Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
Many of the musicians who participated in Miles Davis' explorations into electric instrumentation eventually moved on to create groups of their own. Few were as adept or as influential as Mahavishnu Orchestra, a globally diverse quintet formed by British guitarist, John McLaughlin. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, this group also brought elements of Far Eastern, R&B, Blues 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; 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 less than three years and, despite releasing only two studio albums and one live recording during this era, they had a profound effect, redefining the jazz/rock fusion movement in the process.
By the tail end of 1973, Mahavishnu Orchestra had firmly established their reputation and was now a world-class headlining act. Their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, and its follow-up, Birds Of Fire, had mesmerized musicians and listeners alike and they had become one of the most exciting bands on the planet. Material from the group's sophomore studio effort, Birds Of Fire was now firmly ensconced into the group's performances. Tracks destined for their ill-fated third studio album (released 26 years later as The Lost Trident Sessions) was also now integrated into their live repertoire. The newer material was now formulated around riffs and repetitive patterns established by the various band members and were intentionally designed as a looser framework. With considerably more stage time, they were consciously taking the improvisational approach to its extreme. This performance is a prime example of that extreme, capturing one of the final performances of the classic lineup, headlining a double bill, which also included Weather Report, at Cornell University's Barton Hall.
(Note: Part one is also available here at Wolfgang's.)
As the performance continues, the band begins another expansive journey into "The Dance Of Maya," one of the most popular tracks from their debut album. This piece features an infectious rhythmic pattern that compeiments 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.
After all the furious intensity and adventurous music that preceded it, "Sanctuary" provides some contrast and tranquility. 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 extended (with volume gradually increasing) snare roll from Cobham signals the beginning of "One Word," one of the most compelling compositions from the Birds Of Fire album. Beginning with a haunting and frighteningly intense sequence, this soon gives way to an impressive bass improvisation from Laird. Bassist Laird becomes the driving force for the next ten minutes or so, as Cobham followed by Hammer on electric piano, begin to follow him. They eventually propel into a fiery jam, with McLaughlin joining back in, trading solos with Goodman and Hammer, who switches back over to synthesizer. A most furious and frantic three-way call and response ensues that is truly astonishing in its intensity. Just as all five musicians are blazing simultaneously, everyone dramatically stops, giving themselves and the audience a few seconds to catch their breath! Then Cobham begins a powerfully expressive solo that is staggering in its virtuosity. This eventually leads up to the explosive second half of the composition, at which point the group launches back in. Within its complicated time signature, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while all contribute to a truly incendiary conclusion to the set.
Returning to the stage for an encore, the group pair two additional Birds Of Fire tracks together. "Hope" begins contemplatively, with Mclaughlin and the group slowly building up the intensity level. This stays relatively true to the original two-minute studio arrangement, but when one expects the piece to end, they explode into "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 hyper-drive performance.
This recording of Mahavishnu Orchestra is more strong evidence that they remain the brightest and most astounding of all the early 1970s fusion bands. The improvisational abilities of the group were at the most astonishing level during this latter part of 1973. This performances displays the intensity, speed, and breathtaking technical abilities that initially established the group's reputation, but with a less elegant, increasingly edgier sound. McLaughlin would rarely play electric guitar with such ferocity again. Although this initial groundbreaking lineup would call it a day less than a month later, here they are still clearly challenging themselves, with constantly surprising and utterly compelling results.