Billy Cobham, Colin Towns and the Hessische-Rundfunk Big Band – Meeting of the Spirits: A Celebration of the Mahavishnu Orchestra – In and Out IOR CD 77086-2, 74:11 ****:
(Billy Cobham – drums; Colin Towns – arranger, music director; Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn, Oliver Leicht – alto and soprano saxophone, flute; Harry Petersen, Johannes Enders – tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute; Rainer Heute – baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Tobias Weidinger, Martin Auer, Thomas Vogel & Axel Schlosser – trumpet, Flugelhorn; Günter Bollmann, Peter Feil, Christian Jaksjo – trombone; Manfred Honetschläger – bass trombone; Martin Scales – guitar; Peter Reiter – piano, Fender Rhodes, other keyboards; Thomas Heiderpriem – electric bass)
What do you get when you combine the material from a premier jazz fusion act with a forward-thinking German big band? More than you bargained for. Meeting of the Spirits puts the Mahavishnu Orchestra into large group arrangements and is the latest in an ongoing re-evaluation of John McLaughlin and his famed fusion outfit.
Placing the hard-charging, complex Mahavishnu Orchestra compositions into a spacious ensemble package might seem improbable or impossible. But under the direction and sympathetic ear of English arranger Colin Towns, the Hessische-Rundfunk Big Band (commonly called the HR-Big Band) reinterprets the Mahavishnu Orchestra into a new, worthy upgrade.
This sort of outing is best experienced in front of an attentive audience, thus this 74-minute excursion was recorded live in early 2006 at a German venue. The set list opens with the affirmative, introductory “Hope,” which sequences directly into the definitive, agitated “Birds of Fire.” Guitarist Martin Scales intersperses rock riffs with moderate rhythm chords while a full complement of horns (massed saxes, clarinets, trumpets and trombones) play the major theme and also perform sub-themes which provide wide possibilities for coloring. Distributed throughout are saxophone and trumpet solos that furnish immediacy.
Nearly all of McLaughlin’s work – whether as part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra or not – have essential rhythmic force and intricacy. Cobham demonstrates this factor with his solo inventiveness during the explorative “Miles Beyond.” Here and elsewhere, Cobham’s drumming is joyous, intent and compassionate: he truly and firmly is this project’s heart and core.
Producer Olaf Stätzler has not strictly stayed with material from the classic Mahavishnu line-up that featured Cobham. One highlight is Narada Michael Walden’s funk-imbibed “Cosmic Strut” (originally from Visions of the Emerald Beyond), which is rendered with sharply-delineated horn improvisations and slinky Fender Rhodes. On the flip side, McLaughlin’s delicate mysticism is accentuated on “Dawn” (from The Inner Mounting Flame), with a rising theme articulated via emotive piano, trumpet, guitar and sax solos. Towns’ arrangement makes evident his incisive understanding of this music and the expert way he intermingles varied elements to show the music’s subliminal qualities.
The concert concludes with the tautly energized “One Word” and the churning title track. During “One Word” Cobham solos with both power and imposing beauty: the decades have ripened his drum skills to a persuasive, poised potency. He prods the ensemble to ever expanding elevations of excitement: Thomas Heiderpriem’s electric bass lays down a rock-solid groove, Scales contributes scratching, pleading guitar and several horns raise the bar further until the group erupts into a chaotic-seeming finale. The album closes with “Meeting of the Spirits,” which employs layered measures to create an auditory outpouring that includes Cobham’s unfailing drive, appropriately spirited solos, and trumpets and guitar that challenge each other. McLaughlin’s brief liner notes probably sum up the proceedings best, “I would never have imagined these particular compositions being played by a big band, but in a way you have made a dream come true!”
2. Birds of Fire
3. Miles Beyond
5. Cosmic Strut
7. Eternity’s Breath Parts 1 & 2
9. Celestial Terrestrial Commuters
10. You Know You Know
11. One Word
12. Meeting of the Spirits
— Doug Simpson