"Being an American musician means being adventurous. The whole path of American music has been so much about the recognition of stylistic diversity, and the recognition of the importance of music which was from one of the vernacular traditions. You know, music which at one time was considered primitive, uncultured, savage, whatever it may have been...dangerous above all...and recognizing that in this music, lots was being said. Perhaps some of the most important, cutting edge things were being said." (Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. 2001)
Drummer Gregg Bendian, like maverick conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, knows all about adventurous music making; for over twenty years, this classically trained musician has led a number of stylistically diverse, forward-looking groups, whose leitmotif is controlled improvisation.
And if it is true what they say about the company you keep, then collaborations with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, pianist Cecil Taylor, saxophonist John Zorn, and guitarist Pat Metheny and Derek Bailey speak volumes about Bendian's musical vision. This musical vision has driven Bendian over the last five years to revisit the music of the legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra.
The recent release of Return to the Emerald Beyond (Cuneiform, 2007) is the third outing from Bendian's Mahavishnu Project but, as he explains to All About Jazz, this is much more than a respectful revisiting of guitarist John McLaughlin's ground-breaking '70s band. This is about extending the bounds of jazz-standard repertory and reappraising an important chapter of Twentieth Century music. In searching for the important, cutting edge things being said, Bendian reveals his desire to bring this powerful music to a whole new generation of listeners.
All About Jazz: Was your eclectic taste in music, your musical diversity, there from an early age or is it something which has developed over time?
Gregg Bendian: It was there from the beginning. My parents are big music fans and they had a very diverse record collection, everything from Monk to Miles, to Basie and Ellington; show-tunes, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Beethoven, The Rolling Stones and Beatles. They just loved music, so I grew up hearing everything and liking it.
AAJ: When you were growing up you were listening to all the progressive rock/fusion bands of the day, and studying classical chamber music. At the time, did you see any similarities between the two schools of music?
GB: Of course it was of interest to me that many of the prog-rock guys were referencing classical music, and were in fact classically trained. In particular, keyboardists that were classically trainedguys like Kerry Minnear from Gentle Giant, Keith Emerson, and Dave Stewart from Hatfield and The North. They were bringing a rather sophisticated harmonic and compositional palette to the table and I think hearing that made a very strong connection to classical music, in my brain anyway.
AAJ: Can you remember when you first heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra?
GB: Yes, I heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1973 at the age of ten. Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973) had just come out and my uncle was playing it for me. He was kind of like my older brother, and the music just completely blew my mind and excited me very much. It made me very interested in hearing more of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which I did at the local record shop and I have very vivid memories of hearing Between Nothingness and Eternity (Columbia, 1974) at the shop and asking the guy behind the counter "Is this Mahavishnu? He kind of looked stunned that an 11-year old kid was asking that and he said "Uh, yes!
AAJ: Was recreating the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra something that you had fantasized about for a long time, or did something spark it off?
GB: I had been doing my own original music for many years, and at the time I started my semi-electric band Interzone, with Nels Cline, the first record was a dedication to Gentle Giant and their compositional processes.
When we got to the second record I had more of a direct linkage to fusion in mind. There were some Return to Forever references there, Weather Report, all different kinds of jazz-rock mixed with different styles of improvisation, and one of the things that ended up on that record was a version of "Sanctuary, which is a beautiful John McLaughlin composition from Birds of Fire.
I think that got the wheels turning because also at that time Nels Cline and I were working on Interstellar Space Revisited(Atavistic, 1999), which is a re-imagining of the Coltrane/Rashid Ali duet. At that point in time and I became very passionate about determining and refining my own concept of jazz repertory, extending it into the late '60s and '70s, not stopping with Ellington and Basie, Armstrong and Bird. You know that it could go on into the electric period of jazz, and that's when the Mahavishnu Project really found its genesis.