Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
Many of the musicians orbiting Miles Davis during his early explorations into electric instrumentation inevitably were inspired to form bands of their own. Few were as adept or influential as The Mahavishnu Orchestra, a globally diverse group that included guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Billy Cobham, both alumni of Miles Davis sessions. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, the group also brought elements of Far Eastern, R&B, blues and classical music to the table. The music they created was often intricate and complex, performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences, musicians and critics alike. They 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 only lasted a little over two years and released just two albums and one live recording during this era, but these recordings had a profound effect, virtually defining the jazz/rock fusion movement.
In January of 1973 The Mahavishnu Orchestra released their second album, Birds Of Fire. Like the group's debut album, all the tracks were John McLaughlin compositions. The album retained its predecessor's blistering intensity, but also expanded the musical palette of the group, exploring a wider range of textures and dynamics. The North American tour that directly followed this release arguably contained the original MO lineup's greatest moments onstage, when the group's musical focus and cohesiveness was reaching its peak and the competitive nature of these musicians hadn't yet created personal rifts within the group. Recorded at Southeastern Massachusetts University in North Dartmouth, on an impressive double bill that also featured Chicago blues greats, The James Cotton Band opening, this performance is another stellar example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity reaching its peak during this tour.
Although recorded clearly, it should be noted that the house mix was not ideal for recording at SMU, as Rick Laird's bass and Billy Cobham's double bass drums were clearly heard without the need for amplification. As a result, both instruments are often inaudible or barely audible in the tape mix. That said, Jan Hammer and Jerry Goodman fans are in for a particular treat as both musicians are emphasized in the house mix and both are in particularly strong form.
The performance begins with an incendiary reading of the opening track of their debut album, Meeting Of The Spirits; this performance is explosive, extended and pummeling in its ferocity. While initially faithful to the original album arrangement, here the composition is doubled in length, seething with an intensity that far surpasses the studio recording. This intense, high energy opener segues directly into a composition from the new album, "Open Country Joy." This strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is the least complex, most accessible music the classic lineup ever played. Vacillating between a laid back pastoral feel and frenzied rocking power, this composition's disarming rustic theme provides the initial musical contrast within this set.
The expansive "Dream" which follows allows the group to stretch out much further. 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. For much of this performance, Hammer is in particularly fine form, often leading the way. Goodman's violin states the theme again several minutes later, before a ferocious jam ensues, with the tempo increasing faster and faster. This becomes a head spinning display of creativity and technical virtuosity. Toward the end, McLaughlin takes a searing solo that develops into a ferocious instrumental combat between he and Billy Cobham. A full 22 minutes after it began, the musicians reinstate the theme and bring this remarkable composition to a dramatic close.
The group continues with another composition equally expansive in the form of "Dawn," a relatively contemplative track from the first album. This is another example of the improvisational extremes the band was now embracing as they explore possibilities one could barely imagine from the relatively short studio recording. This vacillates between the relaxed airy grooves of the melodic theme, which they periodically reinstate, and adventurous flights into new territory. Jan Hammer fans will find this exploration most thrilling, as Hammer is often at the helm on this piece, particularly during the second half, where he is clearly leading the way.
The recording concludes with the uplifting "Hope," a short composition free of solos transitioning directly into an explosive "Awakening." In 7/8 time, "Hope" unfolds in an elegant, magisterial way, anchored by a repeating melodic phrase that gradually builds in intensity. Cobham's drumming, which fuels the escalating intensity of this composition, suddenly blasts off at its conclusion, launching the group into "Awakening" from the band's debut album. Following Cobham's opening, Jerry Goodman takes flight followed by Jan Hammer. Their improvisations serve to set up listeners for the astonishing barrage that McLaughlin unleashes several minutes later. This develops into a great example of the chemistry between McLaughlin and Cobham and features unison playing at its most astounding. Both interject an endless barrage of ideas, while Cobham often does more with a hi-hat and snare drum than most drummers are capable of with an entire kit. Despite being incomplete, this has moments of frightening intensity and the telepathy between these musicians is quite astonishing.
-Written by Alan Bershaw