All compositions by John McLaughlin
except "Sister Andrea" by Jan Hammer
Recorded live in New York (at the Central Park), August 1973 (click here for a photo)
This is the only official live recording by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Despite his tremendous popularity during the seventies, McLaughlin has released only two live albums in that decade (the other one being Shakti in 1975). This is quite surprising, knowing that he was notoriously known for producing his best material on the stage, rather than in the studio. Despite this well known fact, his recording company (Columbia) made a decision to largely ignore the best facet of one of their brightest stars, and to coerce him into many half-baked projects (like, Inner Worlds in 1975). This is what has, eventually, brought McLaughlin to make a breach of contract in 1980 and to sign up with Warner Bros.
Another important facet of McLaughlin's style has been largely neglected throughout his career -- his uncanny ability to handle large formats, meaning long, elaborate compositions. This is where McLaughlin really shines, and this is why he almost always delivers better material when he is playing on stage, where he is given more room to develop his musical ideas.
His first two solo albums that he cut in
America (Devotion and My
Goal's Beyond) both featured prolonged jams that were confined within
extremely interesting and intelligent musical structures (especially "Peace
One" and "Peace Two" from My Goal's Beyond).
On this live album we finally get a chance to hear Mahavishnu Orchestra
in its full glory, especially on the final and the longest cut, "Dream".
1. Trilogy (12:01)
The Sunlit Path
La Mere De La Mer
Tomorrow's Story Not The Same
Hey, this is something I can recognize, I was thinking to myself. At that time, I was still completely mesmerized by the Birds Of Fire, a recording that also begins with gong blasts. But this time, the blasts were going on forever, extending into the eternity. Each blast was getting more and more spaced out. Finally, a gentle caressing of the strings announced that all the cheering and whistling from the crowd meant that the band actually is on the stage, and that they will, sooner or later, unleash their famous barrage.
And what a barrage it was! After the swelling introductory licks (delivered by the three frontmen), Cobham jumps in mercilessly pounding on his kit and the band locks into one of the most beautiful and at the same time most disjointed and angular melodies. The melody soars, reaching ever higher levels, carrying us on a 'sunlit path', the path of realization. All of a sudden, it takes an unexpected turn, and crushes us onto the ground, only to pick us up again and push us up on a same dizzying ride.
By the time we crash on the ground for the second time, the stage is set for the most glorious battle of trading licks between McLaughlin and Hammer. To this very day, my whole body simply melts when I'm listening to this most melodious and singable battle of instruments. Although it is lilting, bathed in light and hummable, the solos get to be almost frighteningly powerful. Especially the licks that McLaughlin plays, often time sound like an enraged dragon breathing fire and bringing the utter destruction on his path. Nope, he doesn't play that electric guitar anymore the way he used to play it back in 1973!
Another thing to marvel at during this segment is Laird's totally unexpected bass lines. Very melodic, and extremely inventive as well. If anyone thought that, in Mahavishnu Orchestra, his role has been confined to that of a competent, but rather uneventful provider of the musical foundation, they'd better listen more closely to this playing. Even by today's standards, there is so much to learn from his inventive and masterful bass licks.
As the battle of the guitar and the keyboards intensifies, the trading of the licks gets to be shorter and shorter, until they lock into a simple and energetic lick which brings them to repeat the introductory melody.
After that, everything dissipates, there is a soft cry (coming from a human voice or perhaps from a mellotron?) and once again we hear the swelling chords coming from the twelve string electric guitar. The crosspicking pattern is beautifully elaborate and intricate. The underlying rhythmic pulse resembles the waves crushing on the ocean shore. Was that the whisper of wind that I just heard? Yes, there's wind gently rocking the trees. Suddenly, a surprise -- a bird is chirping! No, that's Hammer's mini-moog.
This exquisitely crafted segment of programmatic music is something that is at odds with the completely abstract Mahavishnu sound. Nevertheless, it fits in like a glove. One can easily imagine vast wheat fields swaying in the sun, under a balmy summer breeze. Then, a gorgeous, masterfully carved melody, played in unison by the violin and the bass, enter the soundscape. Van Gogh's paintings immediately come to mind. What a beautiful melody! It rises and falls, it breathes, it brings myriad of colors with it.
