Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
Musicians that 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 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, 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 its 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. Tracks destined for their ill-fated third studio album (released 26 years later as The Lost Trident Sessions) was also beginning to surface. The 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 breathtaking improvisational abilities are fully on display. Recorded at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT, this is one of the finest examples of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity that anyone could hope to hear. They begin with the opening track of their debut album, Meeting Of The Spirits. Expanded to over twice the length of its studio counterpart, this now replaces Birds Of Fire as the standard opener for the duration of the group's existence. 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 "Dream" that follows begins taking the improvisational approach to the extreme. Soon to be recorded in the studio and for the entire second side of their live album, there is an abundance of exploratory and propulsive playing here. This remarkable composition is nearly half an hour long and qualifies as the mother of all Mahavishnu Orchestra epics. It begins in a dreamy contemplative manner, with an ostinato figure between Hammer and Laird. As the second, faster section begins, Hammer unleashes his trademark unusual chords and arpeggios on his Fender Rhodes as the band begins building an elegant melody line. This becomes a head spinning exercise as McLaughlin and Goodman lock together in unison driving the main section of the composition. At one point, Cobham and McLaughlin lock horns, firing phrases back and forth, recalling the explosive exchanges between John Coltrane and Elvin Jones a decade prior.
The equally devastating "One Word" is next. Here the group begins with a haunting and frightening sequence that gives way to a relatively straightforward jam, with McLaughlin adding delicious wah-wah guitar over a solid groove, while the other members trade solos. Billy Cobham gets a solo spot in the middle, which begins smoothly and escalates in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the explosive second half of the piece. The group launches back in, playing in 13/8 time, continually increasing in speed, with McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer blazing away, often in total unison. Within this complicated time signature, one will discover McLaughlin applying a technique where he reduces his guitar strokes by one with each proceeding line, playing six notes on the first line, five on the second and so on. Beneath all this, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while occasionally contributing to the overall searing effect. This segues directly into "Vital Transformation," which relentlessly maintains the energy level at full tilt. In 9/8 time, this piece contains some of the funkiest playing that the band would ever achieve. Charismatic, powerful and blazing with energy, this is a tour-de-force blend of all the elements that comprised the bands music, condensed into eight minutes of pure power.
This brings the performance to a close, but the Mahavishnu Orchestra return for an encore that must have left this audience, as well as the musicians, completely exhausted. "Noonward Race" is an absolute guitar shred-fest, with McLaughlin playing with such passion, dexterity, volume and sheer speed that makes most rock guitarists appear to be asleep in comparison. Charged violin lines from Goodman, tasteful keyboard embellishments from Hammer, and absolutely furious drumming from Cobham takes this piece blazing into the stratosphere. This is the Mahavishnu Orchestra at full throttle and playing at warp speed.
This Waterbury Palace recording is one of the greatest and certainly one of the most intense Mahavishnu Orchestra performances ever committed to tape. The words "awe inspiring" are totally applicable here, with every member of the band demonstrating an intensity far beyond what has been captured on their studio recordings. All the music performed on this very special evening burns with an intensity that will leave a lasting impression on anyone who listens.