Birds of Fire fly again

By John Swenson


NEW YORK (Reuters) - When guitarist John McLaughlin, keyboardist Jan Hammer, drummer Billy Cobham, violinist Jerry Goodman and bassist Rick Laird joined forces to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971, the improvisational standard for rock set by Eric Clapton and Cream three years earlier was smashed.

McLaughlin's approach to harmonics and song structure, influenced by his study of the music of the Indian subcontinent, left Clapton in the dust. And his exchanges with Goodman and Hammer were so intricate that at times it's difficult to detect the individual voices of each instrument in this fabulous interlace.

The supreme level of collective improvisation this group achieved was aptly described by the title of the band's second album, ``Birds of Fire.''

Unfortunately, the pressures of pop stardom and personal disagreements led to the group's breakup in 1973, but recently producer Bob Belden found the tapes to a completed third album recorded in London's Trident Studios.

``The Lost Trident Sessions'' (Legacy) shows that the band was evolving its sound even as it was coming apart at the seams. McLaughlin had been the sole writer on the first two albums, and a dispute over songwriting credits is what ultimately caused ''The Lost Trident Sessions'' to be shelved.

But judging from the songwriting contributions here from Hammer (''Sister Andrea''), Goodman (''I Wonder'') and Laird (''Steppings Tones''), the group was poised to undergo a dramatic creative expansion.

McLaughlin's vision is still the centerpiece of the project, as expressed in the beautifully arranged ``Dream,'' the poetic ''John's Song No. 2'' and the white-hot jamming vehicle ''Trilogy.''

``We just got sick of each other,'' Hammer recalled. ``The band just exploded, then imploded into smithereens.''

McLaughlin, who owned the Mahavishnu name, recruited new musicians and continued on in another direction, but now looks back on this album fondly.

``I was very happy, actually, with the lost album,'' said McLaughlin. ``Of course, by the time we finished that recording there was a lot of dissonance and discontent in the band. What a shame. But we made some unbelievable music.''

Hammer put the band's feelings in perspective: ``The personal negatives that we were involved with are of much less importance than the actual music, which survives us. That's really all that matters.''