When John McLaughlin formed the initial Mahavishnu Orchestra, the personnel included Jerry Goodman, a classically trained American rock musician; Jan Hammer, a Czechoslovakian keyboard player with a strong jazz background; Rick Laird, an Irish bass player with both jazz and rock experience, and Billy Cobham, a powerful and technically brilliant jazz drummer from Brooklyn whose style would completely redefine his instrument. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, this globally and musically diverse group brought elements of music of the Far East, R&B, blues, and classical music to the table. The Mahavishnu Orchestra created music that was intricate and complex, performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences and critics alike. The group had a firm grip of dynamics and was equally adept at dense, aggressive flights of feverish intensity as they were at creating moments of passionate spiritual contemplation.
The initial classic lineup of the Mahavishnu Orchestra lasted less than 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 July of 1973, Mahavishnu Orchestra 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, which would dissolve by the end of the year. Between the Trident sessions and the Santana/McLaughlin tour, Mahavishnu Orchestra continued touring the United States with the most noteworthy performances occurring on August 17 and 18, 1973 before outdoor audiences in New York City's Central Park, which Columbia Records recorded and released as the groups one and only live album, Between Nothingness and Eternity.
This performance, recorded several days prior, at Kansas City, Missouri's Memorial Auditorium, can be perceived as one of the warm-up exercises for the Central Park concerts immortalized on the group's live album. This makes it a particularly interesting listen, and while these live performances of "Sister Andrea" and "Dream" are quite similar to the live album versions, the additional Birds Of Fire title track opener and a truly explosive "Awakening" that concludes this performance, widens one's perspective on the band at the time that live album was recorded.
As the recording begins, 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 Jan Hammer's composition "Sister Andrea." Uncharacteristically funky, this elastic groovefest features sizzling solos from McLaughlin, wild bursts of unorthodox sounds from Hammer, and highlights the grittier side to Goodman's violin virtuosity.
The expansive "Dream" featured here allows the group to stretch out even further. As captivating as the released version recorded just a few days later is, this performance is equally astonishing, proving to be one of the group's most exciting explorations during their final months together. A masterpiece of tension and release, "Dream" is equal parts lush and ferocious and features four distinct time signatures. It begins in a tranquil manner, with McLaughlin and Goodman establishing the initial theme. At approximately five minutes in, Cobham signals the rest of the musicians to join in. Rick Laird establishes a strong groove on bass, which is reinforced by Hammer, who then begins soloing. For much of this performance, Hammer is in particularly fine form, often leading the way. Goodman's violin states the theme again several minutes later, before a ferocious jam ensues, with the tempo increasing faster and faster. This becomes a head spinning display of creativity and technical virtuosity. Toward the end, McLaughlin takes a searing solo that develops into ferocious instrumental combat between him and Billy Cobham. When these musicians finally reinstate the theme and bring this composition to a dramatic close, nearly half an hour has passed,
The final half hour of the performance is devoted to another two-song sequence, beginning with one of the new Trident session compositions unfamiliar to the audience. It begins with bass player Rick Laird's composition, "Steppings Tones," which is essentially a cycle of deep pummeling bass notes that repeat a pattern, which here serves as a prelude to Cobham suddenly blasting off into "Awakening." This develops into a great example of the chemistry between McLaughlin and Cobham and features unison playing at its 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. Clocking in at nearly 26 minutes, there's aggressiveness to this performance that may be reflective of the growing animosity within the band, but the chemistry between these musicians is undeniable.
The improvisational abilities of the group were at the most astonishing level during this latter part of 1973. All of this music burns with an intensity few groups have ever matched in live performance. The Mahavishnu Orchestra's tempestuous mix of jazz, rock, and Eastern influences is at its peak here, and this is a vivid example of the group taking improvisation to the extreme. These musicians are clearly challenging each other and pushing the envelope at every opportunity. This recording encapsulates all the elements of this monstrously talented band as they approached the last several months of performing together.