When the melody is resolved, the band locks into a simple groove, which creates a perfect backdrop for Cobham to emerge with his thunderous drumming. How masterful is his drum solo! It cascades like a mountain river approaching the sea. The sunlit path is indeed arising before our eyes, shimmering under the scorching sun.
A rapid fire snare roll startles us as we plunge into "La Mere De La Mer". A wiggly, snake-like ascending lick, played by all three frontmen, is repeatedly conveying the red-hot summer day at the sea shore. The tempo is frantic, the groove is condensed. This piece never lets up, it only gets more and more intense as the trading of the solos unfolds. First, Goodman gets ample room for his extended violin solo. In the background, McLaughlin is filling some pretty wicked riffs and licks. Then, the trademark Mahavishnu trading fours pattern (McLaughlin locks horns with Hammer, who plays mini-moog this time) ensues. Soon, the red-hot intensity is heightened into a white-heat intensity. It is impossible to describe their insanely frantic improvisation. And, of course, it cannot last for long -- everything explodes, and through the rubbles, as the smoke is slowly clearing, we enter "Tomorrow's Story Not The Same" (to read a fascinating encounter by our friend Mark Anderson, describing what took place during the above guitar/Moog duel, please click here).
An enchanting, recurring melody is all
they are playing during this short finale of the "Trilogy". Its tantalizing,
eastern flavor adds a mythical dimension to the whole piece. As the band
speeds up the rendition of the melody, they abruptly change it into the
complex, ascending main melody that's been introduced at the beginning.
The "Trilogy" ends with a big splash.
There is nothing sheepish about this song, and it perfectly showcases both Hammer's compositional abilities, and the band's improvisational capabilities. A strong, rock-oriented riff opens up the song, which continues to forcefully rock throughout its eight and half minutes. Oddly enough, this song mostly acts as a platform for McLaughlin's mind-boggling exhibitions on his double-neck guitar (although, in all fairness, both Goodman and Hammer do get their share of shredding later on).
However, the highlight of this song is McLaughlin's unabashed solo, that soars and sends the chills down the spine. His solo is executed in the perfect guitar-god posturing manner, although at that time, there were still no guitar gods to speak of.
Although the aura of Mahavishnu Orchestra,
with its larger-than-life spirituality, may prevent us from realizing this
on the first few listens, the fact remains that this song is simply a very
good rock anthem. There is no particular depth to it, nor will it ever
manage to elevate us to the unprecedented vistas like other Mahavishnu
songs do, especially the following composition on this album, "Dream".
Because such large formats have never been considered commercial enough by the record companies executives (due to the, as McLaughlin himself puts it, 'hamburger mentality'), he was, as a general rule, discouraged to develop his art in that direction. This is, in my opinion, a pitiful turn of events, for we can see that whenever he had gotten some free space to express a deeper, more reflective side of his personality (like on this live recording), he invariably came up with results that were nothing short of astounding.
The brooding, meditative mood of the composition is set up with the opening lick: playing a simple e minor arpeggio (B on the fifth string, second fret - E on the fourth string, second fret - back to B on the fifth string - E on the open sixth string, back to B on the fifth string, and finally E on the fourth string), McLaughlin introduces a bare bones, extremely simplified harmonic climate that will drench the whole piece in certain elegiac, dream-like atmosphere.
As the guitar and the bass repeat the basic lick, the violin and the drums join in by hovering over the fragile landscape of McLaughlin's dream. They are barely audible, but nonetheless contribute significantly to the enchanting atmosphere. A haunting, pathos-laden melody, soaked in sorrow, and played harmonized in minor thirds by McLaughlin and Goodman, is stated for the first time. This melody is the corner stone of the whole piece, and it will undergo various transformations as the composition unfolds. The melody is characterized by a simple movement, one step forward, one step back, one step sideways. That's all.
