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 the blistering intensity of its predecessor, 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.
Another key factor in the success of this tour was the band employing Dawson Sound; a then fledgling company launched by veteran soundman Stuart "Dinky" Dawson that had begun pioneering new live sound reinforcement possibilities the previous year. The group first encountered Dawson the previous summer, when he provided sound and technical support for a gig at Lenox Massachusetts's Music Inn. One of the most enjoyable performing experiences the band had ever encountered, in terms of the both clarity of the PA system and the onstage monitoring system (which provided the musicians the ability to hear each other clearly on stage), the group vowed to work with Dawson again, and this working relationship began in earnest on January 19, 1973, when the Birds Of Fire tour officially launched at Yale University's Woolsey Hall in New Haven, CT. With the exception of a few seconds of "Sanctuary" that went uncaptured during a tape stock change, here, for the first time ever, is that night's performance in its entirety.
As the recording begins, Mclaughlin is heard thanking the audience followed by Billy Cobham's gong signaling the start of the performance. McLaughlin's 12-string arpeggios begin washing over the audience as the group opens with the title track to Birds of Fire. A dynamic exchange between guitar and drums versus violin, keyboards and bass unfolds. In the unusual time signature of 18/8, the interwoven nature of the arrangement makes for a thrilling and intense experience, although one unlike anything most jazz or rock music fans had ever heard before. Upon Birds of Fire's sizzling conclusion, the group segues directly into another track from the new album, "Open Country Joy." After the initial onslaught of "Birds of Fire, this strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is the least complex, most accessible music the classic lineup ever played. Vacillating between a laidback pastoral feel and frenzied rocking power, this composition's disarming rustic theme provides the initial musical contrast within this set.
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 18-minute length, the improvisations remain tight, focused, and never veer off into meandering jamming. One of the most fascinating sequences occurs right off, following the initial theme, when the rhythm section drops out completely, leaving the front line musicians remaining as a trio. The interaction between Goodman's pizzicato violin, McLaughlin guitar, and Hammer's electric piano is full of a humor and playfulness that is absolutely delightful. Cobham and Laird eventually join back in and after a few surprising stop/starts to jolt the audience, they launch into a cosmic jam with Jerry Goodman as the primary pilot. Another highlight of this piece occurs approximately 10 minutes later when McLaughlin rips into a sizzling solo with Billy Cobham in tow. The unison playing here is equal parts thrilling and fun. At times one can sense McLaughlin and Cobham toying with each other, just to see what the other will do. One would be hard pressed to find a more impressive display of musical telepathy.
The second half of this remarkable performance concentrates solely on additional Birds of Fire material, beginning with "Sanctuary," a slower contemplative piece, that proves the rhythm section of Laird and Cobham to be equally effective at subtlety as they are at intensity. After all the fury that occurred during the previous 40 minutes, "Sanctuary" provides some tranquility during the middle of this night's performance. Jan Hammer's introspective synthesizer solo weeps while Goodman's wailing violin complements McLaughlin's guitar. The tender melody and superb musicianship serve as a calming prelude to the staggering intensity of "One Word," which follows. Beginning with the haunting and ominous opening sequence, this gives way to a relatively sparse improvisation between Hammer's synthesizer and Laird's bass. This slowly develops with Laird's bass becoming the prominent driving element, gradually becoming more active and deepening the groove, as McLaughlin accents the jam with his rhythmically slashing guitar comping. Just before the 10-minute mark, McLaughlin, Goodman, and Hammer develop a three-way call and response. Following this triple barrage of soloing, Billy Cobham also gets a brief showcase, beginning smoothly and continuously escalating in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the explosive ending of the piece. When the group launches back in, playing in 13/8 time, the front line soloists blaze away in a manner that has rarely ever been equaled in terms of intensity. Beneath all this, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while contributing to the overall searing effect. "Resolution," another short composition rarely performed after the early months of 1973, ends this remarkable performance. Here the Mahavishnu Orchestra's music ascends toward the heavens, driven by Laird's anchoring bass and McLaughlin's signature minor chords, and this may indeed be the most penetrating performance of "Resolution" ever.
However, the night isn't over yet as the group delivers an equally powerful encore, beginning with the uplifting "Hope, another short piece free of solos. In 7/8 time, "Hope" unfolds in an elegant, magisterial way, anchored by a repeating melodic phrase that gradually builds in intensity. Cobham's drumming, which fuels the escalating intensity of this composition, suddenly blasts off at its conclusion, launching the group into one more track from the debut album, Awakening. Following Cobham's opening, Jerry Goodman takes flight and his solo is nothing short of thrilling. Jam Hammer follows with an intriguing solo of his own which develops into a duet with McLaughlin. One of the most interesting aspects of this sequence is that Hammer and McLaughlin intentionally keep the dynamic extremely low. This serves to set up listeners for the astonishing barrage that McLaughlin unleashes several minutes later when he cuts loose with a searing solo that easily rivals the most mind-blowing of his career. This is no exaggeration and must be heard to be believed! Cobham follows with a brief solo of his own before the band wraps things up with the compositions' dizzying conclusion.
This recording is the definitive example of Mahavishnu Orchestra's original lineup entering their final year, when they were crossing all musical boundaries and devastating audiences with their dexterity, volume, and speed. Many who experienced this era often speak of the group's performances as a life changing experience. This performance helps to explain this phenomenon as it burns with an intensity and passion that has rarely ever been surpassed. As talented as each individual musician is, The Mahavishnu Orchestra's true greatness was in the sum of its parts, which far outweighs any individual contribution. Many consider the Mahavishnu Orchestra to be the most influential group of the 1970s, and with this performance as a reference point, it is not difficult to see why. Guitarists, drummers, and keyboard players alike, were forced to rethink their instruments after hearing these musicians play, and every musician who listened to this band found themselves reevaluating their own motives and abilities. This group would inspire an entirely new approach to music and along with Miles Davis, launch the jazz/rock fusion genre as a result. That genre would continue to grow and diversify in the years to come, with decreasingly satisfying results, as few would come anywhere near the level of originality or musicianship that the Mahavishnu Orchestra displayed.