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 25 minute "Dream" featured here allows the group to thoroughly stretch out on another composition few had heard at the time. This is one of the group's finest explorations, featuring extensive unison playing and one of the most fascinating guitar and drum duels ever recorded. 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. At approximately five minutes in, Cobham signals the rest of the musicians to join in. Rick Laird establishes a strong groove on bass, which is reinforced by Hammer, who then begins soloing. Goodman's violin states the theme again several minutes later, and at the 9:30 mark, a ferocious jam ensues, with the tempo increasing faster and faster. This becomes a head-spinning display of creativity and technical virtuosity. At the 15 minute mark, McLaughlin takes a searing solo that develops into ferocious instrumental combat between he and Billy Cobham. Eventually this climaxes into a wall of dissonant sound, before they reinstate the theme and bring it to a dramatic close 25 minutes after it began. This early rendition of "Dream" is a true tour-de-force performance that seems to encapsulate all the elements of this monstrously talented band.
After all the furious intensity explored so far, "Sanctuary" provides some much needed tranquility to the proceedings. Hauntingly beautiful and taken at an extremely slow tempo in 9/4, Hammer's introspective synthesizer solo weeps while Goodman's wailing violin compliments McLaughlin's guitar. Cobham and Laird establish the perfect relaxed rhythmic groove that further accentuates the contemplative mode, with a gentle serenading foundation. This transitions into the final devastating piece of the night, "One Word." Here the group begins with a haunting and frightening sequence that gives way to a sizzling jam, with McLaughlin adding hyperkinetic guitar over a solid groove, while the other members trade solos. Of particular note here is a wonderful bass solo by Laird, that is incredibly expressive and inventive. Laird is really the unsung hero of Mahavishnu Orchestra, for without him, this music would lose its foundation and literally fly apart at the seams. However, here one can experience Laird truly propelling the entire direction of the band's improvisations. With Laird and Cobham propelling things, McLaughlin, Hammer and Goodman begin a call and response trio that is truly out of this world. McLaughlin's guitar takes on the tone of an angry hornet's nest, while he, Hammer and Goodman trade numerous blazing solo lines. Unfortunately, at this point the third and final reel of tape stock ran out leaving this blistering exchange to fade out into oblivion.
Still, this recording is possibly the definitive example of Mahavishnu Orchestra during their blazing final year, when they were crossing all musical boundaries and devastating audiences with their dexterity, volume and speed. This was a magical era when these musicians possessed seemingly superhuman energy and an unlimited ability for spontaneous creativity. Those who caught this era often speak of it as a life changing experience and this performance helps to explain this phenomenon as it burns with an intensity and passion beyond anything most had ever experienced before. As talented as each individual musician is, The Mahavishnu Orchestra's true greatness was in the sum of its parts, which here is on a level that far surpasses any individual contribution. Many consider The Mahavishnu Orchestra to be the most influential group of the 1970s and it's not difficult to see why. Guitarists, drummers and keyboard players, in particular, were forced to completely rethink their instruments after hearing these musicians play and every musician who listened to this band found himself reevaluating his own motives and abilities. This group would inspire an entirely new approach to music, unwittingly launching the jazz/rock fusion genre in its wake. That genre would continue to grow and diversify in the years to come, with decreasingly satisfying results, as few would come anywhere near the level of originality or musicianship that the Mahavishnu Orchestra displayed.