Billy Cobham, Colin Towns and HR-Big Band - Meeting of the Spirits: A Celebration of the Mahavishnu

In + Out Records IOR CD 77086-2    ****
Billy Cobham (d) and Colin Towns (arr) with the HR Big Band. Rec. date not given

It’s fair to say that there has been no shortage of bad press for jazz-rock fusion over the last two decades in a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As a result, the achievements of the Mahavishnu Orchestra have been diminished with the passage of time to the point it now seems like a footnote in the pages of history. Yet the Mahavishnu Orchestra was the next major step in jazz rock after Bitches Brew. OK, it may have triggered the guitar Olympics, where every guitarist wanted to play faster than McLaughlin, but here was the visceral marriage of Hendrix’ guitar sound and blistering jazz improvisation taken to a level of excellence that is now a benchmark in the music.
Billy Cobham, Colin Towns and HR-Big Band - Meeting of the Spirits: A Celebration of the Mahavishnu
While the group is remembered for vistuosity taken to the nth degree, McLaughlin’s compositions for the band, with their intricate melodies and tricky time signatures, are largely forgotten. This project brings those compositions alive, and is a reminder that the Mahavishnu Orchestra were by no means one dimensional. Towns’ orchestrations are a stunning mix of imagination and craftsmanship (‘Birds of Fire,’ ‘Celestial Terrestrial Commuters,’ ‘Meeting of the Spirits’), but they also let the music breath with exciting and wholly apposite solos from the members of the HR-Big Band that show how this music works in an acoustic context.

Axel Schlosser on trumpet on ‘Birds of Fire’ or Johannes Enders on tenor on ‘Dawn’, for example, rise to the challenge of this demanding music with ease and elegance. Cobham’s captures much of the coiled spring intensity of his work on the originals, and has plenty of solo space, such as ‘Resolution’. A great album, which places jazz-rock in a different light – as Towns says, ‘Take a look at this, if you like it, check out the original records. It will enhance your life more than realise!’

Stuart Nicholson