Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
Musicians who recorded 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 was 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 during this era, 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 arguably become the most exciting live band on the planet. The material from the group's blazing sophomore studio effort, Birds Of Fire was now fully integrated into the live repertoire, additional new material was in development and they were consciously taking a more improvisational approach in their performances. This 1973 recording captures the group performing at New Haven's Woolsey Hall on the campus of Yale University.
One of the most immediately surprising things about this performance is the complete absence of Birds Of Fire material. On this performance the band opens and closes with highly improvisational takes of "Inner Mounting Flame" material, but otherwise focus entirely on unreleased material, destined for their ill-fated third studio album - all new to the audience. At first glance at song timings it appears that the first two songs are far too long to be just those two songs, but they are! They begin the set with the track that kicked off their debut album, "Meeting Of The Spirits." The band is obviously in a highly improvisational mood as here the composition is expanded to three times the length of its studio counterpart, possibly the most expansive version ever attempted and a prime example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity.
The next hour of this extraordinary set is primarily devoted to new material, beginning with "Trilogy." Beginning with Cobham's gong, McLaughlin's phase-shifted guitar washes gradually increase in volume until the band kicks in to state the melody. Cobham and Laird anchor a 7/8 time signature while McLaughlin and Hammer explore "The Sunlit Path," its initial sequence. The introspective middle section, "La Mere de la Mer," is a stellar display of the group's command of dynamics. McLaughlin plays delicate 12-string arpeggios, Hammer interjects bird calls from his mini-moog as Goodman and Laird begin a tranquilizing duet. This gently weaving second section serves as a tranquil prelude to the pummeling third section, "Tomorrow's Not The Same." Just when one least expects it, Cobham signals the sudden transition with a monstrous snare roll that propels the band into a blazing jam, featuring mind-bending improvisations. Goodman, Mclaughlin, and Hammer all take opportunities to solo, while Cobham and Laird firmly anchor the jam. Possibly the longest version of "Trilogy" ever attempted, this is another example of the group at its most exploratory.
Jan Hammer's "Sister Andrea" is up next. The band had been developing this piece for some time, but here it is reaching fruition. Uncharacteristically funky, this highly elastic groovefest features sizzling 12-string solos from McLaughlin, wild bursts from Hammer and highlights the grittier rock side to Goodman's violin virtuosity. Goodman also gets to introduce an original composition of his own with "I Wonder," which the band recorded during the '73 Trident Sessions and was featured on Goodman and Hammer's Like Children album following the breakup. This begins with a remarkably emotional solo from McLaughlin that relies more on bluesy string bends and a fat biting tone as opposed to speed. Goodman and Hammer also take leading roles exploring the composition's possibilities. Shortly after the eight-minute mark, Cobham solos briefly signaling the band to launch into "Awakening." One of the most compelling aspects here is that if one listens closely, bits of "Lila's Dance" are surfacing, a composition that would appear after this lineup's demise on the Visions Of The Emerald Beyond album. Hammer takes one of his most impressive solos of the night here, simultaneously playing bluesy Fender Rhodes with gurgling mini-moog embellishments. This fluid display is additionally enhanced by sound engineer, Dinky Dawson, whose panning effects and utilization of the stereo PA system adds a distinct spacial dimension to the recording. (Headphone listening is highly recommended!) It eventually becomes a duel between McLaughlin and Cobham and this is unison playing at its most astounding. McLaughlin doesn't let up for a second, interjecting an endless barrage of ideas, some with a distinctly Spanish flavor, and Cobham does more with a hi-hat and snare drum than most drummers are capable of with an entire kit.
The improvisational abilities of the group were at the most astonishing level during the 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.