Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
On February 18, 1973, the King Biscuit Flower Hour launched the first syndicated radio series of the rock era to reach North American radio listeners with live concert performances. Securing an agreement with Columbia Records, the premiere KBFH program featured a triple bill of Blood Sweat & Tears, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and an unknown by the name of Bruce Springsteen, each recorded live in concert just weeks before. These artists were promoting new albums at the time and the KBFH provided an exciting new opportunity to reach a national listening audience.
For many listeners, this initial KBFH program was their first exposure to the music of 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 also brought elements of 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 and was equally adept at dense, aggressive flights of feverish intensity as they were at creating moments of passionate spiritual contemplation. The classic lineup of the group released only two studio albums and one live recording during this era, but these recordings had a profound effect, redefining the jazz/rock fusion movement in the process.
By January of 1973, when the KBFH recorded the Mahavishnu Orchestra at the Century Theatre in Buffalo, New York, the group had established a strong reputation, although it was primarily among fans of Miles Davis' early explorations into electric instrumentation. They were still a relatively unknown commodity within the much larger rock world. 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. Earlier that same month, the group's blazing sophomore studio effort, Birds Of Fire, had been released and the group was now integrating that material into their live repertoire. Additionally, they were consciously taking a more improvisational approach in their performances, breathing new life into the material from their debut album. This performance not only captures the band at its most eloquent stage, but also is a stellar example of the group's fluid virtuosity. By the end of the year, this initial lineup of Mahavishnu Orchestra would perform together for the last time, but in January of 1973, the performances were consistently astonishing, overflowing with creativity and featuring the most cohesive interaction these legendary musicians would ever achieve as a unit.
Following a greeting from John McLaughlin, who communicates to the audience how happy he is to be back at the Century Theatre and feeling healthy, unlike the performance at the same venue the previous year, they begin the set with a contemplative moment of silence to set the mood. Billy Cobham's massive gong sounds the majestic opening of the title track of the new album, Birds Of Fire. Unlike most bands, which slowly build up the intensity level throughout a performance, this surging, high-energy opener sets the bar at an astonishing level from the get-go. Rather than bringing the song to its usual conclusion, here it soars directly into "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, this initial two-song sequence displays the band in top form and firing on all cylinders. There are no weak links here. This can be overwhelming at times, but it also makes repeated listens a rewarding experience.
Providing some musical contrast within this set, they next perform "Dawn," a relatively contemplative track from the first album. Another mesmerizing performance, this is a perfect example of the improvisational extremes the band was now embracing. Exploring possibilities one could barely imagine from the relatively short studio recording, it's not surprising that this track was chosen to represent the band on the initial KBFH broadcast. Many who recorded that initial broadcast, and listened to it countless times, pondered why only the first 15 minutes of "Dawn" was aired, rather than the entire performance. The time constraints of the KBFH's radio format aside, the explanation turns out to also be a logistic one, as the master multi-track reels literally ran out while this song was still in progress. Although approximately two minutes were missed during the reel changes, here for the first time listeners can enjoy the conclusion of this remarkable composition.
Also from the debut album, the set continues with a heavily improvised version of "The Dance Of Maya" that cooks for a solid 22 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 wonderfully joyous experience. Following the initial theme, the rhythm section drops out completely leaving the remaining 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 jamfest with Jerry Goodman as the primary pilot, before McLaughlin rips into a pulverizing solo with Billy Cobham in tow. The unison playing here is thrilling. At times one can sense the musicians toying with each other. Despite McLaughlin's blazing speed and unpredictability, Cobham never misses a beat—another mind-blowing display of musical telepathy. This eventually becomes 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 gloriously satisfying close.
After all the furious intensity explored so far, "Sanctuary" provides some tranquility to the proceedings. Hauntingly beautiful and taken at an extremely slow tempo in 9/4, Hammer's introspective synthesizer solo weeps while Goodman's wailing violin complements McLaughlin's guitar. Cobham and Laird establish the perfect relaxed rhythmic groove that further accentuates the contemplative mode, with a gentle serenading foundation. This transitions into the tour-de-force performance of the evening, "One Word." Beginning with a haunting and frightening sequence that gives way to a relatively straightforward jam, McLaughlin adds delicious wah-wah guitar, while the band members trade a seemingly endless barrage of solos. Billy Cobham 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 is a truly spectacular performance.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra concludes the evening with the pairing of two additional Birds Of Fire tracks. "Hope" begins contemplatively, with Mclaughlin and the group slowly building up the intensity level. This stays relatively true to the original two-minute studio arrangement, but when one expects the piece to end, they literally explode into "Celestial Terrestrial Commuters." This features expressive soloing from Hammer and blazing call and response sequences between Goodman and McLaughlin. Although every concert from this era of the group is compelling, this particular performance captures the band at a fascinating time, when the personal relationships within the band were strong and the musical possibilities were boundless.