Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
By 1973, the final year of the classic Mahavishnu Orchestra lineup, they had firmly established their reputation and were now a headline act. Their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, and its follow-up, Birds Of Fire, had mesmerized musicians and listeners alike and they had become one of the most exciting bands on the planet. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, the group also brought elements of Far Eastern, R&B, and Classical music to the table. The Mahavishnu Orchestra created music that was often 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 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 lasted barely 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 in the process.
During the last days of April and the first few weeks in May of that year, the Mahavishnu Orchestra shared the bill with Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention as they toured North America in support of the Overnight Sensation LP. For electric violin fans and fans of jazz-rock fusion in general, this tour was manna from heaven. Zappa was now featuring the brilliant French violinist Jean Luc Ponty in his band. In addition to Zappa's new album material, this lineup of the Mothers often played complicated instrumentals that had great appeal to many fusion fans, so Zappa's audiences on this tour were relatively receptive to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was a good match and although often relegated to 45-minute opener sets, the Mahavishnu Orchestra packed a serious punch into their time onstage, rarely ever pausing between songs. Many a Zappa fan was won over by the complexity of the Mahavishnu Orchestra's music and the sheer barrage of sound emanating off the stage.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra begin the Milwaukee set with the track that kicked off their debut album, Meeting Of The Spirits, a prime example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity. Generally 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. Due to a technical issue at the time of the recording, the last 10 seconds of "Meeting Of The Spirits" went un-captured, and when the recording resumes approximately a minute later, the group have segued their way into McLaughlin's tribute to Miles Davis, "Miles Beyond." This is a funky and more relaxed display, with Goodman and Hammer dancing around each other's solos and Laird and Cobham equally effective at subtlety as they are at intensity. "Miles Beyond" beautifully captures the group's breathtaking improvisational abilities.
Then it is on to perhaps the group's most fully realized composition, "One Word." From the Birds Of Fire album, this begins with the extended snare roll from Cobham, before launching into the main theme that periodically anchors this composition. McLaughlin adds delicious effect-laden guitar over a solid groove, while the band members trade solos. The first ten minutes of this continues to build up with McLaughlin, Goodman, and Hammer soloing round robin style. With each subsequent round, they each compress and shorten their solo lines until they create a truly head spinning barrage. Just when the three soloists reach the limit of their endurance at this technique, everyone suddenly drops out in unison, leaving Billy Cobham to take an extended solo spot. Cobham's solo begins smoothly and escalates in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the explosive conclusion of the piece. The group launches back in, with McLaughlin, Goodman, and Hammer creating an upward spiraling effect leading up to the reinstatement of the main theme and conclusion. This is a true tour-de-force performance that encapsulates all the elements of this monstrously talented band.
By audience demand, they return for a brief encore; an explosive "Celestial Terrestrial 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 in the main set, this is another thrilling performance featuring truly acrobatic musicianship. This is the Mahavishnu Orchestra at full throttle and playing at warp speed. 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 near its peak here. All of the musicians are clearly challenging themselves to push the envelope, with constantly surprising and utterly compelling results.