Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
Musicians who recorded and performed with Miles Davis during his early explorations into electric instrumentation inevitably went on to form bands of their own, but few were as adept or as influential as The Mahavishnu Orchestra, a globally diverse group formed by legendary English guitarist, John McLaughlin. 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 were 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.
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 it's follow-up, "Birds Of Fire," had mesmerized musicians and listeners alike and they had become one of the most exciting performing bands on the planet. Material from the group's sophomore studio effort, "Birds Of Fire" was now firmly ensconced into the live repertoire. Much of this newer material was now formulated around riffs and repetitive patterns established by the various band members and was intentionally designed as a looser framework. As the Mahavishnu Orchestra began headlining more concerts, thus allowing them considerably more stage time, they were consciously taking a much more improvisational approach.
This May 1973 performance captures this looser approach and the group's improvisational abilities are fully on display. Recorded at The Palace Theater in Albany, New York, this is a stellar example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity. They begin with the opening track of their debut album, "Meeting Of The Spirits." Expanded to over twice the length of it's studio counterpart, this now replaces "Birds Of Fire" as the standard opener for the duration of the group's existence. On previous tours, they would then head in a funkier direction immediately afterwards, initially with "Dawn," then replaced with "Miles Beyond," but this set format has now changed. Instead, they follow with a thoroughly joyous take on the Birds Of Fire" track "Open Country Joy." This strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is perhaps the least complex, most easily accessible music the classic lineup ever played. Vacillating between a laidback county feel and frenzied rocking power, its disarming rustic theme now provides the initial musical contrast within the set.
The version of "Hope" into "Awakening" that follows begins taking the improvisational approach to the extreme. Plenty of exploratory and propulsive playing here, with the various themes stated by McLaughlin and Goodman, sounding regal and unfolding in an elegant, magisterial way. Next, the group returns to the debut album material, beginning with the infectious groove of "You Know, You Know." Unfortunately incomplete due to a tape change that missed the transition into "The Dance Of Maya, this is dominated by an R&B influenced bass line, tasteful arpeggios and unusual accent placements. The rhythm section of Laird and Cobham are particularly effective here, playing with great subtlety and flair. When the recording resumes, they have transitioned into one of the most popular first album tracks, "The Dance Of Maya", and it too gets a highly expanded treatment. Featuring an infectious rhythmic pattern that compliments the melodic line, this is one of the most intriguing and accessible pieces for newcomers to the band. Once the initial sequence has been established, the band suddenly shifts focus, with Cobham playing a bluesy 10/8 drum pattern, with many subtle changes occurring during the lengthy improvisation to follow. Although the beginning was lost during the tape change, nearly 19 astonishing minutes of "The Dance Of Maya" remain.
They close the set with yet another powerful exploration. The "Sanctuary" that begins this final sequence, is a tranquil contemplative piece that sticks relatively close to the studio arrangement. Jan Hammer's introspective synthesizer solo weeps while Goodman's wailing violin compliments McLaughlin's guitar. At approximately 7 minutes in, Cobham signals the change into an explosive "One Word," which gets the full improvisational treatment here. At nearly 18 minutes, they explore way beyond the familiar and this features many furious call and response sequences between McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer. Cobham provides pounding polyrhythms (and a remarkable solo midway) and Hammer's synthesizer solo is literally blazing a new trail for the instrument, particularly in his guitar-like use of pitch-bend.
The improvisational abilities of the group were at the most astonishing level during 1973 and they were clearly hitting their creative stride by the time of this recording. 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 at its height here, and all of the players are challenging themselves to push the envelope.