Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
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. Combining the improvisational elements of jazz with the volume and energy of rock music, the group created music that was often intricate and complex, performed by musicians whose virtuosity thrilled audiences, musicians and critics alike.
In July of 1973, Mahavishnu Orchestra convened at London's Trident Studios to record their ill-fated third studio album. Despite the strength of the material, which for the first time featured compositions by band members other than McLaughlin, the Trident sessions would not see the light of day for several decades. With insufficient rehearsal time and relationships within the band becoming strained, the results were deemed unsatisfactory and a plan was hatched to record the new material live instead. McLaughlin and Cobham would soon embark on a tour to promote the Love, Devotion, Surrender album with Carlos Santana, further straining 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 and two of the most noteworthy performances occurring on August 17th and 18th, 1973 before outdoor audiences ten thousand strong at the Schaefer Music Festival in New York City's Central Park, Columbia Records recorded these performances on a 24 track mobile unit and released three excerpts (Trilogy, Sister Andrea and Dreams) from the second night as the group's one and only live album, Between Nothingness And Eternity.
Until now, only those three compositions were available from this now legendary two-night stand. Thanks to sound engineer Dinky Dawson's raw board tapes, listeners now have the ability to hear just how magnificent these performances were. For this pair of concerts, Dawson assembled the largest sound reinforcement system of his career up to this point. Utilizing the entirety of his Acoustic Suspension System in addition to The Byrds' WEM system just to reproduce the bass frequencies, Dawson had the Mahavishnu Orchestra (especially Cobham's drum kit) loud, clear and sonically resonating across the massive outdoor space. More than four decades after the fact, listeners can finally experience the live album material in context of the much longer performance and listen to both of these Central Park performances in their near entirety.
Like the previous night (also available here at Wolfgang's), presented here is Dawson's recording of the August 18, 1973 Central Park performance, containing both alternate two-track stereo mixes of the live album compositions and a wealth of material from The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire albums performed by the original lineup at their peak. Since the band was making a conscious effort to record the Trident session material live at this show, this night is also notable for containing performances of all but one of the compositions that would later surface as The Lost Trident Sessions.
This extraordinary recording begins with John McLaughlin chatting with the massive New York City audience, introducing the band members and relaying that they are recording, before calling for a moment of silence. Far from silent, shouts of anticipation and dogs barking are clearly heard right before Mahavishnu Orchestra launch into what would become side one of Between Nothingness And Eternity with "Trilogy" followed by "Sister Andrea." Beginning with Cobham's gong, McLaughlin's phase-shifted guitar washes begin this definitive version of "Trilogy," gradually increasing in volume until the band kicks in to state the melody. Cobham and Laird anchor a 7/8 time signature while McLaughlin and Hammer explore "The Sunlit Path," its initial sequence. The introspective middle section, "La Mere de la Mer," is a stellar display of the group's command of dynamics. McLaughlin plays delicate 12-string arpeggios; Hammer interjects bird calls from his mini-moog as Goodman and Laird begin a tranquilizing duet. This gently weaving second section serves as a tranquil prelude to the pummeling third section, "Tomorrow's Not The Same." Just when one least expects it, Cobham signals the sudden transition with a monstrous snare roll that propels the band into a blazing jam, featuring hyper speed improvisations. Goodman, McLaughlin and Hammer all take opportunities to solo, before the entire band miraculously returns to main theme once again and ends with an awestruck audience roaring its approval.
With only a few seconds to collect their breath, they continue with Jan Hammer's signature composition for the group, "Sister Andrea." The band had been developing this piece for some time, but here it has come to full fruition. Uncharacteristically funky, its highly elastic groove features sizzling 12-string solos from McLaughlin, wild outbursts from Hammer and highlights the grittier rock aspects of Goodman's violin virtuosity, which pumps his amplified violin through a wah-wah pedal. The initial opening sequence dissolves into a more tranquilizing middle section that inspires a spectacular solo guitar outburst from McLaughlin, who is overflowing with creativity here. This builds to a white-hot frenzy as the band roars back in for a series of bluesy exchanges between Goodman and Hammer and then ending it spectacularly before an enthralled New York City audience. Like "Trilogy" which preceded it, this performance of "Sister Andrea" would feature on the live album and as such, become what most consider the definitive version.