Now, the most gorgeous, subdued but still fat and juicy solo by McLaughlin enters the picture. By the sound of it, I'd say that he is playing it on his twelve string neck (the upper neck on his custom double-neck Gibson), but I'm not absolutely certain. Like somebody said a while ago, nobody plays an arpeggio on the guitar the way McLaughlin does, and this statement makes perfect sense when we listen to this solo. Although he's started with a simple A major arpeggio (A - C# - E), which he keeps repeating several times, somehow it is extremely difficult to emulate that particular way of phrasing and articulating the notes. Rhythmically, it can easily throw you off the kilter, but even if it were played evenly, the actual phrasing is next to impossible to emulate. So much passion, so much of the calm, unperturbed conviction.
The guitar solo ends in a flurry of notes and on a somber note, after which the introductory melody gets repeated. Now, it's Jerry Goodman's turn to 'cry us a river'. His violin never sounded more voice-like. It pulsates, it stretches beyond any imaginable boundaries. And listen to McLaughlin's undercurrent guitar, fluttering and sighing with the violin. It's simply carving up a gorgeous canyon, filled with glistening tears.
The violin solo finishes up the first, introductory segment of this composition. The 'slow and sad' movement now evolves into a more decisive, but still somewhat somber elaboration of the introductory material. The opening lick is now executed with more anguish, underlined by Cobham's dramatic cymbals. As the melody hovers above the misty fields, the drum rolls entices the other instruments to voice their cries. In a very nice and dramatic buildup, the band gushes forth and breaks into a fast-paced torrent of the first of the several outbreaks to follow. Hammer supplies a well-constructed solo on the electric piano, executed mainly using the black chords approach.
When the electric piano solo is over, the intricate ascending melody, executed at a break-neck tempo, is stated for the first time (this melody will be executed three times in the entire piece). It is an interesting elaboration of McLaughlin's well known staple melody, as featured on "Binkey's Beam" (Extrapolation, 1969). This time, the melody has been considerably transformed to convey a sense of urgency and that of an imminent collapse.
The fervent execution of the powerful and tense riff gets interrupted abruptly, as if cut off by a pair of scissors. Hammer switches gears a bit, and continues by playing the lilting, folk-like little lick on his electric piano. Out of this jittery and quite nervous plucking of notes, McLaughlin emerges with his powerful and very assertive guitar (although at times barely audible, due to his application of dynamic shadings). The melodic lines are intertwined between the guitar and the electric piano. Everything sounds extremely busy, like a bee hive in the middle of the day. The finger-breaking fervor reaches the climax, and yet they still keep going and going. It's a breathtakingly beautiful moment of sheer musical fantasy and stamina. Finally, they break apart, and the thunderous drums roll in, tearing everything asunder.
The movement is so unstoppable, so elementary, that the band just keeps stating the bare-bones chords, not elaborating nor embellishing on them in any way. Something's gotta give, and sure enough, the torrent changes its course, and opens up for the second rendition of the urgent, ascending melody (a la "Binkey's Beam"). This set the stage for a blistering violin solo.
During the devilish fiddling (in a manner that's very characteristic for Goodman), McLaughlin plays some simple, enticing riffs. He even quotes the opening riff from "Sunshine Of My Love" by the Cream, and it fits perfectly into the maddening crescendo of this segment!
When the violin's voice cracks up and disappears, we enter the central portion of this gargantuan composition. This is the famous "battle of the Titans", as exemplified by McLaughlin's guitar and Cobham's fierce drums. At approximately 12:35 time into the composition, everything quiets down and gives the center stage to this voracious battling. We can feel Cobham's bouncy drums simply rocking the stage, as McLaughlin enters with his buzzing, barely audible electric bites that intermittently rise to high volume screams.
The sheer dynamics of this duet, from an almost inaudible little buzzing to the grand screaming and pounding, is enough to keep us in total stupor. The extra-sensory (almost telepathic) communication between the two musicians is staggering. Together, they are riding this wild beast, capable of stopping on a dime, and of making innumerable totally unexpected 180o turns. With each unforeseen turn, it feels as if a giant balloon is being inflated, rising higher and higher in the sky. Eventually, the bass joins in, judiciously pumping the tension into this already overblown drama. McLaughlin now reaches the stage where he is absolutely going berserk, beside himself with the rage and anguish. His guitar growls, screams, wiggles and attacks with such ferociousness that it seems humanly impossible that someone could be capable of handling this instrument in such a way. One really has to hear this in order to experience the intensity of such overcharged emotions.
