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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Listening Again (2) - Mahavishnu Orchestra - Birds of Fire

I have included several sound clips from the subject of this post - all are very short and are intended as a taster for the music on the album, and to illustrate various points. If you're interested in this music please go and buy the album, support the musicians and enjoy its full sonic beauty - don't settle for some crappy compressed version on Youtube!

I can remember where I was when I first heard ‘Birds of Fire’ – I was fourteen years old, and I was in a friend’s house, in the kitchen (where they had a record player for some now unfathomable reason). We were all prog-rock guys – King Crimson, Gentle Giant etc. and considered ourselves to be very sophisticated (no Black Sabbath for us!) in the superior way that only teenage boys can. I had been raised on classical and jazz music and had been exposed to pop music for the first time only the year before (seriously!). I had a brief flirtation with pop music, an even briefer one with Heavy Metal and then discovered King Crimson, which probably appealed subconsciously to my need for and experience of listening to structurally more complex music. And subconscious rather than conscious would have been an accurate description of my musical knowledge or expertise at that time.

So, back to my friend’s kitchen - he produced the album, (which had a very satisfyingly intriguing cover featuring soaring birds), put the record on the turntable, lowered the needle and…….. And basically my musical life changed from the moment I first heard the gong being struck and shimmering through some kind of phaser effect, followed by a dense and dark arpeggiated guitar figure, in what is one of the most dramatic opening moments of any album in my opinion. I sat there transfixed and almost shocked – I really had never heard anything like this. In retrospect I realize that I had in fact heard some of the elements of this music in other contexts – both classical and jazz – but at the time it just sounded like music coming from another planet.

And to cut a long story short, it set me off on a journey that returned me to jazz, and planted the seed of being a jazz musician inside me.

What’s interesting to me, almost forty years later, is that the music on ‘Birds of Fire’ not only has a function in my own personal history, but objectively, listening to it now, it more than stands up to the scrutiny of the decades. It’s still great music, on any level, and looking at it now, knowing what I know now and having the experiences I’ve had in the intervening years since I first heard it, I realize what a unique musical document it is – something that had never been done before, and has never really been done again – even by the protagonists involved in my opinion.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra was an interesting band for many reasons, one of which is the fact that it was probably the most multi-national major group in the history of jazz. There was only one American in it (Jerry Goodman), a Czech (Jan Hammer), a Panamanian (Billy Cobham), an Englishman (McLaughlin), and an Irish man – the bassist Rick Laird - someone we were very proud of around here because he came from my home town of Dun Laoghaire. Laird had left Dublin many years before Mahavishnu and gone to Australia and later London where he became the house bassist in Ronnie Scott’s club and accompanied an endless stream of American jazz legends including Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Ben Webster, Clark Terry etc etc. This was where McLaughlin, (who went to New York at the behest of Tony Williams who wanted him for the seminal ‘Lifetime’ band) had met Laird. London had an amazing scene in those days with future giants such as John Surman, John Taylor and Dave Holland all playing on the scene.

All of the Mahavishnu group had a jazz pedigree with the exception of Goodman who came from more of a rock background. Mclaughlin had played with Miles and Williams, Jan Hammer with Sarah Vaughan and Elvin Jones, Billy Cobham with Miles and Horace Silver, and Laird with just about everyone (He's almost certainly the only bassist to have played with both Wes Montgomery and John McLaughlin). Yet the music they produced was not a ‘jazz’ sound. This is the early 70s, post-Bitches Brew, post-Lifetime, all the instruments except the drums are electric, there are no swing feel pieces and odd metres abound. Both McLaughlin and Cobham played with Miles (together on Jack Johnson) and were among the Miles diaspora who created the genre that is now known as Fusion, but was known then as Jazz-Rock. And apart from Goodman, McLaughlin had connections with the rock scene, jamming with Jimi Hendrix, and playing in the same London rock/blues scene that produced Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.

The group had been around for a while and ‘Birds of Fire’ was its second album. The first, ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’ caused a bit of a sensation on its release, its combination of instrumental virtuosity, complex time signatures, electric instruments and rock energy proved hugely popular and the band became an overnight sensation, selling a phenomenal amount of albums for an instrumental group. This album has always had its advocates as THE Mavishnu album, but for me it’s more like a prototype for what was to come rather than a definitive statement. I don’t think the compositions are as interesting or the sound as developed as on ‘Birds of Fire’ and I think at times it lapses into the solo-histrionics-over-static-rhythm-section-groove that was to so blight the Jazz-Rock movement as a whole, and which was to even become apparent on the Mahavishnu’s later live album between ‘Nothingness and Eternity’ - a blitzkrieg of duelling soloists and impossible tempos delivered with great virtuosity to an audibly ecstatic audience in Central Park. But between the bookends of these two albums the band delivered what was to be a seminal recording, both vastly influential on musicians of my generation and beyond, and also featuring music that has more than stood the test of time.

