Saturday, September 2, 2017

Mahavishnu Orchestra - 1973 - Electric Instrumentation Inevitably

Mahavishnu Orchestra
Electric Instrumentation Inevitably

May 19, 1973
Palace Theatre
Waterbury, CT

101. Meeting Of The Spirits
102. Open Country Joy
103. Dream

201. One Word / Vital Transformation
202. Noonward Race

November 28, 1973
Hofsra University
Hempstead, NY

301. Meeting Of The Spirits
302. Trilogy
303. The Dance Of Maya
304. One Word
305. Hope / Celestial Terrestrial Commuters

Bass – Rick Laird
Drums – Billy Cobham
Guitar – John McLaughlin
Piano – Jan Hammer
Violin – Jerry Goodman

The May 1973 performance in Waterbury captures this looser approach and the group's breathtaking improvisational abilities are fully on display. Recorded at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT, this is one of the finest examples of the band's high energy and fluid virtuosity that anyone could hope to hear. They begin with the opening track of their debut album, Meeting Of The Spirits. Expanded to over twice the length of its studio counterpart, this now replaces Birds Of Fire as the standard opener for the duration of the group's existence. They follow with a thoroughly joyous take on the Birds Of Fire track, "Open Country Joy." This strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is perhaps the least complex, most easily accessible music the classic lineup ever played. Vacillating between a laidback county feel and frenzied rocking power, its disarming rustic theme now provides the initial musical contrast within the set.

The version of "Dream" that follows begins taking the improvisational approach to the extreme. Soon to be recorded in the studio and for the entire second side of their live album, there is an abundance of exploratory and propulsive playing here. This remarkable composition is nearly half an hour long and qualifies as the mother of all Mahavishnu Orchestra epics. It begins in a dreamy contemplative manner, with an ostinato figure between Hammer and Laird. As the second, faster section begins, Hammer unleashes his trademark unusual chords and arpeggios on his Fender Rhodes as the band begins building an elegant melody line. This becomes a head spinning exercise as McLaughlin and Goodman lock together in unison driving the main section of the composition. At one point, Cobham and McLaughlin lock horns, firing phrases back and forth, recalling the explosive exchanges between John Coltrane and Elvin Jones a decade prior.

The equally devastating "One Word" is next. Here the group begins with a haunting and frightening sequence that gives way to a relatively straightforward jam, with McLaughlin adding delicious wah-wah guitar over a solid groove, while the other members trade solos. Billy Cobham gets a solo spot in the middle, which begins smoothly and escalates in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the explosive second half of the piece. The group launches back in, playing in 13/8 time, continually increasing in speed, with McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer blazing away, often in total unison. Within this complicated time signature, one will discover McLaughlin applying a technique where he reduces his guitar strokes by one with each proceeding line, playing six notes on the first line, five on the second and so on. Beneath all this, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while occasionally contributing to the overall searing effect. This segues directly into "Vital Transformation," which relentlessly maintains the energy level at full tilt. In 9/8 time, this piece contains some of the funkiest playing that the band would ever achieve. Charismatic, powerful and blazing with energy, this is a tour-de-force blend of all the elements that comprised the bands music, condensed into eight minutes of pure power.

This brings the performance to a close, but the Mahavishnu Orchestra return for an encore that must have left this audience, as well as the musicians, completely exhausted. "Noonward Race" is an absolute guitar shred-fest, with McLaughlin playing with such passion, dexterity, volume and sheer speed that makes most rock guitarists appear to be asleep in comparison. Charged violin lines from Goodman, tasteful keyboard embellishments from Hammer, and absolutely furious drumming from Cobham takes this piece blazing into the stratosphere. This is the Mahavishnu Orchestra at full throttle and playing at warp speed.

This Waterbury Palace recording is one of the greatest and certainly one of the most intense Mahavishnu Orchestra performances ever committed to tape. The words "awe inspiring" are totally applicable here, with every member of the band demonstrating an intensity far beyond what has been captured on their studio recordings. All the music performed on this very special evening burns with an intensity that will leave a lasting impression on anyone who listens.

The Hofsra University 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.