Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mahavishnu Lives: Review of Billy Cobham, Colin Towns and The HR Big Band "A Meeting of the Spirits: A Celebration of the Mahavishnu Orchestra"

Billy Cobham  with the HR-Big Band under the direction of Colin Towns
"A Meeting of the Spirits: A Celebration of the Mahavishnu Orchestra" (IOR-77086-2)

Celebration of the Mahavishnu Orchestra
I admit it, I am an unabashed fusion fan. Having grown up with this powerful music-spanning the boundaries between rock and jazz- at a particularly impressionable time in my life, it has always had a special place in my heart. I have often felt however, that as I aged the music didn’t age that well with me and I wasn’t quite sure why. I still enjoyed the music and I continue to follow many of the artists that were so instrumental in its creation, especially the music of guitarist John McLaughlin. But, despite all of this, I discovered that with few exceptions I would more likely revisit a classic by ColtraneEvans or  Davis before I reached for a Headhunters or Return to Forever or Lifetime album to put into my cd player. Perhaps it was that no recording, no matter how faithfully reproduced, could fully capture the excitement, the torrential power that gushed at you when you experienced these groups first hand. Was it that the music didn’t possess that special something that would allow it to transcend time or place? Was it created at just one special, unreproducible moment in time when all things converged to produce the perfect musical storm?

Along comes the German  HR  (Heissische Rundfunk) Big Band under the direction of British arranger and composer Colin Towns with a new “live” album “A Meeting of the Spirits: A Celebration of the Music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra”. The HR Big Band is no stranger to mixing it up with jazz and rock musicians as they have performed in the past with such notables as drummer Jeff Hamilton and organist Joey De Francesco, guitarist John Scofield and Cream bassist Jack Bruce.This project could have easily fallen victim to its own lofty ambitions. Who could possibly recreate this powerful, energized and spiritually infused music faithfully?

Fortunately this recording proves to be an enlightening and enjoyable experience that gives credence to the idea that this music does have an inner depth and beauty that can stand the test of time. The selection of some of John McLaughlin’s most potent songs, a sympathetic arranger in Colin Towns, talented musicians who possess both the technically capability to play this demanding music and the spiritual connection to its essence, all legitimized by the inclusion of powerhouse Mahavishnu drummer Billy Cobham, combine to make this record a rousing success.

Birds of FireTowns chooses his music well, starting off with the introductory affirmation “Hope” and running it into the frenetic “Birds of Fire”. Listen to guitarist Martin Scales screaming guitar riffs being backed in unison by a full complement of horns, interspersed with saxophone and trumpet solos, and you immediately realize the possibilities this larger palette of sounds can bring to this music. Cobham demonstrates his rhythmic inventiveness as he segues into the probing “Miles Beyond”. A trumpet solo by Martin Auer, leading into an alto saxophone solo by Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn and subsequently into a trombone solo by Gunter Bollman brings a new dimension to this music.

Visions of the Emerald BeyondThe pace changes with a ruminative trumpet solo by Alex Schlosser leading into the climbing, transcendental progression that is “Resolution”. A poly tonal drum solo by Cobham introduces the only non-McLaughlin composition on the program, Narada Michael Walden’s funk infused “Cosmic Strut”(originally from Visions of the Emerald Beyond), which  is  playfully rendered.

The use of this stringless, seventeen-piece orchestra under the tight arrangement and direction of Towns, has shed light on the true compositional creativity that these McLaughlin tunes have always possessed. This album uncovers the hidden beauty that are embodied in these often-dynamic pieces of music. A beauty that may have been somewhat obscured over the years, taking a back seat to the memory of the raw energy and stunning virtuosity with which these pieces were originally performed.

This is most obvious with the group’s moving rendition of the beautiful “Dawn”( originally on "Inner Mounting Flame"), with its ascending theme accentuated by a particularly emotive piano solo by Peter Reiter. These musicians play these arrangements in a particularly reverential way demonstrating how deeply this music has been woven into their musical psyche.

The Inner Mounting FlameThe program, which lasts a little over seventy-four minutes, plays like a continuous concert performance complete with applause breaks between songs. Billy Cobham’s drum work is joyful, sharp and relentlessly driving and at the thoracic center of the project. The remaining program includes the rousing “Eternity’s Breath Part 1 & 2”, the at times dream-like “Sanctuary” the hectic “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters” with its Jetson-like frenzy and the contemplative “You Know, You Know”. The hard driving “One Word”, finds Cobham pushing the band to increasingly higher and higher levels of excitement, resolving in its cacophonous conclusion. The finale is the title tune “Meeting with the Spirits” with its effective use of tension building measures created by cascading horn sections, separated by spirited individual solos on alto, dueling trumpets and guitar, and  firmly guided  by Billy Cobham’s unerring drive and the orchestral vision of Colin Towns .

Recorded live January 27, 2006 Central station, Darmstadt, Germany
Tracks: Hope; Birds of Fire; Miles Beyond; Resolution; Cosmic Strut; Dawn; Eternity's Breath Part 1 & 2; Sanctuary; Celestial Terrestrial Commuters;
You Know, You Know; One Word; Meeting of the Spirits.
All compositions by John McLaughlin except Cosmic Strut by Narada Michael Walden.

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