Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
When John McLaughlin formed the initial Mahavishnu Orchestra, the personnel included Jerry Goodman, a classically trained American rock musician; Jan Hammer, a Czechoslovakian keyboard player with a strong jazz background; Rick Laird, an Irish bass player with both jazz and rock experience and Billy Cobham, a powerful and technically brilliant jazz drummer from Brooklyn whose style would completely redefine his instrument. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, this globally and musically diverse group brought elements of Far Eastern music, R&B, Blues and Classical music to the table. The Mahavishnu Orchestra created music that was intricate and complex, performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences and critics alike. The group had a firm grip on dynamics and was equally adept at dense, aggressive flights of feverish intensity as they were at creating moments of passionate spiritual contemplation.
This legendary performance, from the summer of 1973, is significant for a number of reasons. First, it captures the group playing material from "Birds Of Fire," when it was sharply in focus. Second, it was the unveiling of a new custom designed stereo sound system, which provided the Mahavishnu Orchestra with a greater ability to communicate with each other and an entirely new level of sound reinforcement clarity for the audience. Third, John McLaughlin plays his custom made Rex Bogue double-neck guitar for the first time in concert. And most significantly, this was the era when the band was beginning to headline concerts, allowing them considerably more time on stage. This allowed the group to further explore the possibilities for improvisation, creating a more spontaneous and exciting experience for the musicians and audience alike. Put all these factors together and it's not surprising that this was a truly magical night.
The performance, recorded at The Lenox Arts Festival, begins with introductions of the band members, followed by a moment of silence. Billy Cobham's massive gong interrupts the silence, as McLaughlin's 12-string arpeggios begin washing over the audience. "Birds Of Fire" is a dramatic opener that unfolds into a dynamic exchange between guitar and drums versus violin, keyboards and bass. In the unusual time signature of 18/8, the interwoven nature of the arrangement makes for a thrilling and intense experience, although one unlike anything most jazz or rock music fans had ever heard before. This segues directly into McLaughlin's tribute to Miles Davis, "Miles Beyond," with the group displaying breathtaking improvisational abilities. The first few minutes of this piece are dominated by Jan Hammer, who is in a particularly playful and creative mood here. The band seems to recognize this and drop out, giving him plenty of room to explore. As the band merges back in, Hammer begins a demented onslaught of unusual sounds from his keyboards. Violinist Jerry Goodman picks up on the groove and he and Hammer develop a captivating duo, with McLaughlin, Laird and Cobham providing rhythmic punctuations and accents. Following a barrage of drums from Cobham, McLaughlin takes over for the last few minutes with a scorching guitar solo that must have left listeners gasping at its sheer intensity. Nearly 25 minutes later, this compelling opening sequence, which would soon be recorded in condensed form as the two openers for their second album, comes to a close.
Next up is a rare spoken introduction to the next two compositions, possibly because both were new to the band's repertoire and totally unfamiliar to the audience. First up is Rick Laird's composition, "Steppings Tones," which serves as a prelude to a composition announced as "No Name," which turns out to be a very early rendition of Jan Hammer's "Sister Andrea." Both of these compositions are still in embryonic form here, which makes for an intriguing listen. "Steppings Tones" is essentially a short cycle of deep pummeling bass notes that repeat a pattern, before they venture into "Sister Andrea." Uncharacteristically funky, this elastic groovefest features sizzling 12-string solos from McLaughlin, wild bursts of unorthodox sounds from Hammer and highlights the grittier side to Goodman's violin virtuosity. Taken at a faster clip than it would be later on, the initial opening sequence dissolves into a more tranquilizing middle section that inspires incredibly emotional speed playing from McLaughlin, who is overflowing with creativity here. Goodman's violin sashays and swings, as he pumps his signal through a wah-wah pedal. It's a remarkable early glimpse at two compositions that wouldn't be recorded in the studio until nearly a year later (and those recordings wouldn't see the light of day until 26 years later on the "Lost Trident Sessions" album).