Billy Cobham - drums; Jerry Goodman - violin; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Rick Laird - bass; John McLaughlin - guitar
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 Far Eastern music, 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 on dynamics and were equally adept at dense, aggressive flights of feverish intensity as they were at creating moments of passionate spiritual contemplation.
The last week of April and the early weeks of May 1973 found the Mahavishnu Orchestra on the road opening for Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention on the tour promoting Zappa's Overnight Sensation album. This performance, recorded at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, was one of the few off nights for Mahavishnu Orchestra during that leg of the Zappa tour, providing them the opportunity to perform their own gig in Baltimore, before rejoining the Zappa tour two nights later in Milwaukee. Free from the time constraints of performing as an opener, Mahavishnu Orchestra are captured in full flight here, taking the improvisational approach to greater extremes. Opening with a double dose of material from the then new Birds Of Fire album and then digging deep into the repertoire from the debut album for the remainder of the show, this recording features a particularly engaging choice of material.
The performance begins with an incendiary pairing of the new album's title track with "Open Country Joy." While both remain aligned with the arrangements on the Birds Of Fire album, they also both contain extended solos, often explosive and pummeling in their ferocity. In the unusual time signature of 18/8, the interwoven nature of Birds Of Fire makes for a thrilling and intense experience, although one unlike anything most jazz or rock fans had ever experienced before. "Open Country Joy," a strutting, gradually intensifying urban blues is perhaps the least complex, most easily accessible music the classic lineup ever played, vacillating between a laidback country feel and frenzied rocking power.
The expansive, nearly 20-minute "Noonward Race" that follows is an absolute guitar shredfest and a prime example of the band thoroughly exploring older material with a new sense of adventure. Here McLaughlin is playing with such passion, dexterity, volume, and sheer speed that he 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!
Breaking up the sheer intensity that preceded it, the group next eases into the infectious groove of "You Know, You Know," dominated by an R&B influenced bass line and containing tasteful arpeggios and unusual accent placements. The rhythm section of Laird and Cobham are showcased here and show they are equally effective at subtlety as they are at intensity. The "Dance of Maya" that follows also receives a highly improvised treatment. Once the initial sequence has been established, the band suddenly shifts focus, with Cobham playing a bluesy 10/8 drum pattern, his mind boggling polyrhythmic patterns complimenting the melodic line. Many subtle changes occur during the improvisations to follow and this track is certainly one of the most intriguing and accessible pieces for newcomers to the band. Nearly 19 minutes later, this astonishing composition comes to an end, leaving the Baltimore audience clamoring for more. The group obliges with an explosive "Vital Transformation" that continues the earlier intensity level during the encore. In 9/8 time, this composition 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 seven minutes of pure power.
The Mahavishnu Orchestra's tempestuous mix of jazz, rock, and Eastern influences is nearing its peak here. Each of the musicians is clearly challenging themselves to push the envelope and the music performed on this night burns with an intensity that few groups have ever matched in live performance.