With the exception of the encore, the remainder of this performance has never been heard again until now and will no doubt intrigue and delight every fan of this band. The recording continues unusually, with another solo guitar outburst from McLaughlin alone, due to approximately ten minutes lapsing before the recording continues. Like the previous night, the group continued with "Hope" into "Awakening," with the former unrecorded and the latter missing the first two sections of the composition. When the recording resumes, McLaughlin is launching directly into his spectacular "Awakening" solo spot, burning for several minutes unaccompanied before Cobham joins back in. Both musicians interject a rapid barrage of ideas, while Cobham does more with a hi-hat and snare drum than most drummers are capable of with an entire kit. Cobham concludes with a brief solo of his own before the band wraps it up with the compositions' dizzying conclusion.
Following this, the band explores the new Jerry Goodman composition in 13/8, "I Wonder." Also recorded during the aborted Trident sessions, this live version is far more enjoyable and contains an emotionally charged solo from McLaughlin that relies more on bluesy string bends and a fat biting tone as opposed to speed. Unlike the Trident session recording, on which Goodman opts not to solo, both he and Hammer are having plenty of fun here. It isn't surprising that Goodman and Hammer would continue investigating this composition, recording it again for their Like Children album, issued not long after the breakup. Shortly before the 7 minute mark, Cobham's tight snare roll signals the transition into the staggering intensity of "One Word." A centerpiece of the Birds Of Fire album and what many consider to be the band's single greatest composition, this magnificent performance is captured complete, uninterrupted and is everything one could hope for and more. It begins with the haunting and ominous opening sequence, which then gives way to an astonishing improvisation by bass player Rick Laird. With Laird's bass the prominent driving element, soon accentuated by Hammer's percolating mini-moog, a deep groove develops that intensifies as McLaughlin begins accenting the jam with his rhythmically slashing guitar. Shortly before the eight minute mark, McLaughlin cuts loose as a three-way call and response develops between him, Goodman and Hammer. Beneath all this, Laird and Cobham anchor things, while contributing to the overall searing effect. McLaughlin's unbridled enthusiasm is clearly audible here, even when he is just comping behind Goodman or Hammer. His comping seems to ratchet up the tension, making each of his solo runs all the more satisfying for their sense of explosive release. Following the barrage of solos from the front line, the band dramatically drops out, as Billy Cobham takes a powerfully finessed solo of his own, beginning smoothly and continuously escalating in both speed and dynamics, preparing one for the composition's swirling finale, which is thankfully captured in it's entirety, just seconds prior to Dawson's tape stock running out.
With new tape rolling, the recording resumes with another new composition just getting underway. A Rick Laird composition, "Steppings Tones" is essentially a cycle of deep pummeling bass note intervals that repeat a pattern. Here the composition serves as a prelude to the set closing "Vital Transformation," which fully pummels the audience into submission. In 9/8 time, "Vital Transformation" 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 raw power. Following a split second of stunned silence, the dazed Central Park audience erupts with applause that doesn't let up until the band returns to the stage to tune up for the encore. And what an encore it is, as they proceed into the definitive performance of "Dream" that would fill the entirety of side two on "Between Nothingness And Eternity!"
"Dream" had become one of the group's finest explorations during their final months together and this remarkable composition allows the group to thoroughly flex their improvisational muscles. 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 in 15/4 time. The Central Park performances of this composition are notable as McLaughlin plays the meditative opening on acoustic guitar, which he would continue to do during the band's final months together. At approximately five minutes in, Cobham signals the rest of the musicians to join in. The main theme is first presented, serving as a periodic bridge between the improvisational flights, as the composition morphs into 15/16 time. Rick Laird establishes an insistent groove on bass, which is reinforced by McLaughlin's and Hammer's leads that dart in and around each other. The main theme is reinstated again several minutes later, before Goodman takes a funky solo of his own, with the group now in 15/8 time. Close listening will reveal the band spontaneously toying with the classic riff from Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love" here, right before McLaughlin and Cobham engage in ferocious instrumental combat that has gone down in history as one of the most thrilling guitar/drums duels ever recorded. Unfortunately, not all of this sequence was captured as the tape stock again runs out just before the 15 minute mark. When the recording resumes approximately four minutes has passed, with the entire band reinstating the theme for the final time and heading toward the conclusion, now in 15/4 time. Over the next three minutes, the composition gradually ramps down concluding this staggering performance just like it began, with the sound of Cobham's gong ringing through Central Park.
(Written by Alan Bershaw)