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Gregg Bendian: Inner Flame, Musical Visions

By Published: March 5, 2007

AAJ: Michael Tilson Thomas, who conducted the London Symphony Orchestra on Apocalypse, once said, paraphrasing Aaron Copland, that unlike folk, jazz and blues, which are primarily about one mood, "Classical music shows a transformation of moods, a wide psychological voyage... Based on this definition, would it be stretching the imagination to describe the Mahavishnu Orchestra as modern classical music in your opinion?

GB: No, I don't think it would be stretching it. Both modern classical music and Mahavishnu, for example, incorporate electronics and atonality. I mean, look at "Opus 1, the string quartet at the end of Visions of the Emerald Beyond, and there's John tipping his hat to Anton Webern. You have that, followed by the electronically treated guitar; you also have beautiful, pastoral, tonal movements perhaps reminiscent of Ralph Vaughan Williams or (Benjamin) Britten.

So I think what John was and is doing is just exploring that full range of interests and it may not be necessary to call it a form of classical music; it certainly is a form of creative music and the most creative music, perhaps the most open stylistically.

The thing I find fascinating about Visions of the Emerald Beyond as a whole is that it has this kind of push and pull between various worlds, contrasting worlds, disparate worlds, where you have the electric being followed by the acoustic, you have modal playing being followed by a complex harmonic movement, and you have the simple idea being followed by the complex idea. This, for me, is the heart and soul, the heart-beat of the music from Visions of the Emerald Beyond.

AAJ: In recent times there has been a real flurry of Mahavishnu Orchestra-related activity. Apart from your own Mahavishnu Project which has been going on since 2001, there is the Jeff Richman guitar tribute to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Visions of an Inner Mounting Apocalypse (Tone Centre, 2005) and Billy Cobham and Colin Towns Big Band tribute to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Meeting of the Spirit: A Celebration Of the Mahavishnu Orchestra (In + Out Records, 2006). And then there is Walter Kolosky's biography of the band, Power, Passion and Beauty (Abstract Logix Books, 2006). How do you account for this sudden reappraisal of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and why do you think it has taken a quarter of a century for their rediscovery?

Mahavishnu Project: Holzman, Johnsen, Bendian, Alexander, Thomas

GB: Well, I guess I feel that we led the charge and we were the first people to say: "Hey, let's look at this stuff again. It was great then and its still great thirty years later. Why not give it its due? It does take time sometimes to realize this, and we need a little distance. We need a little bit of historical perspective, and we need to re-evaluate the things that we enjoyed in our youth to see if it stands the test of time. And of course, The Mahavishnu Orchestra's work was great back then and it is great now. It is certainly as fertile and worthy as Ellington or Coltrane for reinterpretation and reinvestigation. So I'm thrilled that our little repertory project got off the ground and generated a bit more interest in Mahavishnu music.

It is possible that at first, people were a little timid about coming out of the closet and saying they loved fusion in general, and Mahavishnu in particular. I admit I was a bit apprehensive at first because some people had definitely reacted negativity to my mention of Gentle Giant on the first Interzone record; "Oh, you know, that stuff was so pompous and overblown, so self-absorbed! I don't know that the Mahavishnu Orchestra had similar epithets thrown at it but I'm pretty sure they did. Hey, I don't believe any of those things and I love this music. It has been a very positive influence in my life and in the life of so many people, not just musicians. So I just think that now is the time.

AAJ: All my Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff is on vinyl and has been in an attic in Ireland for over fifteen years. It's that long since I've listened to the originals, and hearing the Mahavishnu Project bring this stuff back to public light has reminded me, and I'm sure many others, just how powerful and wonderful this music is.

GB: Thank you. I agree, and it's a joy for us to play it.

AAJ: The saxophonist on Mahavishnu Project's Visions is Premik Russell Tubbs, who of course played on the original album Visions of the Emerald Beyond and toured with the Mahavishnu Orchestra II for months. How did his involvement in the Mahavishnu Project come about?

GB: We ran into each other in Woodstock, New York a couple of years ago. Premik was giving a concert of his meditative music. He's still with Sri Chinmoy and the meditation center in New York City. He had heard of what we were doing and I invited him to come sit in with us on some of Birds of Fire shortly after that. At that point I started thinking about what our next project was going to be. I had gotten so many requests for us to play Visions of the Emerald Beyond.

In fact, Phase 2 (Aggregate Music, 2004) had "Lila's Dance on it. So we played "Lila's Dance for a while and we also stared doing "Earth Ship, and Premik sat in with us on that. I had been so active in the classical chamber world for many years and when it came time to flesh out the ensemble for Return to the Emerald Beyond I had access to great string quartet players and singers and I thought, "Who else would I get but Premik Russell Tubbs to play the saxophone and flute with us? He was very happy to jump onboard. He also has so many great Mahavishnu II stories!

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