Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
Many of the musicians orbiting Miles Davis during his early explorations into electric instrumentation inevitably were inspired to form bands of their own. Few were as adept or influential as The Mahavishnu Orchestra, a globally diverse group that included guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Billy Cobham, both alumni of Miles Davis sessions. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, the group also brought elements of Far Eastern, R&B, blues and classical music to the table. The music they created was often intricate and complex, performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences, musicians and critics alike. They 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 only lasted a little over two years and released just two albums and one live recording during this era, but these recordings had a profound effect, virtually defining the jazz/rock fusion movement.
In January of 1973 The Mahavishnu Orchestra released their second album, Birds Of Fire. Like the group's debut album, all the tracks were John McLaughlin compositions. The album retained its predecessor's blistering intensity, but also expanded the musical palette of the group, exploring a wider range of textures and dynamics. The North American tour that directly followed this release arguably contained the original MO lineup's greatest moments onstage, when the group's musical focus and cohesiveness was reaching its peak and the competitive nature of these musicians hadn't yet created personal rifts within the group. Recorded at Chicago's Kinetic Playground, this performance is a stellar example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity reaching its peak during this tour.
The performance begins with an incendiary reading of the opening track of their debut album, Meeting Of The Spirits; this performance 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 intense, high energy opener segues directly into a composition from the new album, "Open Country Joy." This strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is the least complex, most accessible music the classic lineup ever played. Vacillating between a laid back pastoral feel and frenzied rocking power, this composition's disarming rustic theme provides the initial musical contrast within this set.
The set continues with the uplifting "Hope," a short composition free of solos. In 7/8 time, "Hope" unfolds in an elegant, magisterial way, anchored by a repeating melodic phrase that gradually builds in intensity. Cobham's drumming, which fuels the escalating intensity of this composition, suddenly blasts off at its conclusion, launching the group into another track from the debut album, "Awakening." Following Cobham's opening, Jerry Goodman takes flight followed by Jan Hammer. Their improvisations serve to set up listeners for the astonishing barrage that McLaughlin unleashes several minutes later.
This develops into a great example of the chemistry between McLaughlin and Cobham and features unison playing at its most astounding. Both interject 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. This has moments of frightening intensity and the telepathy between these musicians is quite astonishing. Cobham concludes the improvisations with a solo of his own before the band wraps things up with the compositions' dizzying conclusion.
Unfortunately incomplete, the recording concludes with McLaughlin's homage to Miles Davis, "Miles Beyond." This particular version is unusual, even compared to other performances from this time frame, as they explore the composition at a slower tempo and the musicians give each other additional room. This translates into a sparser than usual performance that engages the listener by very gradually building in intensity. It is keyboardist Jan Hammer who primarily leads the way here, but prior to the tape stock running out, Hammer lays back while Goodman engages in an impressive display of violin processed through his wah-wah pedal. Often mistakenly attributed to Davis, this McLaughlin original pays tribute to one of his greatest mentors while providing a funkier context for these musicians to explore their improvisational abilities.
-Written by Alan Bershaw