Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds Of Fire – Speakers Corner

by | Apr 16, 2019 | Jazz CD Reviews, SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds Of Fire – Columbia Records KC 31996 (1973)/Speakers Corner (2019) 180-gram stereo vinyl, 39:53 ****1/2:

(John McLaughlin – guitar; Jerry Goodman – violin; Jan Hammer – keyboards, synthesizer, Fender Rhodes; Rick Laird – bass; Billy Cobham – drums, percussion)

English guitarist John McLaughlin has often been described as a guitarist’s guitarist. Players like Pat Metheny and Jeff Beck have referred to him as the greatest living guitarist. His uncanny mix of highly charged electric guitar and fusion incorporated Indian classicism, Western classical music, psychedelic blues, flamenco, and jazz is unique. McLaughlin first came to prominence as a member of Miles Davis’ band, with credits on In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, On The Corner, Big Fun and A Tribute To Jack Johnson. His solo debut, Devotion (1970) featured Larry Young, Buddy Miles and Billy Rich, setting in motion the template for amplified fusion. In the early 1970’s McLaughlin assembled the first incarnation of his renowned band The Mahavishnu Orchestra. With Jerry Goodman (The Flock) on violin, Rick Laird (Brian Auger Trinity) on bass, Jan Hammer (Keith Jarrett) on keyboards and r & b legend Billy Cobham on drums, Mahavishnu Orchestra exploded onto the scene with their 1971 release The Inner Mounting Flame. This was followed by the unexpectedly successful (first jazz rock instrumental to make it into Billboards Top 20 rock albums) Birds Of Fire in 1973. The volatility of the musical genre-bending quintet was evident in their musical exploration and band dissension. Regarded as the quintessential lineup (there were various changes throughout the years), the unbridled passion and ferocity of this band had a huge impact on the 70’s music scene.

Speakers Corner has reissued a 180-gram vinyl of Birds Of Fire. The sonic intensity and improbable genre blending is as compelling now as it was 45 years ago. Side One opens with the title track ushered in by a simple gong. McLaughlin and Goodman set up a deep groove as J.M. unleashes a piercing, high-volume solo. Cobham, Hammer and Laird propel this visceral jam and it is sublimely relentless. Goodman offers a counterpoint. The fusion-based tempo is hypnotic. The tribute to jazz icon Miles Davis (“Miles Beyond”) is a groove-fest. Hammer lays down soulful hooks on electric piano as the band enters in full, cohesive mode. Goodman pushes the electric tonality of his violin on the first verse. Eventually, McLaughlin unleashes a concise “machine gun” guitar solo. This fusion-tempo discourse continues on “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters” with Hammer on Moog synthesizer and electric piano. Goodman and especially McLaughlin cut loose with dynamic abandon.

Following a quirky 25 second electronic interlude (“Sapphire Bullets Of Love”), McLaughlin showcases his fluency on classical guitar with a brilliant performance (“Thousand Island Park”). Accompanied by Hammer on piano, the guitarist is nothing short of virtuosic as he infuses pastoral, folk elegance. There is inherent spirituality with Mahavishnu Orchestra. :”Hope” a brief (2:00) piece has repeat chord progression that fills the ears with a swirling aspiration. Side Two returns to the hard-driving energy. In the nearly 10 minute opus “One Word”, Cobham leads the group with a propulsive drum. A rare solo by Baird at the 1:42 mark is surrounded by jagged electric guitar and Fender Rhodes shading. Then scorching effects-laden runs by McLaughlin and Goodman are alternated and done in counterpoint. Cobham’s extended solo is monumental, leading into an explosive finish. As if to allow the listener to catch a breath, the atmospheric “Sanctuary” feels like an electric meditation with an Indian-influenced melody. There are spacey keyboards and the rolling flow is mesmerizing. In stark contrast, “Open Country Joy’ is playful for the opening minute. But McLaughlin, backed by a funk rock groove erupts in a searing guitar solo. The eventual return to country roots showcases Goodman’s lyrical “fiddle” techniques. “Resolution” is a two-minute capsule of the chord modulating fusion that epitomizes this band.

Speakers Corner has done justice to this seminal recording. The sonic explosiveness of McLaughlin’s guitar is captured in all it’s distorted glory. To fully appreciate the Birds Of Fire vinyl upgrade, listening to it at increased volume with superior headphones is recommended. The ear-splitting, incendiary power of this band (and of course McLaughlin’s guitar) is spellbinding.

Side One:
Birds Of Fire
Miles Beyond
Celestial Terrestrial Commuters
Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love
Thousand Island Park

Side Two: 
One Word
Open Country Joy

-Robbie Gerson



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