Monday, January 19, 2015

Classic Albums: "Birds of Fire" By the Mahavishnu Orchestra

Warning: if you hate jazz fusion, this blog won't be much fun for you. Many of my personal favorite albums are in this somewhat maligned, often misunderstood category.

This is one of the all time best.

Pretty much everyone enters the Jazz Fusion "world" via some fairly toe tapping, easier listening entry point. Mine was Jeff Beck's Blow by Blow,* yours might have been a Herbie Hancock album, or even stuff on the absolute borderline of the genre, such as early Chicago. Some are happy to camp out here, in the margins, confined to relatively simple harmonies and steady, medium funky tempos (no shame in that, it's still more demanding music than any Train album). Others, though, go a little deeper.

And it doesn't get any deeper than the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Birds of Fire is probably their most famous album; and maybe their best, although at times I've gone back and forth between that and The Inner Mounting Flame. But for personal influence, Birds of Fire wins the day, as it was my first exposure to the band.

The album starts out with that famous gong - boooooooosh, BOOOOOOOOSH, then John McLaughlin starts up with that incredible distorted electric twelve string guitar... then, a watershed moment for fusion fans- that odd time signature riff on the violin and bass repeating again and again - then the lead guitar just EXPLODES- it's a shot fired from a cannon, played with fiery conviction at maximum volume. And oh yeah, melodically it also makes NO SENSE AT ALL.

The melody just builds and builds over top this spacey, bizarre chord progression, until finally at 2:50 or so the composition breaks into something resembling normalcy- the little resolution of the section. This track is followed by a bluesy and completely conventional "Miles Beyond," but my favorite cut is "One Word," which captures a Mahavishnu trademark- letting a groove sit and build, and build, and build, and build... until finally coalescing into an epic climax at the end. The trick with this though is you can't bore the listener during all the building- you somehow have to maintain interest, which of course they accomplish easily (greatly aided by the drumming of Billy Cobham, whose work on the toms in particular sounds like its own composition that could stand completely on its own).

The music overall is strange, weird, other worldy... but also very, very awesome. At age 19ish, this was pretty mind bending stuff. It also set the gold standard for how awesome jazz fusion, when practiced as an art and not some commercial endeavor, could be.

As far as my own playing, McLaughlin's electric guitar playing was, for a long time, second only to Jeff Beck in terms of influence. Unfortunately, my ability to play those ferocious tremelo picked lines has vanished along with my college era 4+ hour per day practicing regimen. But that's OK- I rarely have use for them anymore, even when I'm playing jazz rock by myself, I don't necessarily find myself wanting to play that way (I'd also really want a true Les Paul style guitar for it as well). You can hear me play this way mostly on the Paragon albums, What Is Paragon and Patience, and a bit on Zeitgeber. But even on those recordings I didn't do this type of playing as much as I did during live shows.

I can recall one college guitar ensemble chart, kicking on a distortion pedal (direct to the board! Yuck!) and playing a bunch of those tremelo picked McLaughlin lines, and the audience going nuts- probably one of the best reactions my playing ever received- and getting the requisite slight resentment from folks in the jazz program (you aren't allowed to play badass rock licks and get attention! It must be bebop stuff that nobody cares about!**). Something similar occurred at one of my gigs at the Easy Street Cafe on Main Street Bowling Green.

It was that type of response that tricked me into thinking that maybe more than ten people actually liked this type of music enough to pay a cover charge to see it- a foolhardy mistake that led me to pursue Paragon as a band (a really wonderful, fun, positive mistake that I'd happily make a million times over if I had to do it again, by the way).

In the early to mid 1970s, however, it was indeed possible to not only fill small clubs, but even large stadiums by playing this oddball music. After all, Jeff Beck toured in SUPPORT of Mahavishnu in the 70s, which is really hard to believe but absolutely true! People want to immediately assume drugs, as if that is the only reason why people would like music that isn't just three chords "and the truth." As I love this stuff while only high on caffeine, I would bet at least a portion of the original 1970s audience felt likewise.

*Which isn't to knock, at all, Blow by Blow - my favorite album *of all time, in any category.*
**To be fair, "they," being other students and other professors, rightly focused on the kinds of playing that you went to school for, and not impressed with the type of stuff you did on your own before you got there, a totally fair critique of my playing at the time.

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