Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire (1973, 2015 Audio Fidelity reissue)

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Many of the most influential jazz-rock bands of the 70s were themselves a direct outflow of Miles Davis’ fusion experiments at the turn of that decade, but none have had the most impact with so little music than the original incarnation of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. Together for scarcely two years, these purveyors of combustible, mind expanding music imploded under the weight of competing strong voices. It could be said that this was never destined to last. But the two studio albums completed and released during the band’s lifetime — The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973) — were chart successes during their time and left plenty for other, very talented fusion musicians in their wake to ponder and absorb.

The British guitar icon McLaughlin put together this group with fellow Miles alum Billy Cobham on drums, and also brought in burgeoning keyboard whiz Jan Hammer, bassist Rick Laird and violinist Jerry Goodman. This band encapsulated many of the boundless attitudes about music of the time, such as all the genre bending, frightfully daring musicianship and compositions that called for sudden changes in rhythm and harmonic direction. That’s the brand they introduced to wide acclaim with The Inner Mounting Flame but got refined and further nuanced on their Columbia Records masterpiece Birds of Fire.

There have been numerous tributes to this band in recent years as the ideas they put forth decades ago took some time to be fully appreciated, but sometimes, there ain’t nothing like the real thing. Audio Fidelity has recently worked their remastering magic on this fusion classic, providing the opportunity to revisit music that today sounds so familiar because it’s been copied so much, but hearing the source again with the benefit of hindsight and some sonic improvements becomes an exercise in discovery all over again.

The most attractive thing about the Hybrid SACD remaster job is not so much what Audio Fidelity did but what they didn’t do. The warm, analog sonority of the original is all preserved so that you know you’re listening to the vintage recording and not a contemporary remake of it. What they did do is make it easier to pull apart these intricate, sometimes dense performances and identify individual performances. That’s particularly useful when it comes to the Mahavishnu Orchestra because these songs are arranged with a lot on unison lines, tightly interlocked parts and even simultaneous improvisation. And finally, Cobham’s drums come in a bit clearer in the mix. If you didn’t appreciate what a fiend on the kit he was back then, you surely will now.

The music itself is still invigorating today, and it earns it title. “Birds of Fire,” the song, picks up right where the debut album left off with those defining guitar/violin lines, after which McLaughlin, Goodman and Hammer peel away and drop down incendiary solos, starting with McLaughlin’s and ending with Hammer’s Mini Moog one that’s a dead-on impersonation of a hard rock guitar lead. “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters” contains a ferocious duel between McLaughlin and Goodman before they briefly square off against Hammer. And “One Word” is the Orchestra at its most intense, beginning with Cobham’s freight train thunder and culminating in McLaughlin/Goodman/Hammer three-way soloing that’s the pinnacle display of rock-jazz chops.

That all said, the thing that puts Birds on a higher plane occurs when it isn’t just an electrified cutting contest. “Thousand Island Park” is an all-acoustic trio foray with Goodman and Cobham on the sidelines that showed how fusion can be pretty, delicate and unplugged. Tone and texture play a major role on the moody “Sanctuary” and yet, it still simmers. “Open Country Joy” bridges the two side of Mahavishnu, a bright, melodic opening motif followed by a driving, funk rock groove and just as they threaten to go into full jam mode, that lithe opening figure returns.

With the exception of “One Word,” every song here runs under six minutes, flying directly in the face of the convention of the time to go on endless jams (their live shows, however, were another matter). John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra were busy creating new conventions, and Birds of Fire set the bar high even as the band itself soon afterwards disintegrated. The Audio Fidelity version of their finest album makes their innovations a little more manifest.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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