Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
The musicians that recorded and performed with Miles Davis during his early explorations into electric instrumentation inevitably went on to form bands of their own. Few were as adept or as influential as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a globally diverse group formed by English jazz 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 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 its existence, but these recordings had a profound effect, redefining the jazz/rock fusion movement in the process.
By 1973, the final year of the classic lineup, the 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, astounded musicians and listeners alike. In July of 1973, the group convened at London's Trident Studios to record their ill-fated third studio album. By this point, the relationships within the band were strained and the resulting recordings, which for the first time featured compositions by band members other than McLaughlin, would not see the light of day for several decades. McLaughlin and Cobham would also soon embark on a tour with Carlos Santana, further straining the relationships within the band. Between the Trident sessions and the Santana/McLaughlin tour, Mahavishnu Orchestra continued touring the United States. That August, two performances staged in New York City's Central Park were recorded by Columbia Records and used for the group's one and only live album, Between Nothingness And Eternity, which included live performances of several compositions initially recorded at Trident. Much of this material was formulated around riffs and repetitive patterns established by the various band members, intentionally designed to act as a looser framework for performances. This, combined with considerably more stage time as a headlining act, provided the band the freedom to take improvisation to the extreme. While an argument can be made that the band was more cohesive and eloquent earlier in their all-too-brief career, the performances toward the end of 1973 became staggering in their ferocity. Such an intensity level wasn't destined to last long and indeed they would call it quits by year's end, with the original quintet never performing together again.
Recorded at Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall on December 2, 1973, presented here is a prime example of one of the last performances by the original lineup. Performing choice material from The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire albums, in addition to material from the Trident sessions five months earlier, this performance conveys the band at the most exploratory and diverse point in their career. It also conveys a seething intensity, no doubt fueled in part by the increasing competition and anger brewing within the band.
This recording begins with the title track of their second album, "Birds Of Fire," just getting underway. This is a dramatic opener that unfolds into a dynamic exchange between guitar and drums versus violin, keyboards and bass. In the unusual time signature of 18/8, the interwoven nature of the arrangement makes for a thrilling musical ride, although one unlike anything most jazz or rock music fans had ever heard before. "Birds Of Fire" concludes with a direct transition into "Trilogy," a most intriguing modular composition from the sessions at Trident. The first passage develops into an elaborate tradeoff between McLaughlin and Hammer, with the guitar dominating. The second section features Goodman's violin dominating and Hammer providing birdcall effects with his synthesizers. Cobham's drumming is particularly impressive during this passage. Then the group suddenly launches into the third section - an aggressive hyperactive jam, first featuring a brief violin solo followed by a scorching solo from McLaughlin. The entire group develops an impressive repetition based on McLaughlin's lead riff that remains captivating for several minutes, before they revert back to the original theme, bringing "Trilogy" to a close. Not surprisingly, this performance is similar to the live album version, but even more improvisational.
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 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. Following the initial theme, the rhythm section drops out completely leaving the remaining trio. There is plenty of dazzling interaction here between Goodman's pizzicato violin, McLaughlin's guitar and Hammer's electric piano. Cobham and Laird eventually join back in and after a few surprising stop/starts to jolt the audience, they launch into a high-energy jam. Initially, Jerry Goodman is the primary pilot; he is followed by McLaughlin, who rips into a pulverizing solo with Billy Cobham in tow. The unison playing here is thrilling: at times, one can sense the musicians taunting each other. Despite McLaughlin's blazing speed and unpredictability, Cobham never misses a beat in this mind-blowing display of musical telepathy. This eventually becomes a delicate call and response with Hammer adding his gurgling mini-moog embellishments, before all converge and reinstate the song's theme, bringing it to a gloriously satisfying close nearly 17 minutes later.
Providing contrast, "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, Cobham signals the beginning of "One Word," another compelling composition 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. In fact, Laird becomes the driving force for the next ten minutes or so, as Cobham, and then 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 furious three-way call-and-response ensues that is truly astonishing in its intensity, prior to Dawson's tape stock running out. When the recording continues, it is several minutes later, well into Cobham's powerfully expressive drum solo that eventually leads up to the explosive conclusion of the composition.
To close the set, they take an unusual turn by pairing up "Steppings Tones," a Rick Laird composition initially explored during the Trident Sessions, with "Celestial Terrestrial Commuters" from Birds Of Fire. Laird's composition is based on a repeating cycle of pummeling bass notes that here serve as a sort of prelude to the sizzling latter number. Combined, they are relatively short in terms of the later-era repertoire, but pack a serious wallop of expressive soloing from Hammer and a blazing call-and-response sequence between Goodman and McLaughlin to conclude the set.
When the group returns for their encore, they still have plenty of energy, which results in a dazzling conclusion to this performance that clocks in at nearly half an hour! This begins with an incendiary reading of the opening track of their debut album, Meeting Of The Spirits, that is explosive, extended and pummeling in its ferocity. Here the composition is more than doubled in length, seething with an intensity that far surpasses the studio recording, before segueing directly into Jan Hammer's composition, "Sister Andrea." Uncharacteristically funky in terms of the Mahavishnu Orchestra repertoire, this elastic groovefest features sizzling solos from McLaughlin, wild bursts of unorthodox sounds from Hammer's keyboard arsenal, and highlights from the grittier side to Goodman's violin virtuosity, who sashays and swings as he pumps his signal through a wah-wah pedal. Here, "Sister Andrea" is taken at a faster clip than the familiar live album recording, propelling McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer into areas previously unexplored, albeit on a more individual basis.
Like everything that preceded it, this encore displays phenomenal musicianship and is particularly illuminating for those interested in the final days of this band. The spirituality and passion is undeniable but there is also more anger and fury than ever before. Many have pondered why this band couldn't continue, but there simply wasn't much further these five musicians could go within this context. The joyousness that so deeply permeated and balanced the furious intensity of their music was clearly waning. This may partially explain why McLaughlin's next steps included the classically focused Apocalypse album, followed by a return to shorter fusion pieces on the Visions Of The Emerald Beyond. Extended compositions featuring lengthy solos were magic in the hands of these musicians, but even they were becoming less cohesive during these final months, often soloing individually. The interpersonal relationships in the band were strained at best during this era and those feelings permeate the performance to some degree. This concert contains many moments of cohesive brilliance but also conveys aggression and volatility in equal measure.
After this band's demise, their popularity would only continue to increase. They would inspire numerous less talented imitators who would attempt to carry the jazz/rock fusion torch forward, but with decreasingly satisfying results. Although McLaughlin would continue with subsequent lineups of the band, all capable of devastatingly intense music, the finesse and elegance of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra would never be replicated. These musicians would occasionally work together in various combinations, but all five would never perform together again.
-Written by Alan Bershaw