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 during this era, but these recordings had a profound effect, redefining 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. By early 1973, the Mahavishnu Orchestra had firmly established their reputation. With little over a year of live performances behind them, they had become one of the most exciting bands on the planet. This performance occurred a few months after the release of their highly acclaimed second album, Birds Of Fire.
Recorded on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, this set features choice selections from that album, as well as from their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame. Now an established headliner, the Mahavishnu Orchestra had more time onstage and they seized that opportunity to explore in greater depth. This set captures the group as they were diversifying the onstage repertoire and extending their improvisational approach.
The performance begins with the pairing of the new album's title track with "Open Country Joy." While both remain aligned with the arrangements on the Birds Of Fire album, here they feature extended solos, often explosive and pummeling in their ferocity. In the unusual time signature of 18/8, the interwoven nature of the Birds Of Fire makes for a thrilling and intense experience. "Open Country Joy," a strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is perhaps the least complex composition the classic lineup ever played, vacillating between a laidback county feel and frenzied rocking power.
One of the band's most popular first album tracks, "The Dance Of Maya," follows and it too gets a highly 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 extended exploration to follow and despite its imposing length, this is one of the most intriguing and accessible pieces for newcomers to the band.
Providing some musical contrast within this set, they next perform "Dawn," which begins contemplatively. This is another fine 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 majestic melodic theme, which they periodically reinstate, with adventurous flights into new territory interspersed between. These are most thrilling, especially the second half of the composition, where they introduce mind boggling stops and starts that are nothing short of telepathic and a ferocious call and response speed jam between violin, guitar, and synthesizer.
The "One Word" to follow is a staggering performance. Beginning with a haunting sequence that gives way to a relatively straightforward jam, McLaughlin, Goodman, and Hammer trade a seemingly endless barrage of solos. Billy Cobham gets a showcase in the middle, beginning smoothly and continuously escalating in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the explosive second half of the piece. When the group launches back in, playing in 13/8 time, continually increasing in speed, McLaughlin, Goodman, and Hammer all blaze away. Beneath all this, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while contributing to the overall searing effect.
After all the furious intensity, "Sanctuary" provides some tranquility to the proceedings. Hauntingly beautiful and taken at an extremely slow tempo in 9/4, Hammer's introspective synthesizer solo weeps while Goodman's wailing violin compliments McLaughlin's guitar. Cobham and Laird establish the perfect relaxed rhythmic groove that further accentuates the contemplative mode, with a gentle serenading foundation.
An incomplete, but explosive "Vital Transformation" renews the intensity level to close the show. In 9/8 time, this composition is another thrilling hyper-drive performance. This music burns with an intensity few groups have ever matched in live performance. These musicians were clearly challenging themselves to push the envelope, with constantly surprising and utterly compelling results.