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.

Mahavishnu Birds Of Fire 01

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.

Mahavishnu Birds Of Fire 04

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.

Mahavishnu Birds Of Fire 03

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.

Mahavishnu Birds Of Fire 02 (2)

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.

Mahavishnu Birds Of Fire 07 (3)Mahavishnu Birds Of Fire 06

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.

Mahavishnu Birds Of Fire 05

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.

655 Down.

*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.

29 thoughts on “Winging The Infinite

  1. If your “under qualified”, CB was double “under qualified”. Great take. You are too humble. You came over to my station, laid a comment and rode off. We are in agreement. “Rocks way to hard” that is a great summation

  2. Thanks, 1537. I was fortunate to go to a Mahavishnu Orchestra concert in 1973. These guys came on without a word spoken, except for a short prayer. They started playing and kept playing for over two hours without a word spoken or a single break between compositions. Then they did a little hands together bow and walked off stage. It was a profound experience for me. Afterwards I felt highly energized and incredibly happy. Thanks for reminding me. Old as I am I was beginning to forget it. 🙂

    1. Sadly I only have the vinyl, otherwise you’d already have if too.

      This is a really great album and a real collision of talents.

  3. I still haven’t quite cracked this one. Try as I might it’s never resonated with me. But with this write up, I’m going to dive back in again.

    I’m with you on Hammer. His playing on Jeff Beck’s ‘Wired’ was cringe-worthy to my ears(despite me still loving that album.) He was just so damn showy and over the top. I like some nuance in the synths, folks. But Cobham is a monster, and if you haven’t experienced McLaughlin’s blues playing you haven’t experienced him yet. The stuff he did on Davis’ ‘Jack Johnson’ sessions and ‘Big Fun’ is just unreal. The musical pedigree is here in Mahavishnu Orchestra for sure. I just need to find my in.

    Great write up.

    1. Thank you Mr. I find jazz so difficult to write about.

      I know what you mean about the Mahavishnu’s – but this LP was my ‘in’.

  4. Birds Of Fire was my introduction to Mahavishnu Orchestra (and to jazz fusion) when I was in high school and my life (musical & otherwise) was never the same after that. It remains my favorite album in their brief discography but they’re all worth hearing, of course. Not sure I could describe the experience of listening to the album in words…facial expressions & body contortions might be my only means of expression…so a job well done here. Hopefully you’ve inspired many others to dive in and change their lives.

  5. I don’t know this at all, but that’s some pretty excellent writing. Really good work and you’ll be fielding calls soon, I reckon …

  6. Maybe I’ve succumbed to well-placed manipulation on your part, but for someone playing the “my skills might not be up to it” card, I think you’ve done an amazing job at capturing this challenging album in words. I have always liked this album while concurrently worrying that I didn’t actually “understand” it sufficiently. Your post has had me listening to this and The Inner Mounting Flame all workday, and it’s been wonderful. That said, I’ve surprised myself by giving the slight edge to TIMF, which I would not have predicted at all. On the other hand, it’s like choosing between Jimi and Steve (Jimi!!): in the end, there can be two good things.

    1. Thank you very much, it really was modesty on my part – utterly, utterly misplaced modesty, but it was!

      I think the rock elements of the tracks really help here, the length (of most of them), structure etc. It is stratospheric at times, but I like their quieter moments so much.

      I haven’t played TIMF for a while either, interesting you prefer that. My memory of it (from a couple years back, admittedly) was 1000 mph and lots of gliding, formation soloing.

      But thanks again.

  7. Superb stuff. Really enjoyed that. My favourite bit on ‘Birds’ though has to be in ‘One World’ when the band builds and builds and then completely drops out – to make way for one of Billy C’s greatest drum solos.

    I’ve just had the total pleasure of interviewing Jan Hammer for some Tony Williams box set liner notes I’m writing. He sounded about 18 on the phone!

    1. Cheers matt, I appreciate that. I sort of ran out of room to go into ‘One World’ too – I get the bends at about 1000 words.

      Was he pleasant?

  8. Great review of a truly fabulous album. Love “wild polyrhythmic skidaddling” (Yes, I saw what you did there), both the term and its musical manifestation.

    Just one thing, Mr ‘I don’t like squelchy keyboards’. Didn’t such synths figure in the ‘build me a perfect record’ recipe the old 1537 had emblazoned on his home page? Have you disposed of him and taken his place, or what?

    1. Thanks Bruce, that’s very kind. I freely admit I can be an awful hypocrite but in this case I’m more of a whooshy keyboard guy, rather than an out-and-out squelchy one.

      I’ve spent a lot of time with this beauty recently.

      1. Thanks Mike, it’s very important to have pre-orders in. I was thinking I could wear a dress for a gimmick, a drag piper?

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