Eventually, and after much fuss and furry, this drama dissipates, and for a while, the band sounds as if it is in a bit of a disarray. There's some rambling in various directions coming from all instruments, until they pick up a little riff and join hands in elaborating on it. They repeat it over and over, similar to the riff they play at the ending of "One Word" (on Birds Of Fire). Very quickly, everything locks into a groove and a painful, endlessly repeating pattern forces us to fall into a catatonic stupor. The band reaches a point beyond climax, and just as everything becomes absolutely unbearable, the bubble bursts and they break out, kicking into the third rendition of the modified "Binkey's Beam" melody.
This third rendition signals that the time is nearing when they will have to wrap things up and to resolve this monolith somehow. By now, one can sense that there is a higher-order structure to this piece -- it's only not very clear what's this structure like. The abrupt change of pace, of harmony and everything else, that ensues the moment they finish up the melody, has the unexpected (and much desired) effect of opening our eyes and bringing everything home.
The instantaneous transformation of everything that was going on just a split second ago is razor sharp. The tempo and the meter took a complete 'out from the left field' turn; however, the factor most responsible for instigating this fundamental transformation is the guitar. Similar to the abrupt awakening that McLaughlin played in the middle of "Dance Of Maya" (The Inner Mounting Flame), this time his guitar also cuts through a dream like a knife cutting through butter. Extremely sobering, extremely recollecting, his guitar soars and rushes forward in the insurpressible urge to finally reach the liberation.
When McLaughlin finally settles down, utterly exhausted and shivering, the reality-as-it-is quietly emerges. The underlying bass lick is actually a rehashed vamp from "Arjen's Bag" (Extrapolation), this time played with much more apprehension. Something is shaping up on the horizon, something unknown and significant is rising. The tension mounts beyond the point of being bearable... When, suddenly --
Both guitar and violin wake up from a timeless dream. The panful scream is in fact a repeat of the very first melody they played at the beginning. The recurring scream is intensifying until it gets to be marvelously resolved by repeating the opening melody. This time, at the closing of this magnificent composition, the reiterated melody has climbed the ultimate, highest vista, from where everything, the whole of life and the whole Universe, is plainly laid out.
The actual resolution of the mounting tension
is executed so perfectly, that it almost sounds like an overdubbed guitar
(splicing a live album? Is this possible? Would they do such a thing?)
But, from that moment on, things slowly die out, until Cobham hits
his gong, announcing that it's over (and, as the crowd keeps cheering,
he mysteriously plays eleven beats on the rim of his snare drum!)
And, of course, he will continue to deliver similar grandiose material in the years to follow this concert. The project immediately following this live album, and unfortunately also following the demise of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, is Apocalypse (1974). On that album, he offered us a majestically crafted "Hymn To Him", as well as the pious "Vision Is A Naked Sword". And later on, he will keep churning these ambitious, long and intricate compositions (like "India" from A Handful Of Beauty, by Shakti, 1977), etc.
Still, nothing (in my opinion) comes even
close to the sheer power of vision as extolled by this band on "Dream".
The architectural structure of that composition, conceived by McLaughlin,
is so unbelievably simple, that it makes it really difficult to grasp.
It is based on the simple idea of a rolling snowball. From an insignificant,
lowly phenomenon (a simple, uneventful little motif), larger and more elaborate
things form and rise. As the time unfolds, this system grows to be one
gargantuan, monolithic edifice that eventually must crumble under its own
weight (as described in the 'awakening' episode above). But we cannot really
perceive this edifice, such is its overwhelming grandiosity. It is somewhat
comparable to the grand silhouette that is emerging on the horizon -- if
we look straight at it, we can't discern anything, because it completely
fills our field of vision. However, as soon as we look the other way, we
are able to catch a glimpse of the contours of this monstrous figure. In
that precise moment, the awakening occurs.