A string quartet paying tribute to the high energy, high velocity Mahavishnu Orchestra of the early 1970s? An oxymoronic concept perhaps, but Veinnese radio.string.quartet's Celebrating The Mahavishnu Orchestra
not only honors the spirit of the group, but proves that Mahavishnu Orchestra founder/guitar icon John McLaughlin's writing can provide plenty of grist for unexpected and challenging interpretations.
Classical string quartets tackling a jazz repertoire is nothing newKronos Quartet, for example, has released two albums of music by Bill Evans and Thelonious Monkbut radio.string.quartet's take is considerably more successful than most. The quartet not only captures Mahavishnu Orchestra's dynamics, complexity and sometimes reckless fury, but its improvisational aspect as well. This is no polite string quartet; it's as much a take-no-prisoners ensemble as the group it references.
Relegated to historical relevance for too long, McLaughlin's music has only recently been recognized for its repertory potential. Drummer Gregg Bendian's The Mahavishnu Project has been expanding the music for five years, most recently on the outstanding Return to the Emerald Beyond (Cuneiform, 2007), while keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband's A Meeting of Spirits (Alternity, 2006) turns McLaughlin's music into more unfettered, often abstract, solo piano outings.
Celebrating The Mahavishnu Orchestra, while by no means literal, leans towards The Mahavishnu Project's more reverential approach. The album's fourteen tracksculled largely from Inner Mounting Flame Columbia, 1971) and Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1972)may be recognizable, but violinist Bernie Mallinger and Klemens Bittman take considerably liberty with arrangement, rhythm and improvisational opportunity.
Originally an all-acoustic rubato tone poem, a gentle pizzicato violin pulse rests underneath the resonant long tones of violin, viola and cello, giving "A Lotus on Irish Stream unexpected forward motion. The equally acoustic ambience of "Thousand Island Park loses its defined rhythm here, however, with cellist Asja Valcic's primary voice turning it inside out.
But it's the electric Mahavishnu Orchestra tracks that are the real revelation. Gone is the defining guitar arpeggio of The Inner Mounting Flame's first salvo, "Meeting of the Spirits, replaced instead by an atmospheric swarm of strings over the cello's two-note motif. When the quartet moves more fervently into the song's defining contrapuntal theme, the arpeggio is hinted at but never clearly articulated. There's no need for the drum intro to the 9/8 "Vital Transformation ; the aggressive attack of the strings provides all the power that's needed.
While there's stronger arrangement here than with the original more jam-centric Mahavishnu Orchestra; everyone gets ample opportunity to demonstrate their improvisational acumen. The ethereal middle section of "The Dance of Maya may have little to do with the earthier original, but the irregularly metered boogie that finally coalesces with an opposing theme remains intact.
Celebrating The Mahavishnu Orchestra is the perfect mix of respect and irreverence that music this bold deserves. The reference points are clear, but radio.string.quartet has taken McLaughlin's writing and the spirit of The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and turned them into a superb and deeply personal musical statement.