Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
The initial classic lineup of the Mahavishnu Orchestra lasted less than three years and only released two studio albums and one live recording, but these recordings had a profound effect, and redefined the jazz-rock fusion movement. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, the group created music that was often intricate and complex, performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences, musicians and critics alike.
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 bandmembers 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 at the Mississippi River Festival inside a giant tent at Southern Illinois University, serves as a warm-up exercise for that famous Central Park concert and is, indeed, the performance that preceded it. This makes it a particularly interesting listen, and while "Sister Andrea" and "Dream" won't surprise those familiar with the live album versions, the additional "Birds Of Fire" material and a truly explosive performance of "Awakening" greatly widens one's perspective on the band at the time that live album was recorded.
"Birds Of Fire" is the dramatic opener. Billy Cobham's gong, panning back and forth in the PA system interrupts the silence, as McLaughlin's 12-string arpeggios begin washing over the audience. A dynamic exchange between guitar and drums on one side and violin, keyboards and bass on the other unfolds. In the unusual time signature of 18/8, the interwoven nature of the arrangement makes for a thrilling and intense experience, although one unlike anything most jazz or rock music fans had ever heard before. Next up is Jan Hammer's "Sister Andrea." Uncharacteristically funky, this elastic groovefest features sizzling solos from McLaughlin, wild bursts of unorthodox sounds from Hammer, and highlights the grittier side of Goodman's violin virtuosity. The initial opening sequence dissolves into a more tranquilizing middle section that inspires emotional speed playing from McLaughlin, who is overflowing with creativity here.
They continue with "Hope," unfolding in an elegant, magisterial way, before Cobham suddenly blasts off into "Awakening." This has moments of frightening intensity, and the telepathy between these musicians is functioning at an astounding level. There's an aggressiveness to this performance that may be reflective of problems within the band, but the chemistry between these musicians is undeniable and astonishing. After nearly 20 minutes of high tension playing, "Open Country Joy" comes wafting over like a cool summer breeze. This strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is the least complex, most accessible music this lineup ever played. Vacillating between a laidback country feel and frenzied rocking power, its disarming, rustic theme provides contrast to what preceded it. McLaughlin's and Hammer's instrumental flights are tightly woven here, joyously dancing around each other and displaying their breathtaking improvisational abilities.
The "Dream" featured here allows the group to stretch out again. As captivating as the released version recorded just a few days later, this is one of the group's finest explorations during their final months together. 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, and prompts swift tempo increases. This becomes a head-spinning display of creativity and technical virtuosity. Toward the end, McLaughlin takes a searing solo that develops into ferocious instrumental combat between Billy Cobham and him, before all reinstate the theme and bring the set to a dramatic close.
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 earlier in the set, this is another thrilling hyperdrive performance. The improvisational abilities of the group were at the most astonishing level during this latter part of 1973. 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 peak here. This is a vivid example of the band taking improvisation to the extreme. All of the musicians are clearly challenging themselves to push the envelope here, with constantly surprising and utterly compelling results.