Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
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 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 who's virtuosity thrilled audiences and critics alike. The group had a firm grip on dynamics and 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 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 1973, the final year of the classic lineup, they had firmly established their reputation and were 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 live repertoire. Tracks destined for their ill-fated third studio album (released 26 years later as The Lost Trident Sessions) was also being integrated into their live performances. The newer material was now formulated around riffs and repetitive patterns established by the various bandmembers and was intentionally designed as a looser framework. With considerably more stage time, they were consciously taking the improvisational approach to its extreme.
Which brings us to this recording from November of 1973, when Return To Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra shared a bill at Princeton University. Audience recordings of this particular night have circulated for decades, but here one can enjoy the clarity of this partial soundboard recording, one of the last by the original lineup. They begin with the opening track off their debut album, "Meeting Of The Spirits," expanded to over twice the length of its studio counterpart. The remainder of the recording consists of "Trilogy" and "Sister Andrea," two compositions that had been recorded a few months prior, during the Trident Sessions and at the Central Park concert partially released as their third live album, Between Nothingness And Eternity.
Not surprisingly, these performances are similar to the live album versions, but a bit more improvisational. The first section of "Trilogy" is a relatively laid-back passage that soon develops into a more elaborate trade-off between McLaughlin and Hammer, with the guitar dominating. The second section is similar to the first, but with 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 blissful minutes, before they revert back to the original theme bringing "Trilogy" to a close. Jan Hammer's "Sister Andrea" begins with a bluesy funk-flavored opening sequence. After a brief break, Mclaughlin takes a remarkable solo with surprising twists and turns. When he reaches a crescendo and one expects another member of the band to take over, McLaughlin takes off again on another impressively developed solo. Prior to the tape running out, Goodman, too, gets the opportunity to solo, complimented by wild bursts from Hammer's Moog. Unfortunately the remainder of the show, another eight minutes of "Sister Andrea" and a nearly half hour take on "Dream," was not recorded on the soundboard source tape.
Still, what is here 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 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 album. Moments of brilliance remain, but they were rapidly approaching the end of the road here. 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.
After this band's demise, their popularity would only continue to increase. The profound influence they would have inspired countless 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 again.