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 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, but these recordings had a profound effect, redefining the jazz/rock fusion movement in the process.
By early 1973, the Mahavishnu Orchestra had firmly established their reputation. Their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, had mesmerized musicians and listeners alike and with more than a year of live performing behind them, they had become one of the most exciting performing bands on the planet. The material from the group's blazing sophomore studio effort, Birds Of Fire was now being introduced into the live repertoire and they were consciously taking a more improvisational approach to much of The Inner Mounting Flame material.
This March 1973 performance captures the group after the Birds Of Fire sessions, but several months before they recorded the live album Between Nothingness And Eternity. Recorded at the State University of New York in New Paltz, this performance is a stellar example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity. They are now beginning performances with the opening track of their debut album, Meeting Of The Spirits. Expanded to over twice the length of its studio counterpart, this would replace Birds Of Fire as the standard opener for the duration of the group's existence. This directly segues into McLaughlin's tribute to the master himself, "Miles Beyond," a funky and more relaxed display of their improvisational abilities.
The next two tracks, a blazing "Vital Transformation," followed by the more introspective "Sanctuary," stick relatively close to the studio arrangements. 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 blend of all the elements that comprised the band's music; jazz, rock, funk and R&B condensed into seven minutes of pure power. The virtuosity of the musicians and the tasteful applications create a sound that is truly progressive. Following the sheer intensity of "Vital Transformation," the group settles into a much more relaxed groove with a track from their newest album. "Sanctuary" is a slower contemplative piece, demonstrating that the rhythm section of Laird and Cobham are equally effective at subtlety as they are at intensity. After all the fury that occurred during the previous piece, "Sanctuary" provides some tranquility to the proceedings. Jan Hammer's introspective synthesizer solo weeps while Goodman's wailing violin complements McLaughlin's guitar.
One of the band's most popular first album tracks, "The Dance Of Maya," follows and it too gets an expanded treatment. This piece features an infectious rhythmic pattern that compliments the melodic line. Once the initial sequence has been established, the band suddenly shifts focus, with Cobham playing a bluesy 10/8 drum pattern. Many subtle changes occur during the improvisations to follow and this track is certainly one of the most intriguing and accessible pieces for newcomers to the band.
The set closing "One Word," another newer piece from the Birds Of Fire album, 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 band 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 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 contributing to the overall searing effect.
As the Mahavishnu Orchestra's popularity increased, they began headlining more shows, which provided them more time to experiment on stage. In the months to come, this would be taken to the extreme, with compositions often stretching out to over twenty minutes. However, this performance is a prime example of the middle phase of the original lineup, when they were simultaneously introducing new material to the live repertoire and taking the more familiar first album material further than ever before.