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 performance is the group's second performance to follow the release of their highly acclaimed second album, Birds Of Fire. Recorded at Le Grande Theatre de Quebec, this performance still features much of the material from the band's debut album, but also captures the group as they were diversifying the onstage repertoire and extending the improvisational approach. This performance is a stellar example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity.
This performance begins in progress, with an incendiary reading of the opening track of their debut album, Meeting Of The Spirits; 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. This intense, 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 show they are equally effective at subtlety as they are at intensity.
"Vital Transformation" ups the intensity level significantly. In 9/8 time, this composition contains some of the funkiest 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 bands music. The virtuosity of the musicians and the tasteful applications create a sound that was truly progressive in every positive sense. These first three compositions are way beyond the length of the studio recordings and the group's breathtaking improvisational abilities are beginning to reach new heights here. Clocking in at well over half an hour, this opening sequence clearly displays the band taking the improvisational approach to new extremes.
One of the bands 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.
Switching to acoustic guitar, "A Lotus On Irish Streams" presents McLaughlin, Goodman, and Hammer in a contemplative mode, with a gentle serenading atmosphere. Hammer's acoustic piano propels the track, but it's the occasional speed soloing from McLaughlin and especially the poignant violin contributions of Jerry Goodman that provide the flavor and spiritual atmosphere. The tender melody and superb musicianship serve as a calming prelude to the staggering intensity of "One Word," which follows and begins the presentation of material from the new album. 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. Soon to be dropped from the repertoire, "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 group returns for an encore, beginning with "Hope, a piece similar in structure to "Resolution." Like the former composition, this unfolds in an elegant, magisterial way, before Cobham suddenly blasts off into "Awakening." Although incomplete, this too has moments of frightening intensity and the telepathy between these musicians is functioning at an astounding level.
The earliest existing 1973 recording of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, this serves to present the band at a critical turning point, just as the Birds Of Fire album was released. The band was consciously expanding the boundaries of their earlier material, finding vast new areas to explore with nearly every performance.