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 on the campus of The University of Toledo, Ohio, this recording is another example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity.
Despite being incomplete, this recording captures Mahavishnu Orchestra sizzling with energy throughout. It begins with the group well into the staggering intensity of "One Word," a centerpiece composition from the new Birds Of Fire album. The recording begins approximately six minutes into the composition's performance as McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer are developing a three-way call and response that becomes more intense with every round. Beneath this barrage, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while contributing to the overall searing effect. Approximately two minutes in, following this barrage of front line solos, Billy Cobham takes an extended solo, beginning smoothly and continuously escalating in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the composition's dizzying conclusion.
One of the bands most popular first album tracks, "The Dance Of Maya," follows. This piece features an infectious rhythmic pattern that compliments the melodic line. Once the initial sequence has been established, the band suddenly shifts the instrumental focus, with Cobham playing a bluesy 10/8 drum pattern. There are many moments of brilliance here and many subtle changes occur during the extended exploration to follow. Despite its imposing length, the improvisations remain fluid and focused, never veering off into meandering jamming. One of the most fascinating sequences occurs following the initial theme, when the rhythm section drops out completely, leaving the front line musicians remaining. The interaction between Goodman's pizzicato violin and Hammer's electric piano is full of a humor and playfulness. Cobham and Laird eventually join back in and after a few surprising stop/starts to jolt the audience, they launch into an infectious jam with Jerry Goodman as the primary pilot. Equal parts blues and funk, this is an extraordinary sequence. Another highlight of this piece occurs when McLaughlin eventually rips into a sizzling solo with Billy Cobham in tow. The unison playing here is equal parts thrilling and confounding. At times one can sense McLaughlin and Cobham toying with each other, just to see what the other will do and one would be hard pressed to find a more impressive display of musical telepathy.
-Written by Alan Bershaw