A Jazz/Rock masterpiece
The Mahavishnu Orchestra is a multinational mix of virtuoso players led by English guitarist John McLaughlin, Irishman Rick Laird on bass, Panamanian-American drummer Billy Cobham who “cut his teeth” playing with one Miles Davis in the 60s and 70s, Czech pianist Jan Hammer, and American violinist Jerry Goodman (The Flock). The year was 1973, the dawn of jazz/rock fusion experimentation, and the band, under the thoughtful touch of producer of British Ken Scott (The Beatles, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck Group, Procol Harum, among many more…), released Birds of Fire (Columbia Records). It was their 2nd and last studio recording with the original lineup before dissolving. It remains a jazz/rock fusion record of the highest category.
They were getting into unknown territory with their previous release The Inner Mounting Flame by introducing jazz to fellow genres rock, Eastern, R&B, classical and country. The effect had broad appeal among the younger listeners, easing an appreciation of newer paths of musical directions and its infinite possibilities.
The title track Birds of Fire begins the event in astonishing form, showcasing the mesmerizing interplay between the players. The riff-off between McLaughlin and Goodman simply soars perhaps like the birds in the title, building into ear-pleasing solos that would make this song a classic among jazz purists and rockers alike. The song is aptly described by All About Jazz critic Walter Kolosky, “Birds of Fire, which opens the album is a fusion classic. John McLaughlin scares the hell out of his guitar with his melodic convulsions. If you ever want to frighten a musical neophyte, turn your stereo up really loud and play the cover tune - it’s guaranteed to send him or her fleeing”. Track 2 Miles Beyond is a tribute by McLaughlin to his mentor Miles Davis that serves up some opening funky vibes on Hammer’s Moog synthesiser joined by a bassline and rat-ta-tat stick work in an arrangement that overlaps and comes back to ground, slowing on some of the finest fret-work by McLaughlin, almost tip-toeing into the explosive finale of musical fireworks that simply dazzles on every level with each player chiming in, stealing the show and then back to the line, everyone in their lane.
McLaughlin is in spectacular flare throughout the show, not only composing all the arrangements himself, but also his mercurial speed and soft touch in playing guitars, like his electric/acoustic Gibson Hummingbird, a Fender Mustang, a Gibson EDS 1275 double neck and especially his ‘58 Gibson Les Paul Custom which he claims was the perfect instrument for the harder sound.
The funky Celestial Terrestrial Commuters is probably the album’s busiest number, starting with a 19/16 groove then another frenetic duel between violin and guitar that shows the passion and purpose they display for the entire record. Things slow down on Thousand Island Park and Hope, using an Eastern classical touch (perhaps Indian) in the former, and Hope climbs and climbs to a mellow climax.
The jewel in the crown is the multi-textured intensity of One Word where each of the gifted players lean in with their own solos; Laird on a rare bass solo and Cobham’s 2-minute drum solo flight that shows why he’s one of the best drummers in the world, leading straight into McLaughlin’s tight ‘speed-of-light’ zigzagging, wah wahs howling and Goodman responding in kind with some more insane licks. This nearly 10-minute opus is perhaps their best work during their short-lived time together, which isn’t an easy thing to say considering the breathtaking talent involved here. Open Country Joy is just what the title implies: a freer, truly soulful Birds of Fire song, with some lovely country touches on violin and guitar...another classy classic. The album closes with the fitting title Resolution, a low-boil intensity exercise that builds to a peak, ending a feverish collection of magnificent pieces.
If you are new to Mahavishnu Orchestra this is a magical place to start, also recommended for rock fans who cherish names like Jimi Hendrix and King Crimson, for example, and of course jazz nuts the world over.
Pound for pound, the collection of players and songs make it practically untouchable, back then, and even today. An everlasting masterpiece.