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 its predecessor's blistering intensity, 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. Recorded on the campus of C.W. Post College on Long Island, NY, this performance is a stellar example of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity reaching its peak during this tour.
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 the song's sizzling conclusion, the group segues directly into another track from the new album, "Open Country Joy," a strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues that is the least complex, most accessible music the classic lineup ever played. Vacillating between a laid back pastoral feel and frenzied rocking power, this composition's disarming rustic theme provides the initial musical contrast within this set.
The set continues with the uplifting "Hope," a short composition 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 a track from the debut album, "Awakening." Following Cobham's opening, Jerry Goodman takes flight followed by Jan Hammer. Their improvisations serve to set up listeners for the astonishing barrage that McLaughlin unleashes several minutes later.
This develops into a great example of the chemistry between McLaughlin and Cobham and features unison playing at it's most astounding. Both interject an endless barrage of ideas, while Cobham often does more with a hi-hat and snare drum than most drummers are capable of with an entire kit. This has moments of frightening intensity and the telepathy between these musicians is quite astonishing. Cobham concludes the improvisations with a solo of his own before the band wraps things up with the composition's dizzying conclusion.
Next up is McLaughlin's homage to Miles Davis, "Miles Beyond." Often mistakenly attributed to Davis, this McLaughlin original pays tribute to one of his greatest mentors while providing a funkier context for these musicians to explore their improvisational abilities.
The set concludes with the staggering intensity of "One Word," which takes things to the next level. A centerpiece composition from the Birds Of Fire album, this begins with the haunting and ominous opening sequence, which gives way to an 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. Eventually McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer develop a three-way call and response. Beneath all this, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while contributing to the overall searing effect. Following the barrage of solos, Billy Cobham also gets a brief showcase, beginning smoothly and continuously escalating in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the composition's dizzying conclusion.
To fully pummel the audience into submission, they oblige an encore by closing the night with "Vital Transformation." In 9/8 time, this contains some of the most furious playing that the band would ever achieve. Charismatic, powerful and blazing with energy, this is a tour-de-force synthesis of jazz, rock, funk and R&B condensed into six minutes of pure power.
-Written by Alan Bershaw