Thursday, June 18, 2009

June 18: Mahavishnu Orchestra, "Birds Of Fire"

Artist: Mahavishnu Orchestra
Album: Birds Of Fire
Year: 1972
Label: Columbia

As with all words, there was a time before the term existed, and a specific time when it was brought into existence. When it comes to using the term "fusion" in relation to music, it was jazz-rock legends, Mahavishnu Orchestra that served as the catalyst. Widely regarded as the first "jazz rock" fusion act, the group was an extension of founder John McLaughlin's work on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. Creating majestic musical masterpieces, the sound of Mahavishnu Orchestra turned the music world upside down and forever changed the concept of "what" could be considered both jazz and rock. While their stunning debut album, Inner Mounting Flame, made the group a household name, it is their second (and last) album that is truly the groups' tour dé force. The Mahavishnu Orchestra's 1973 release, Birds Of Fire, is musically superior to its predecessor, and the songs are more varied and far better crafted, making it an album of overall higher quality.

One cannot discuss Mahavishnu Orchestra without dealing specifically with its two most prominent members, John McLaughlin and Jan Hammer. As previously mentioned, McLaughlin served as the primary guitarist during the legendary Bitches Brew sessions, and is easily one of the most talented guitarists in history. From straightforward rock to flamenco and everything in between, McLaughlin plays flawlessly throughout every track on Birds Of Fire, and his solos are often both hypnotic and awe-inspiring. The sound and style that he presented had truly never before been heard, and musicians from Chick Corea to Pat Metheny to Eric Johnson all cite McLaughlin as a major influence. To hear McLaughlin truly shine, simply turn on the title track on Birds Of Fire and prepare to have your mind blown. McLaughlin is also responsible for every single composition on the album, and this fact serves as a testament to just how amazingly talented a musician lives within him. McLaughlin, as the bands' founder, is understandably the only member who was part of each of the six incarnations of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Even though each grouping was impressive in its own right, the bands' original lineup was nothing short of extraordinary and easily one of the most imposing groupings in music history.

Keyboard and piano player, Jan Hammer, was one of the pioneering players of the Mini Moog synthesizer and it became a staple of his sound both with and after his work with Mahavishnu Orchestra. Creating fantastic moods as well as breathtaking solos, Hammer's work on Birds Of Fire remains one of the most ingenious moments in music history. From Mick Jagger to Stanley Clarke to Jeff Beck, Hammer has worked with many of the most prominent musicians of the past four decades, and his talent and innovation remain a huge influence to this day. Hammer is also extremely well known for having provided the score for nearly every episode of the 1980's hit TV show, "Miami Vice." His work on the show earned him a pair of Grammy Awards as the resulting soundtrack topped the Billboard charts in 1985, with eventually sales of over five million copies. A true master of the keyboard, from conveying dark, somber moods to bright, blistering feelings, there are truly few musicians who can be spoken in the same breath as Jan Hammer.

The rest of Mahavishnu Orchestra are equally skilled and have similarly impressive resumes. Drummer Billy Cobham is, by far, one of the most brilliant percussionists that the world has ever seen. Constantly shifting tempos, often at lightning speeds, his sound and style continue to influence drummers to this day. Recording with the likes of Buddy Miles, Carlos Santana, Stanley Clarke, as well as being a part of the Bitches Brew recordings, some of his finest work can be heard on the Birds Of Fire song, "One Word." Violinist, Jerry Goodman, was a trend-setter, taking the classical instrument to new heights and proving that it could be perfectly incorporated into the rock aesthetic. After his work with Mahavishnu Orchestra, he served as a session violinist throughout the 1980's as well as appearing on a number of movie scores and soundtracks. Having already played alongside the likes of Wes Montgomery and Sonny Rollins, bassist Rick Laird is heard in top form throughout his work on both of the first two Mahavishnu Orchestra records.. Following the break up of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Laird went on to work with Stan Getz and Chick Corea among others. With some of the most distinguished resumes in the music world, the music created by Mahavishnu Orchestra is almost unsurprising, and Birds Of Fire is a phenomenal display of how much talented lived within its members.

Though none of them have achieved "rock star" status in the same form as the great rock bands of the 1970's, the members of Mahavishnu Orchestra may very well be the most talented group to ever assemble. With a combined resume that features countless musical giants, the sheer talent of the group made their success almost guaranteed. From the stunning guitar playing of McLaughlin to Hammer's innovated keyboard work, all on top of the dazzling drumming of Billy Cobham, the resulting music is nothing short of magnificent. One can try and try, but it is genuinely impossible to find a bad or "less than amazing" moment on either of the releases from the original lineup of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Truly creating the genre of jazz-rock fusion, few have come even remotely close to the phenomenal sound found on the groups' first two records. Bringing far more musical content, in a much more organized and succinct fashion, Mahavishnu Orchestra's 1972 masterpiece, Birds Of Fire, remains one of the most outstanding and enjoyable musical accomplishments in the history of music.

Standout tracks: "Birds Of Fire," "One Word," and "Open Country Joy."

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