goodman takes a funky solo of his own, with the group now in 15/8 time. With the rest of the band dropping out, McLaughlin and Cobham then engage in ferocious instrumental combat. One of the most thrilling guitar/drums duels imaginable, this seemingly superhuman effort continues for several sizzling minutes before the entire band reinstates the theme for the final time and heads toward the conclusion, now in 15/4 time. Over the next three minutes, the composition gradually ramps down concluding a truly staggering performance. Although the following night's "Dream" would be chosen for the live Between Nothingness And Eternity album, this night's performance is equally intense.
Next up is the infectious groove of "You Know You Know," dominated by an R&B influenced bass line and containing tasteful arpeggios and unusual accent placements. One of the more astonishing compositions from the first album, this serves to showcase the remarkable agility of the Laird/Cobham rhythm section and proves they are equally effective at subtlety as they are at intensity. Following this first album number, Cobham's tight snare roll signals the beginning of "One Word," which concludes the set. A centerpiece of the Birds Of Fire album and what many consider to be the band's single greatest composition, this magnificent performance of "One Word" is captured complete, uninterrupted and like the following night, is staggering in it's intensity. It begins with the haunting and ominous opening sequence, which then gives way to an astonishing improvisation by bass player Rick Laird. With Laird's bass the prominent driving element, soon accentuated by Hammer's percolating mini-moog, a deep groove develops that intensifies as McLaughlin begins accenting the jam with his rhythmically slashing guitar. Shortly before the eight minute mark, McLaughlin cuts loose as a three-way call and response develops between him, Goodman and Hammer. Beneath all this, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while contributing to the overall searing effect. McLaughlin's unbridled enthusiasm is clearly audible here, even when he is just comping behind Goodman or Hammer. His comping seems to ratchet up the tension, making each of his solo runs all the more satisfying for their sense of explosive release. Following the barrage of solos from the front line, the band dramatically drops out, as Billy Cobham takes a powerfully finessed solo of his own, beginning smoothly and continuously escalating in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the composition's swirling finale. The Central Park audience erupts with applause that doesn't let up until the band returns to the stage for an encore.
For the encore, the Mahavishnu Orchestra delve into another of the most popular first album tracks, "The Dance Of Maya," with its infectious rhythmic pattern complimenting the melodic line. Once the initial sequence has been established, the band suddenly shifts the instrumental focus, with Cobham playing a bluesy 10/8 drum pattern. There are many moments of brilliance here and many subtle changes occur during the extended exploration to follow. One of the most fascinating sequences occurs right off, following the initial opening sequence, when McLaughlin and the rhythm section drop out completely, leaving Goodman and Hammer to toy with each other. The interaction between Goodman's pizzicato violin and Hammer's electric piano is a pure delight, full of humor and playfulness. Cobham and Laird eventually join back in reinforcing the blues based heart of this composition. After a few surprising stop/starts to jolt the audience, they launch into an infectious jam with Jerry Goodman as the primary pilot. Equal parts blues and funk this is an extraordinary sequence that leads up to McLaughlin ripping into a staggering solo with Billy Cobham in tow. The unison playing here is equal parts thrilling and confounding. At times one can sense McLaughlin and Cobham toying with each other, just to see what the other will do and one would be hard pressed to find a more impressive display of musical telepathy. Thankfully, the entire McLaughlin/Cobham sequence was captured, but just as the rest of the band starts joining back in, Dawson's tape stock ran out failing to capture the last several minutes of this incendiary encore. That flaw aside, this recording encapsulates all the elements of this monstrously talented band as they approached the last several months of performing together, a mere 24 hours before the recordings for Between Nothingness And Eternity occurred.
(Written by Alan Bershaw)