Sun Spin: Mahavishnu Orchestra


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This week in 1985, the theme song to Miami Vice was the No. 1 song in the U.S. and a whole generation got to see one of the last truly homely people to ever grace MTV as Jan Hammer briefly rose to the top of the pop culture cesspool. It was like seeing one's Dungeon Master or beloved video store clerk walking the red carpet. But, for some of us it was a bittersweet victory for geekdom. For you see, Hammer had long been revered, worshipped even, by a deep cult following that met him through his blazing, absolutely fearless keyboard work in Mahavishnu Orchestra. Without exaggeration, that group - originally comprised of Hammer, John McLaughlin (guitar), Billy Cobham (drums), Rick Laird (bass) and Jerry Goodman (violin) - altered the trajectory of instrumental music forever after. A mere quintet, they merged the bold soundscapes of Jean Sibelius, Miles Davis, Karlheinz Stockhaussen, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane. During their brief existence - particularly the original lineup, which lasted only two years (1971-1973) - Mahavishnu pressed at the edges or just plain blew them out. To this day, their creations remain intimidatingly complex, perhaps a little dangerous and unsettling, but always thrillingly quite alive, perhaps never more so than their sophomore album, Birds of Fire.

An honest, sometimes brutal sort of beauty is thrust upon the listener. While the solos and reoccurring themes echo the jazz world the five men emerged from, there is so much more happening here. While all compositions are credited to McLaughlin, this is undeniably the work of five potent, completely switched-on master musicians propelling themselves through doorways to hitherto unknown places. Despite the pastel cover painting, Birds is frequently uneasy listening. The rush to soul, the headlong lunge at the great unknown, at least in this setting, isn't always fun. But, take the ride with an open mind and you, like the players, will likely be transformed. Other music will sound different to you afterwards. Whether that's a good or bad thing rests with individual tastes. Still, the notion of “jam" and borderless sonic exploration owes this album and the men who made it a great deal. If you're unfamiliar with it, now's the time to discover a true classic. If you haven't pulled it off the shelf for a spell, well, here's your nudge to reacquaint yourself.

“Revelation," a poem by Sri Chomnoy, adorns the sleeve and points to the larger themes the group hoped to tap into with their music:

No more my heart shall sob or grieve.
My days and nights dissolve in God's own Light.
Above the toil of life my soul
Is a Bird of Fire winging the Infinite.

I have known the One and His secret Play,
And passed beyond the sea of Ignorance Dream.
In tune with Him, I sport and sing;
I own the golden Eye of the Supreme.

Drunk deep of Immortality,
I am the root and boughs of a teeming vast.
My Form I have known and realised.
The Supreme and I are one; all we outlast.

Birds of Fire track listing:

“Birds of Fire"
“Miles Beyond (Miles Davis)"
“Celestial Terrestrial Commuters"
“Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love"
“Thousand Island Park"
“One Word"
“Open Country Joy"

Here's the original lineup of Mahavishnu captured in 1973 performing “One Word" in New York City.

Next, a heavy duty live take on “Resolution."

Here's a glimpse of the quintet in their fighting peak in 1972 performing “The Noonward Race" from their debut, The Inner Mounting Flame.

Ah heck, here's a parting shot of the Jan Hammer Group in the '80s working his No. 1 hit TV theme for all its worth. No man ever worked a keytar with as much passion.

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