Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
Musicians who 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 during this era, 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, and with little over a year of live performances behind them, they had become one of the most exciting bands on the planet. This March 1973 performance captures the group following the release of Birds Of Fire and several months before they recorded the live album, Between Nothingness And Eternity. Recorded at the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden in New York City on a stage festooned by flowers, this performance is another stellar example of the band's blazing energy and fluid virtuosity. A tangible increase in energy is par for the course in New York City, so it is not surprising that this particular performance is beyond the band's usual astonishing standards. Many musicians who the group respected and admired were in attendance, as well as friends and record company associates. The group's concentration level and sheer intensity reflects a conscious effort to play at maximum capacity throughout this show, with the improvisational level taken to glorious extremes. This night was also violinist Jerry Goodman's birthday and he is in particularly inspired and joyous form.
This incendiary performance begins with the opening track of their debut album, "Meeting Of The Spirits." One can immediately tell this performance is going to be special. Rather than easing into this piece, the initial intro sequence is explosive, extended and pummeling in its ferocity. While initially more faithful to the original album arrangement than many performances during this era, it is seething with an intensity that far surpasses the studio recording and eventually reaches nearly three times the length. This intense, high energy opener segues directly into "Open Country Joy." After the initial onslaught, this strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is the least complex, most easily accessible music the classic Mahavishnu Orchestra lineup ever played. Vacillating between a laidback country feel and frenzied rocking power, its disarming rustic theme provides contrast to what preceded it. McLaughlin and Hammer's instrumental flights are tightly woven here, joyously dancing around each other and displaying their breathtaking improvisational abilities. This opening sequence clocks in at a solid 25 minutes.
Just shy of half an hour and at the time still unrecorded and unfamiliar to audiences, the "Dream" that follows is even more staggering. This is one of the group's finest explorations, featuring extensive unison playing and one of the most fascinating guitar and drum duels ever. 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. Shortly after the seven-minute mark, Cobham signals the rest of the musicians to join in. Rick Laird establishes a strong groove on bass, which is reinforced by Hammer. A blazing speed jam ensues. A little over four minutes into this, Hammer takes an astonishing electric piano solo before the band teases the audience with demented bluesy stop/starts that seem to be challenging each other's ability to concentrate. Another ferocious jam ensues, with the tempo increasing faster and faster. This becomes a head-spinning display of creativity and technical virtuosity. McLaughlin takes a searing solo that develops into ferocious instrumental combat between he and Billy Cobham. Rick Laird keeps it anchored, but Hammer and Goodman drop out for awhile, allowing McLaughlin and Cobham to explore their telepathic and seemingly superhuman abilities. Hammer's minimoog stylings eventually ooze back into the fray, introducing a playful element amidst all the technical virtuosity. One may realize during this latter sequence that one of Hammer's greatest strengths is his sensibilities. Although certainly capable of technical virtuosity himself, here he introduces an uncomplicated playful element, full of personality, which helps balance the technical onslaught. Eventually, they reinstate the theme and bring "Dream" to a dramatic close 26 minutes after it began. This is a true tour-de-force performance that encapsulates all the elements of this monstrously talented band.
Next up is McLaughlin's tribute to Miles Davis, "Miles Beyond," with the group again displaying breathtaking abilities, but with a more relaxed and funk buoyancy. Dominated by Hammer, who remains in a particularly playful and creative mood here, he offers a barrage of demented sounds from his keyboards. Jerry Goodman also propels the basic groove, with McLaughlin, Laird and Cobham providing rhythmic punctuations and accents. Following a barrage of drums from Cobham, McLaughlin takes over for a scorching guitar solo that must have left listeners astounded. This all leads up to 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 bandmembers 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 spectacular performance brings the set to a close.
Although not captured on the tape, eyewitness accounts have none other than singer-songwriter James Taylor entering the stage prior to the group's encore, presenting Jerry Goodman with a birthday cake. The encore presentation of "Dance Of Maya" that follows also receives a highly improvised treatment. Once the initial sequence has been established, the band suddenly shifts focus, with Cobham playing a bluesy 10/8 drum pattern, his polyrhythmic patterns complimenting the melodic line. Many subtle changes occur during the improvisations to follow and this track is certainly one of the most intriguing and accessible pieces for newcomers to the band. Sixteen minutes later, this astonishing Mahavishnu Orchestra performance comes to an end. This concert is certainly one of the finest existing examples of the middle phase of the original lineup at the pinnacle of their powers. Although every concert from this era of the group is astonishing to some degree, this particular performance is simply seething with energy and absolutely glorious.