So what’s so special about this recording? It’s a combination of things - first of all there’s a cohesiveness about the entire album, it feels like something that was conceived as a whole rather than as a series of tracks that were put together to make an album. In the manner of ‘A Love Supreme’, ‘Kind of Blue’ and ‘Blues and The Abstract Truth’, a consistent atmosphere hovers over the whole album – the music feels all of a piece and not episodic in any way. It’s a much better recorded album than the previous one and this helps to create the feeling of an over-arching musical intelligence at work.

Then there is the sound of the music, much of which is due to the unusual instrumentation. Guitar, violin and keyboards combine together to give the music a lightness that is unexpected considering the gnarliness, chromaticism, and dense rhythmic tangle of much of the music. Jan Hammer featured the Moog extensively in the music, and these early monophonic synths didn’t have a a very wide sonic range, so Hammer favours the higher register which blends very well with the electric violin and guitar. The sonic spectrum of the front line instruments favours the upper register and they
create so homogenous a sound that sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s soloing where........

At the time I first listened to this music I was just blown away by it in its entirety, and it sounded to me like something that had come out of nowhere. But looking at it from many years later, and with thousands of musician’s flying hours under my belt, I can see the many influences that are in this music. The influence of Hendrix and the electric guitar culture of the 60s is easy to discern, what’s perhaps not so immediately apparent is the influence of Coltrane of the ‘Love Supreme’ period – but it’s there in McLaughlin’s playing – listen to the Coltrane-like way he soars chromatically over the shifting odd metre groove of the title track.

Another interesting thing to my ears now, having spent a lot of time over the past 20 years studying the rhythmic aspects of South Indian music, is just how much Carnatic music influenced McLaughlin’s writing in this period. Later of course he went on to form Shakti, (and presage the jazz meets world music movement by about twenty years), but he made a serious study of the Veena and this clearly be heard both in the sound of some of the melodies he composed and in the rhythmic structures of the odd metres he used which are clearly related to the tala structures of Carnatic music, while the structure of the melody, in a typical McLaughlin-ism, is clearly related to both Indian music and the blues

But I think McLaughlin not only used Indian music in his own writing, he very probably influenced other members of the group in this respect. On ‘One Word’ - which Cobham famously opens with a snare drum roll that has left generations of drummers in open mouthed disbelief – the drum groove that Cobham uses has no real precedent in jazz, yet is very common in Mridangam grooves of South India. Here is a percussion group from South India

And here is Cobham on ‘One Word’

Was Cobham checking out Indian percussion at the behest of McLaughlin? It certainly sounds like it!

But not all the pieces were either lightning fast, or odd metre workouts, the group could also get in the pocket with the best of them - ‘Miles Ahead’ is almost Headhunter-esque

But Headhunters would never have done anything as radical with this groove as Cobham and McLaughlin do later in the piece

Or how about this haunting Moog solo on ‘Sanctuary’, played over the shifting metre of the rhythm section, evoking an atmosphere worthy of the quieter passages of ‘The Rite of Spring’..............

There is just so much great music on this album – so many different ideas and approaches yet all contained within a very unique and immediately identifiable sound. The virtuosity of the players, even at a distance of forty years, is amazing (has there ever been a greater guitar right hand technique in jazz than McLaughlin’s? How can he play at that speed, with such rhythmic accuracy yet never slur anything!?), yet the virtuosity is put at the service of the music and is never subservient to it. Unfortunately the success of the Mahavishnu unleashed a slew of poor imitations all vying with each other to be the fastest, loudest highest.......

And unfortunately the Mahavishnu itself imploded not long afterwards, with the other members of the band wanting a share of the composing duties (McLaughlin had previously been the sole composer)– which wasn’t a great idea as evidenced by the release years later of ‘The Lost Trident Sessions’ which featured compositions by Hammer, Laird and Goodman, none of which rises to the heights of the earlier McLaughlin compositions. Internal disagreements ensured the the disintegration of the band, but by the time they split up they had already fallen from the heights of ‘Birds of Fire’ and had allowed their virtuosity to take precedent over the other elements of their music. But for a while their flame really did burn brightly, inventing a whole genre, influencing and inspiring countless musicians and creating one of the greatest albums of the modern jazz era.

Here they are in their prime playing in London in 1972 – chops and ideas to go, and notice the quote of the 'Jack Johnson' riff, which McLaughlin almost certainly wrote despite Miles being credited with it.............

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