Mahavishnu Orchestra - Birds of Fire

Album cover

  1. Birds of Fire (5:50)
  2. Miles Beyond (4:47)
  3. Celestial Terrestrial Commuters (2:54)
  4. Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love (0:24)
  5. Thousand Island Park (3:23)
  6. Hope (1:59)
  7. One Word (9:57)
  8. Sanctuary (5:05)
  9. Open Country Joy (3:56)
  10. Resolution (2:09)

Sony, 1972

The second album from the revered fusioneers picks up where their sparkling debut "Inner Mounting Flame" left off, with frenetic, note perfect performances of jazz-rock compositions imbued with an otherworldly imagination. Led by the unmistakeable combination of John McLaughlin's guitar and Jerry Goodman's violin, often playing in unison, and propelled by Billy Cobham's determined drumming, it seldom fails to pull us along.

Their skill is for setting up focused and fascinating grooves, like the lopsided clockwork riff that underlies the guitar outbursts of the opening title track. The more slow and cheeky riff of "Miles Beyond" is all the more effective when its patience is contrasted with unrestrained guitar solo. Those who loved the spiky King Crimson-influencing "Dance of Maya" on their first album will hear an echo in "Hope". Their most extreme venture into the realms of comtemporary tentacled jazz is "One Word", whose high-speed spluttering embeds itself as a funky wahwah and bass groove, on top of which blasts of solo are exchanged.

It's no less imaginative when they're working from a more conventional rock base. "Celestial Terrestrial Commuters" has the closest thing to a straightforward rock riff, on top of which Jan Hammer splurges some snarling synth improvisations, alternated with flourishes from the guitar and violin duo. On "Thousand Island Park" they turn off the grooves altogether, and treat us to an elfin acoustic guitar and piano dance. Unashamedly sweet but still tasteful, it pulls around its speeds with liberal expression and Spanish flavour. The liquidly smooth soloing on "Sanctuary", and the easy-going (well, for them) bluesy "Open Country Joy" demonstrates they can also be relaxed without necessarily being ornate. The determined climb ever upwards of the two-minute "Resolution" ends the album with a nice piece of prog-rock theatrics.

This was actually a pig of a review to write, for someone who's not generally a jazz critic. I can recognise how good all the musicians are at what they do, but not so much the nuances of their individual styles of playing. I can love the great variety they put into their sound, arrangements and compositions, but it's difficult to put it all into context, or talk about it in any more generality than a plain description. Though I can say that it's a very difficult album to over-play, and that's a true compliment.

July 3, 2006

8 out of 10

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