Celestial Terrestrial Commuters: Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire at 50

Looking back on a landmark album that blurred the lines between jazz and prog

Mahavishnu Orchestra Birds of Fire poster (Image: eBay)

Before playing with Miles Davis or forming his legendary fusion outfit Mahavishnu Orchestra, guitarist John McLaughlin made his living as a studio musician in London.

It’s amazing to ponder that despite working with Jimmy Page on a regular basis and running in the same circles as Eric Clapton, McLaughlin’s peers considered him the best guitarist on the scene. He struggled alongside them, playing countless sessions, often appearing on some less-than-exciting records. He toiled in obscurity despite his virtuosity.

In 1969, he moved to New York and his career quickly jumped into overdrive. He moved over to join the Tony Williams Lifetime but also quickly found himself in Miles Davis’s electric band as well. The legendary album Bitches Brew even contains the tune “John McLaughlin.” After a short but prolific run with both ensembles, McLaughlin was simultaneously encouraged by Miles Davis and his guru Sri Chinmoy to form his own group. He followed their advice and Mahavishnu Orchestra was born.

Mahavishnu” was the name Sri Chinmoy had bestowed upon John McLaughlin as one of his disciples. Yet any vision of the group as a calm, meditative listening experience is quickly pushed aside when encountering their music. The ensemble possessed an incendiary sound that fused jazz and rock in equal measure while being deeply influenced by Indian music and culture. While McLaughlin was undoubtedly the most devout of the group, all the members seemed inspired by the divine inspiration behind the music.

If McLaughlin seemed to have overnight success upon his arrival in New York then Mahavishnu Orchestra’s trajectory must have been meteoric. Quickly after their formation, they found themselves opening for large acts, more often than not rock bands rather than jazz groups, and blowing the headliners off the stage. Mahavishnu was instantly an act to be reckoned with.

In 1971, Mahavishnu Orchestra released its debut album Inner Mounting Flame. Both a critical and commercial success, the album illustrates a group that arrived fully formed. It wasn’t until Birds of Fire, released on January 3rd 1973, did the record-buying public realize the full capabilities of the group.

Mahavishnu Orchestra Birds of Fire, CBS Records 1973

Birds of Fire is a landmark album, a popular album when released and a legendary work for jazz fusion and progressive rock fans alike. John McLaughlin was not the only virtuoso in the group. The lineup included Rick Laird on bass who had previously played with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. Jerry Goodman, who had recently departed from the jazz-rock group The Flock, played violin. Czech emigre Jan Hammer played keyboards, Moog and Fender Rhodes. And legendary drummer Billy Cobham followed McLaughlin over from Miles Davis’s group to help found the band. Together, they imbued the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s music with awe-inspiring technicality, but always in service of an overarching spiritual vision. 

The title track leads the album off, and the song displays the group’s blueprint for musical transcendence. McLaughlin, who typically played a double-necked twelve and six-stringed guitar, plays an arpeggio that employs a circular rhythm which gives the music a Glass-like feel. Soon, Cobham and Goodman join in, locking into a groove that established the foundation for the rest of the group. From here, McLaughlin begins to solo, his guitar reaching for the rarified heights of the divine. “Birds of Fire” is permeated by tension, eschewing any cliche of spiritual serenity, and instead speaks to an existential longing. McLaughlin and Goodman join together for unison melodic statements that seemed impossibly fast for the era. But the harmonic content of the song itself feels incapable of a satisfying resolution, the tension building and building until the tune ends.

Miles Beyond” follows and provides some respite from the former tune’s intensity. A tune composed by McLaughlin and dedicated to his former mentor and band leader, the song settles into a more comfortable R&B groove, albeit with an entirely unique harmonic identity. Yet, this is not so far removed from the kind of material the guitarist was quite comfortable with due to his time spent in so many R&B groups in his formative years in London. This then segues nicely into “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters”, a short tune that splits the difference in intensity between the two previous songs. Nevertheless, Hammer, McLaughlin, and Goodman all find room for impressive solos throughout. 

After the brief music concrete/non-sequitur of “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love”, they launch into “Thousand Island Park”. This softer piece seems to foreshadow McLaughlin’s later acoustic Indo-jazz unit Shatki. While McLaughlin’s electric playing is incendiary, his acoustic work is just as formidable. Here, the pairing of his lines with Hammer’s keys in particular are quite thrilling. This piece is filled by “Hope”, which seems to make a more rock-oriented grand statement out of similar harmonic material as if the pieces are directly related.

One Word” gives the listener the chops-driven fusion shred fest they’ve been waiting for. If electric-era Miles Davis was beautiful in its psychedelic meandering, Mahavishnu Orchestra is conversely thrilling in its laser focus. Both Cobham and Laird are awe-inspiring, laying a solid framework for everyone else to solo over. Once everyone has said their peace, Cobham accentuates the track with his own extended solo. “Sanctuary” swings the album in the opposite direction. Its languid tones provide a soundtrack for mediation and contemplation.

Birds of Fire back cover (Image: Discogs)

Birds of Fire then closes with the one-two punch of “Open Country Joy” and “Resolution”. The former sounds like Mahavishnu channeling the Allman Brothers. It’s feel-good extended jam and is probably the easiest tune to link to the musical zeitgeist of the recently departed sixties. “Resolution”, though short, oozes with musical tension. It’s an interesting choice to close the album. Ironically, it provides no resolve but seems to remind us that perhaps, the spiritual quest is never truly over.

Despite the band’s success, trouble was brewing as the album reached the public. Their outer success temporarily hid their inner turmoil. Yet when rumors of trouble began to leak into the press, McLaughlin seemed to be the last to find out. Nevertheless, he took the news in stride and pushed onward. Mahavishnu Orchestra attempted to record a third album but the effort was scrapped (later released in 1999 as The Lost Trident Sessions). There was also a live album, Between Nothingness and Eternity, but that would be the end of this incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

John McLaughlin eventually assembled other musicians under the banner of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and while not quite achieving the same level of mastery as the original lineup, their work certainly deserves attention. The same can be said of The Lost Trident Sessions and Between Nothingness and Eternity.

No matter the black cloud that hung over their heads, Mahavishnu Orchestra could not help to make extraordinary music.

 

 

 

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Todd Manning

Todd Manning is a recovering musician who mostly writes about Metal and Jazz various places around the internet, including Burning Ambulance, Cvlt Nation and No Clean singing. He lives in Indianapolis, IN.

One thought on “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters: Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire at 50

  • January 4, 2023 at 3:12 pm
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    Wow! This brings back memories. I recall seeing them play at Avery Fisher Hall in NY in 1973 with the great John McLaughlin. Quite amazing to hear live.

    Reply

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