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. With little over a year of live performances behind them, they had become one of the most exciting bands on the planet. This performance occurred shortly after the release of their highly acclaimed second album, Birds Of Fire. Recorded at Kenyon College in Gambier Ohio, this set focuses heavily on that material, with a few choice selections from their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, included for good measure. Now an established headliner, the Mahavishnu Orchestra had more time onstage and they seized that opportunity to explore in greater depth. This recording captures the group as they were diversifying the onstage repertoire and extending their improvisational approach.
This performance begins with an incendiary pairing of the new album's title track with "Open Country Joy." While both remain aligned with the arrangements on the Birds Of Fire, album, they both also contain extended solos, often explosive and pummeling in their ferocity. In the unusual time signature of 18/8, the interwoven nature of Birds Of Fire makes for a thrilling and intense experience, although one unlike anything most jazz or rock fans had experienced before. "Open Country Joy," a strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is perhaps the least complex, most easily accessible music the classic lineup ever played, vacillating between a laidback county feel and frenzied rocking power. "Hope" is executed nearly identical to the studio recording, but more penetrating, as it unfolds in an elegant, magisterial way, before Cobham suddenly blasts off into "Awakening." Hammer takes one of his most impressive solo of the evening here, simultaneously playing bluesy Fender Rhodes with gurgling mini-moog embellishments. It eventually becomes a duel between McLaughlin and Cobham and this is unison playing at its most astounding. McLaughlin doesn't let up for a second, interjecting an endless barrage of ideas, while Cobham often does more with a hi-hat and snare drum than most drummers are capable of with an entire kit.
Next up is McLaughlin's tribute to Miles Davis, "Miles Beyond," with the group again displaying breathtaking improvisational abilities within a funkier context. The centerpiece of the set is "One Word." While not quite as expansive as later versions, this is nonetheless a staggering performance. Beginning with a haunting and frightening sequence that gives way to a relatively straightforward jam, McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer 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. "One Word" is followed by "Resolution," a relatively short composition to end this remarkable performance, which gradually increases in tempo, as the musicians ascend toward the heavens, driven by Laird's anchoring bass and McLaughlin's signature minor chords.
The "Sanctuary" that 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.
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 nearly 18 minute length here, this is certainly one of the most intriguing and accessible pieces for newcomers to the band. The performance concludes with an explosive "Celestial Terestrial Commuters." This features expressive soloing from Hammer and blazing call and response sequences between Goodman and McLaughlin. Although relatively short compared to the highly improvisational material featured earlier in the set, this is another thrilling hyperdrive performance. The improvisational abilities of the group were at the most astonishing level during this latter part of 1973. All of this music burns with an intensity few groups have ever matched in live performance. The Mahavishnu Orchestra's tempestuous mix of jazz, rock, and Eastern influences is at its peak here. This is a vivid example of the band taking improvisation to the extreme. All of the musicians are clearly challenging themselves to push the envelope here, with constantly surprising and utterly compelling results.