Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
The 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. When John McLaughlin formed Mahavishnu Orchestra, the personnel initially 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 of dynamics and was equally adept at dense, aggressive flights of feverish intensity as they were at creating moments of passionate spiritual contemplation.
In July of 1973, Mahavishnu Orchestra convened at London's Trident Studios to record their ill-fated third studio album. By this point, the relationships within the band were strained and the resulting recordings, which for the first time featured compositions by band members other than McLaughlin, would not see the light of day for several decades. McLaughlin and Cobham would also soon embark on a tour with Carlos Santana, further straining the relationships within the band, which would dissolve by the end of the year. Between The Trident Sessions and the Santana/McLaughlin tour, Mahavishnu Orchestra continued touring the United States with the most noteworthy performance occurring on August 17, 1973, before an outdoor audience in New York City's Central Park, which Columbia Records recorded and released as the groups one and only live album, Between Nothingness And Eternity.
This performance, recorded two nights prior at Ohio State University, serves as a warmup exercise for that famous Central Park concert and is indeed the performance that continued it. This was the group's last opportunity to rehearse their newest material before officially recording again, and as such, includes the new Rick Laird composition "Steppings Tones," Jerry Goodman's "I Wonder" as well as Jan Hammer's "Sister Andrea." This is one of the few times all three of the band's compositions not written by McLaughlin were included in a single performance. While "Sister Andrea" and a partially recorded "Dream" closely resemble the well known Between Nothingness And Eternity versions, the remainder of this show revisits some fantastic first and second album material.
The performance begins with an incendiary reading of the opening track of their debut album, "Meeting Of The Spirits," explosive, extended and pummeling in it's ferocity. While initially faithful to The Inner Mounting Flame arrangement, here it is more than doubled in length, seething with an intensity that far surpasses the studio recording. This high-energy opener segues directly into Jan Hammer's signature composition for the group, "Sister Andrea." The band had been developing this piece for some time, but here it has come to full fruition. Uncharacteristically funky, its highly elastic groove features sizzling 12-string solos from McLaughlin, wild outbursts from Hammer and highlights the grittier rock aspects of Goodman's violin virtuosity, who pumps his amplified violin through a wah-wah pedal.
The group follows with another two-song sequence, beginning with one of the new Trident Sessions compositions unfamiliar to the audience -- Rick Laird's composition, "Steppings Tones." This is essentially a cycle of deep pummeling bass notes that repeat a pattern, which here serves as a prelude to Cobham suddenly blasting off into "Awakening." This develops into a great example of the chemistry between McLaughlin and Cobham and features unison playing that is astounding. Both interject an endless barrage of ideas, while Cobham often does more with an hi-hat and snare drum than most drummers are capable of with an entire kit. Jan Hammer also plays a major role in this particular performance of "Awakening," with an extended solo that begins with percolating noises from the newest equipment in his keyboard arsenal, the mini-moog. This section begins with Hammer initially soloing alone and gradually develops into another full blown jam with Hammer and Cobham firing off each other. During the time this lineup existed, no member's sound developed more than Jan Hammer and this "Awakening" is a great example of him reaching new heights. The aggressiveness of this performance and individual band members (other than Cobham) soloing alone could be indicative of the growing animosity within the band, but when they team up the chemistry between these musicians is undeniable. Unfortunately, only 16 minutes of "Awakening" was captured, as the tape stock ran out during Cobham's solo, failing to capture the tail end of the composition. At least 20 minutes lapsed before the master tape resumes, just as they are nearing the finish line on "Dream." The magnificent final jam within "Dream" was captured, including some searing guitar work from McLaughlin, before it comes to a gentle close.
They continue with "Hope," unfolding in an elegant, magisterial way. Here this rather brief composition serves as a prelude to the set closing "Vital Transformation," which fully pummels the audience into submission. In 9/8 time, "Vital Transformation" contains some of the most furious playing that the band would ever achieve. Charismatic, powerful and blazing with energy, this is a tour-de-force synthesis of jazz, rock, funk and R&B condensed into seven minutes of raw power.
This leaves the audience clamoring for an encore and Mahavishnu Orchestra returns to deliver another astonishing twenty-five minute sequence featuring two additional compositions. First the band explores the new Jerry Goodman composition in 13/8, "I Wonder." Also recorded during The Trident Sessions, this live version is far more enjoyable and contains an emotionally charged solo from McLaughlin that relies more on bluesy string bends and a fat biting tone as opposed to speed. Unlike The Trident Sessions recording, on which Goodman opts not to solo, both he and Hammer are having plenty of fun here. It isn't surprising that Goodman and Hammer would continue investigating this composition, recording it again for their Like Children album, issued not long after the breakup. Shortly before the 6 minute mark, Cobham's tight snare roll signals the transition into the staggering intensity of "One Word." A centerpiece of the Birds Of Fire album and what many consider to be the band's single greatest composition, this is a magnificent performance. It begins with the haunting and ominous opening sequence, which then gives way to an impressive improvisation by bass player Rick Laird. With Laird's bass the prominent driving element, soon accentuated by Hammer's percolating mini-moog, a deep groove develops. It intensifies as McLaughlin begins accenting the jam with his rhythmically slashing guitar. Eventually McLaughlin cuts loose as a three-way call and response develops between him, Goodman and Hammer. Beneath all this, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while contributing to the overall searing effect. McLaughlin's unbridled enthusiasm is clearly audible here, even when he is just 'comping' behind Goodman or Hammer. His 'comping' seems to ratchet up the tension, making each of his solo runs all the more satisfying for their sense of explosive release. Following the barrage of solos from the front line, the band dramatically drops out, as Billy Cobham takes a powerfully finessed solo of his own, beginning smoothly and continuously escalating in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the composition's swirling finale.
The improvisational abilities of the group were at the most astonishing level during the latter part of 1973. While the official live album is superior quality, this raw board tape from the previous gig serves to widens one's perspective on the band at the time Between Nothingness And Eternity was recorded. All of this music burns with an intensity few groups have ever matched in live performance and the telepathy between these musicians is quite astonishing. Mahavishnu Orchestra's tempestuous mix of jazz, rock, and Eastern influences is at its peak here. This is a vivid example of the band taking improvisation to the extreme. These musicians are clearly challenging each other and pushing the envelope at every opportunity, with constantly surprising and utterly compelling results. This recording encapsulates all the elements of this monstrously talented band as they approached the last several months of performing together. (Bershaw)