Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
Musicians who 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 whose 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 it's 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 band members and was intentionally designed as a looser framework. With considerably more stage time, they were consciously taking the improvisational approach to it's extreme.
They begin the performance with "Meeting Of The Spirits" followed by "Trilogy." These are both powerful performances that are filled with moments of brilliance and McLaughlin's guitar tone is fat and full of strength. However, they serve as a mere warmup exercise compared to the performances to come. The group truly begins hitting their stride on "The Dance Of Maya, " with its infectious rhythmic pattern complimenting the melodic line. Once the initial sequence has been established, the band suddenly shifts focus, with Cobham's powerful and propulsive drumming leading the way. The second half of this remarkable performance is primarily a duel between McLaughlin and Cobham that eventually blazes into a breathtaking conclusion.
Without a pause, the signature snare roll 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 gives way to a showcase bass improvisation by Cobham, punctuated by gurgling keyboard embellishments from Hammer and expressive rhythmic emphasis from McLaughlin. Approximately eight minutes in, they propel into a fiery jam, with McLaughlin soaring and trading solos with Goodman and Hammer. Cobham takes a powerfully expressive solo in the middle preparing one for the explosive second half of the piece. The group launches back in, continually increasing in speed, with McLaughlin and Goodman blazing away. Hammer's keyboards have a playful organ-like quality that is delightful. Within it's complicated time signature, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while all contribute to an incendiary performance.
They conclude the set with the pairing of two additional "Birds Of Fire" tracks. "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 hyperdrive performance.
This latter era of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra is strong evidence that they were still, with the possible exception of Weather Report, the brightest and most astounding of all the fusion bands. Their performances display 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.