A moment of sublimity in a chaotic world: After a gentler more bucolic number a new track starts. Quite frankly its a little frightening, a repeated slow three-point spiral upwards, rendered sinister and suspenseful by a violin sound that borders on scratching a frayed nerve, but stays just the right side of melody. Everything is striving for upwards release, the piano, the drums they all want to break out, but can’t, quite, against that violin that keeps them tethered. It’s called ‘Hope’, it’s perfect and it only lasts for 1:55.
Rarely have I felt so under-qualified to write about an LP as I do about the Mahavishnu Orchestra Birds of Fire. Never mind my writing skills, I’m not sure my poor old ears are up to the job. There are a lot of notes here, not as many as on their debut LP, but an awful lot. I came to jazz fusion pretty darn late too, my parents being jazz fundamentalists of the old school, the first exposure I got to it* was when my friend at university gave me a copy of Bitches Brew and told me I’d have to listen to it ‘a shitload of times’ before I’d like it; it was good advice and it was totally worth it. My mate told me that the flash guitarist on it was from Doncaster and was ‘better than Hendrix’ – now I once got into a scuffle at school because of a needlessly heated row about whether Steve Vai was better than Jimi**, but I was more mature now so I just scoffed.
Flash forward 18 years and I picked up a cheap reissue copy of Birds of Fire just for curiosity’s sake, even though it had Jan Hammer on it. That was not a plus for me, the few times before I’d heard his stuff I didn’t like him, too fast not enough feeling was my verdict*^. I was a little concerned that it would all be 95 note virtuoso runs and land speed records all over the place, I needn’t have worried for whilst there is a lot here that would put most musicians in the finger ward of their local hospital, all that virtuosity is nearly always sublimated into the cause of the composition, put crudely it isn’t just a load of hyper-wanking. True story.
What I like about Birds of Fire and which is very evident right from the opening, title, track is that in carrying out the whole jazz-rock balancing act the Mahavishnu Orchestra err on the side of rock, which is why I’m guessing such a far-out LP made it to #15 in the US album charts in 1973. Just wait until McLaughlin cuts loose with a Hendrix-style solo just over a minute into the album, okay so there is a wild polyrhythmic skidaddling thang going on all around, but we really aren’t a million miles from the great man’s Band of Gypsys sound and for a tourist like me, that’s a useful handrail to have. Ditto when the nimble, jazzy ‘Miles Beyond (Miles Davis)’ is lit up by some crunching chords that could have sneaked overboard from Tarkus. I also really appreciate the gentleness of the track, before McLaughlin hoves into view and mows it all down with a great, strafing guitar break.
Do I need to even mention for a second how great Billy Cobham is on Birds of Fire? or can we all just take that as a given and move on? okay then, I will. The loudest track here is ‘Celestial Terrestrial Commuters’, which is a bit spoiled for me by some dated squelchy keyboard bits and on it you can hear McLaughlin, Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman competing for breaks, fighting for the lead, it’s stirring stuff they spar like boxers. Part way through though you realise that, in truth there is only one real lead instrument here and it is Cobham’s drums; he’s the one driving this, leaving them in thrall to his rhythms. Cobham’s drums just sound so clean, he really hits hard.
‘Thousand Island Park’ is a gorgeously lush confection, inflected with flamenco and elements of classical guitar, it really hits a tone of yearning and freedom; a perfect soundtrack to lying on a blanket watching small clouds scud across the blue sky. ‘Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love’, as well as being the best track name here is a 21 second bit of static and tuning that sounds like one of the bits between the proper tracks on Space Ritual, bizarrely.
The last three tracks on Birds of Fire really sum up the greatness of the LP. ‘Sanctuary’ isn’t a million miles (pun intended) away from its namesake on Bitches Brew, except with some additional clever keys and a touch of suspense chucked in. That then gives onto the luscious, almost countrified opening section of ‘Open Country Joy’, which puts me in mind of Credence Clearwater Revival with added plaintive violin. It all takes off for the cosmos with some joyously uncontained soloing before, led by Goodman, they hit a definite country groove to play out on; it really is fun. ‘Resolution’ stalks in with McLaughlin’s rockiest playing on the whole album building and building towards an epic major chord finale and the release that was denied on ‘Hope’.
I think that you can hear all the fieriness and competitiveness in the music as a symptom of the clashing egos that would tear the Mahavishnu Orchestra apart later in 1973, but that always seems like a bit too neat and tidy an explanation to me. Maybe truly boundary breaking amalgamations of talent like this have a half-life.
If you properly knew your onions you could write whole books about Birds of Fire, I’m sure. I don’t and this is as close as I can get to the LP, tonight anyway. This is not an album of sweetened background music, it rocks way too hard! The Mahavishnu Orchestra rightfully demand your attention and Birds of Fire will in return, I promise you, give you back as much sublimity as you can handle as well as, on occasion, rocking like a five-headed beast.
*if you don’t count the bits of the Mothers of Invention that sail pretty close to it thanks to Jean-Luc Ponty, future Mahavishnu Orchestra member …
**Jimi it is, or I’ll see you outside.
*^the irony of my opinion counting for anything whatsoever is not lost on me. Plus I really liked his stuff on Billy Cobham Spectrum and on a similar level of artistic endeavour, the theme from Miami Vice.