Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
Musicians that recorded and performed with Miles Davis during his early explorations into electric instrumentation inevitably went on to form bands of their own, but few were as adept or as influential as the 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 Far Eastern, R&B 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 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 lasted barely three years and only released two studio albums and one live recording, but these recordings had a profound effect, redefining the jazz/rock fusion movement in the process.
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 become one of the most exciting bands on the planet. The material from the group's blazing sophomore studio effort, Birds Of Fire was introduced into the live repertoire and they were consciously taking a more improvisational approach to much of The Inner Mounting Flame material.
This February 1973 performance captures the group as they were diversifying the onstage repertoire and extending the improvisational approach. Recorded at Cornell University, this performance is yet another stellar example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity. They begin the set much like many 1972 sets, with the opening title track of the second album, Birds Of Fire. This intense, high energy number then segues into McLaughlin's tribute to the master himself, "Miles Beyond," a funky and more relaxed display. Both compositions are nearly twice the length of the studio recordings. As remarkable as this opening sequence is, it is a mere warm-up exercise to the devastating "Noonward Race" which follows. This is the Mahavishnu Orchestra at full throttle and playing at warp speed. To break up the intensity level and give the audience a chance to catch their collective breath, McLaughlin switches to acoustic guitar, Hammer plays acoustic piano and along with Jerry Goodman on violin, perform a lovely acoustic trio rendition of the more classically influenced ballad, "A Lotus on Irish Streams."
Then it is on to perhaps the group's most fully realized composition, "One Word." Another piece from the Birds Of Fire album, this begins with the extended snare drum roll from Cobham before launching into a haunting and frightening sequence that gives way to a relatively straightforward jam, with McLaughlin adding delicious effect-laden guitar over a solid groove, while the band members trade solos. Billy Cobham gets a solo spot in the middle, 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. This piece is the unquestionable highlight of the show and although it clocks in at 20 minutes here, "One Word" would continue to expand in the coming months, sometimes reaching nearly half an hour in length.
A blazing "Vital Transformation," in 9/8 time closes the set and 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 blend of all the elements that comprised the band's music, condensed into seven minutes of pure power. Like all the music performed on this night, it burns with an intensity that will leave a lasting impression on all who dare to listen.
As the Mahavishnu Orchestra ventured into the final year of the original lineup, they began headlining more shows, which provided them more time to experiment on stage. In the months to come, this would be taken to the extreme, with compositions often stretching out to over twenty minutes. However, this performance is a prime example of the middle phase of the original lineup, when they were simultaneously introducing new material to the live repertoire and taking the more familiar first album material further than it had gone before.