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 early 1973, The Mahavishnu Orchestra had firmly established their reputation and with little over a year of live performances behind them, they had become one of the most exciting bands on the planet. This January 1973 recording captures the group shortly after the release of their highly acclaimed second album, Birds Of Fire. Recorded at Toronto's Convocation Hall, this performance, although incomplete, captures the group as they were diversifying the onstage repertoire and extending the improvisational approach. It is also worth noting that this performance occurred the night before the band recorded their now legendary King Biscuit Flower Hour performance in Buffalo, New York . Containing three of the most compelling compositions from the band's debut album, two from Birds Of Fire and one destined for their live album later that year, this performance is yet another stellar example of the band's diverse repertoire, high energy and fluid virtuosity.
The performance begins with an incendiary reading of the opening track of their debut album, "Meeting Of The Spirits," which is explosive, extended and pummeling in its ferocity. While initially faithful to the original album arrangement, here the composition is doubled in length, seething with an intensity that far surpasses the studio recording. This high energy opener segues directly into the infectious groove of "You Know, You Know," dominated by an R&B influenced bass line and containing tasteful arpeggios and unusual accent placements. The rhythm section of Laird and Cobham are showcased here and the entire group proves that they are equally effective at subtlety as they are at intensity.
The expansive "Dream" which follows allows the group to stretch out even further. 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. At approximately five minutes in, Cobham signals the rest of the musicians to join in. Rick Laird establishes a strong groove on bass, which is reinforced by Hammer, who then begins soloing. For much of this performance, Hammer is in particularly fine form, often leading the way. Goodman's violin states the theme again several minutes later, before a ferocious jam ensues, with the tempo increasing faster and faster. This becomes a head spinning display of creativity and technical virtuosity. Toward the end, McLaughlin takes a searing solo that develops into ferocious instrumental combat between he and Billy Cobham. A full 24 minutes after it began, the musicians reinstate the theme and bring this remarkable composition to a dramatic close.
One of the band's most popular first album tracks, "The Dance Of Maya," follows and it too gets a highly expanded treatment. This piece features an infectious rhythmic pattern that compliments 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. Many subtle changes occur during the extended exploration to follow and despite its imposing 20+ minute length, this is one of the most intriguing and accessible pieces for newcomers to the band. Following the initial sequence, the rhythm section drops out completely, with the front line musicians remaining as a trio. The interaction between Goodman's pizzicato violin, McLaughlin's guitar and Hammer's electric piano is not only technically brilliant, but is brimming with humor and playfulness. These musicians are obviously having a lot of fun here, an aspect that is often overshadowed by the complexity of the group's music. Cobham and Laird eventually join back in and after a few surprising stop/starts that intentionally serve to jolt the audience, they launch into a cosmic jam with Jerry Goodman as the primary pilot. Following Goodman's lead, McLaughlin rips into a sizzling solo with Billy Cobham in tow. The unison playing here is often 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 in a mind-blowing display of musical telepathy.
The remaining 15 minutes of the recording focus on Birds Of Fire material. "Sanctuary," which begins this final sequence, is a tranquil contemplative piece that sticks relatively close to the studio arrangement. Jan Hammer's introspective synthesizer solo weeps while Goodman's wailing violin compliments McLaughlin's guitar. This serves as a calming interlude before the group tackles "One Word." Unfortunately incomplete due to tape stock running out, what was captured is quite exciting. Following Billy Cobham's extended tension-inducing snare roll, the group launches into the haunting and frightening sequence that opens this composition. Following the initial statement, this gives way to an extended improvisation showcasing the remarkable musicianship of bassist Rick Laird. The tape stock runs out shortly before the eight-minute mark, but not before treating listeners to a prime example of Rick Laird clearly leading the way.