Thanks to yet another pristine digital remastering from the archivists at Legacy, we are drawn deeper into the creative vortex of John McLaughlin's groundbreaking fusion ensemble, captured at the peak of their powers in August 1972. By this time, Mahavishnu were headliners, and by offering greater bass extension, more air and resolution, and a clearer sense of distinction between the component parts, McLaughlin's collaborators sound clearer in their shaping of the group's overall sound. Clearly, guitarist McLaughlin was the creative lightning rod, as his chanting solo on the title tune suggests, colored as it is by the cathartic melodic fire of late Coltrane
. Likewise, his interest in the vocalized scales and extended rhythmic cycles of Indian classical music reveals itself in the round-robin solo exchanges on showstoppers like "Celestial Terrestrial Commuters" and "One Word" and in the more formal designs of "Hope" and "Resolution."
But in Billy Cobham, McLaughlin had found his Elvin Jones. Cobham's ability, with bassist Rick Laird, to focus ferocious energy toward making odd meters groove, and the band's funky, backbeats swing--while playing with an enormous tonal palette and a keen sense of dynamics--balanced the formal and improvisational aspects of each arrangement. Likewise, Jerry Goodman's soaring violin is the ideal vocal foil for an electric guitar, and the woefully underrated electric pianist and synth innovator Jan Hammer clearly helps flesh out the harmonic fabric on every arrangement, such as the funky changes of "Miles Beyond" and the classical airs of "Thousand Island Park." Ultimately, the joy of seeing Mahavishnu live was in sharing their sense of adventure and discovery, and that collective chemistry is what makes this reissue of Birds of Fire so vital. Truly, the sum was greater than the parts--too bad you can't go home again. --Chip Stern