Mahavishnu Project: Phase 2
Being a Mahavishnu Orchestra (MO) cover band is a vastly different undertaking than playing the music of, say, Led Zeppelin or the Grateful Dead. By and large, those who would come to see a band like this (sticking to the first and only worthwhile incarnation) are not drunken yahoos yearning for a few familiar chord changes. This is complex, spiritual music that requires near-perfect execution just to be credible. To make it a worthwhile experience takes an intimate knowledge of what the MO, a band whose demise single-handedly ended any worthwhile endeavor done under the fusion flag, was trying to accomplish.
It's fun to imagine, for those of us who weren't there, reactions to an album like the MO's debut Inner Mounting Flame (1971). It seemed to come out of nowhere. Despite guitarist John McLaughlin's or drummer Billy Cobham's work with Miles Davis during the trumpeter's electric period or the jazz-rock of violinist Jerry Goodman with The Flock, the initial chord burst of "Meeting of the Spirits was too momentous, too precise to be part of a heritage. Even though the claim was most likely John Coltrane's late-period spirituality, this was a different beast, almost Wagnerian in impact. The music required such attention to detail and split second decision-making; it was no surprise that fusion dumbed down after 1973. The offmeter licks were replaced by the burgeoning funk of the period, eventually getting slower and sappier until they became smooth jazz.
This reviewer has heard a lot of live MO and it seems that in the group's slightly-more-than-two year existence, they never put on a bad show and often times put on a stunning one. This two-disc live set immediately shows that the Mahavishnu Project both knows its history and is willing to make that history its own. Rather than start off with the MO's usual opener of "Meeting of the Spirits segueing into "You Know You Know, the moody "Resolution is the first to appear, slowly developing like an overture. The expected opener then follows and sets the tone for the rest of the performance with its moody, fast paced licks. It takes the band until the 6th track, "Awakening to begin to loosen up. Like the original MO concerts, the beginning was usually given over to the songs with strict arrangements, stretching the sinews for longer, more improvised tunes. At just under 19 minutes, "Awakening is done well enough to quell any doubts about this ensemble's abilities.
By the second disk, the band is fully warmed up and starts to get ambitious. They open with an arrangement of "Noonward Race," the original MO's burning closer, utilizing the middle jam as an intro. The band also pays homage to the MO's penchant for quotation (things like Coltrane's "A Love Supreme or songs by Lifetime) with an extended Jack Johnson tease by Pete McCann. Like on "Awakening, the Project takes advantage of looser middle sections for exploration. "Dance of Maya features updated syncopation by the group's "leader , drummer Gregg Bendian, who captures the loose snare of Cobham wonderfully. This reviewer never liked "Miles Beyond but can certainly appreciate this particularly spacey version (one wonders if keyboard player Steve Hunt borrowed some of Jan Hammer's equipment, it's so accurate). The inclusion of a Bendian original reminds the listener that this is after all a cover band and the one non-cover tune is a tradition. The closing "One Word is marvelous, all hands fully on deck resolving into another personal twist - ending with the brief "Hope and dispatching the sated crowd.
Pete McCann is not 1972 McLaughlin (who is including the man himself?) but he obviously has studied hours of material to understand how to recreate the fire of McLaughlin's playing within his own abilities. The same can be said for all the members of the Project. The studiousness means they comprehend their various roles, much like the original members. McLaughlin often laid out, Hammer could just be mood-creator, Rick Laird never got in anyone's way, Cobham's rhythmic fury was never at the expense of a song. The Project recreates the band so successfully because they are a sum of their parts, not five fusion knuckleheads. Hopefully this loving recreation will spur more interest in a band unlike any another, whose accomplishments have been undervalued for the dross that followed them.
Visit Mahavishnu Project on the web.
Personnel: Gregg Bendian - drums; Pete McCann - guitar; Steve Hunt - keyboard; Stephan Crump - bass; Rob Thomas - violin
Track Listing: Disc One: Resolution; Meeting Of The Spirits; You Know, You Know; A Lotus On Irish Streams; Sanctuary; Awakening; Birds Of Fire
Disc Two: Noonward Race; Lila's Dance/The Dance Of Maya; Miles Beyond; Within The Womb Of Night; One Word; Hope