Gregg Bendian: Inner Flame, Musical Visions

Ian Patterson By

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I became very passionate about determining my own concept of jazz repertory, extending it into the late '60s and '70s, not stopping with Ellington, and Basie, Armstrong and Bird.
Gregg Bendian"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 trained—guys 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.

AAJ: What was the general reaction of people when you announced your intention to play entire Mahavishnu Orchestra albums in concert?

GB: We've always faced two reactions; one is that true fans of the music are thrilled that someone else is interpreting this stuff and playing it again, and they are happy to hear it live, some for the first time. And then there's always been a dubious attitude from some towards the group. For some reason the Mahavishnu Orchestra is viewed by many people to be merely a rock band because they reached rock band popularity, rock band success, rock band numbers in the business. So, for us to be doing the Mahavishnu Orchestra music we must be a "rock 'n' roll cover band . But that attitude has changed because we've been doing this for five years now and I think people are catching on that we are serious about this being a classic form of music and that we are a group music that is worthy of investigation—plus we are out there doing our own thing with it.

AAJ:The Mahavishnu Project has had the blessing of John McLaughlin. Did you approach him beforehand, and if so were you nervous at all?

GB: To be honest, we started doing this just out of a love of the music and never had any imaginings that it would grow into a regular, ongoing project. It was just so much fun, so intense and so rewarding musically and artistically that it took on its own energy. The idea was to continue to play music from the first band (Mahavishnu Orchestra '71-73) and to play it as well as we could.

John McLaughlin's wife, Ina contacted me after our Live Bootleg (Aggregate Music, 2002) came out and said, "John has heard about you guys and he's glad that there's a band playing this music. Could you send us a copy of your first CD? I was quite nervous in fact, and waited for his response. Ultimately, I did hear from John and he told me that he was thrilled with what we were doing, and that we should continue doing it and he gave us his blessing.

AAJ: The Mahavishnu Orchestra was in some ways a synthesis of everything McLaughlin did before and has done since; are you as big a fan of the other incarnations of John McLaughlin as you are of the Mahavishnu Orchestra?

GB: John is truly a musical hero of mine. I've followed everything he's done. After the Mahavishnu Orchestra I went on to see him with the One Truth Band and Shakti in my teenage years. I was actually lucky enough to see Shakti's first New York city concert in Central park—that was the summer of '76 at the Schaefer Music Festival.

Then I worked my way back, Extrapolation (Polydor, 1969), Love Devotion Surrender (Columbia, 1973), and his electric Miles work. I've followed everything that he's done with amazement and I've always learned something. Since 1976, I've gone to see him play every time he's in New York, and he remains one of my great inspirations.

AAJ: He's a big hero to many people, and I find it unbelievable that he hasn't received a knighthood from the British government. They give them to Elton John and Mick Jagger, no disrespect to them, but I think McLaughlin should have received some sort of recognition for the body of music he's produced these last forty years.

GB: Well, I agree with you completely, and it only points to the fact that there's a sort of popularity contest involved with that whole knighthood thing.

AAJ: How much of a challenge was it to recreate Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia, 1975) compared to the other Mahavishnu Orchestra albums?

GB: It was a big undertaking, to be sure. I felt that I had to do a lot of pre organizing before we launched it. I had to add another six players to the group, so the group more than doubled in size. I had to find the right players, players that loved the music. In January of 2006 the group changed personnel in terms of the core quintet, so this was only six months later! I had just brought in Glenn Alexander on guitar, Adam Holzman on keyboards and David Johnsen on bass. Rob Thomas has been with me on violin since 2002 and now, for Return to the Emerald Beyond, I was adding strings, horns and voice.

The real challenge was one of reorganizing some of the pieces and deciding the focus each of the pieces would take, but also an overview of the whole piece. I've treated it as a suite, and tried to make a musical connection over the course of the thirteen pieces that are in the Visions of the Emerald Beyond set. Our concept was not to radically overhaul these pieces, not to deconstruct these pieces and then reconstruct. The concept is to play the existing material in our own fashion, and then use the pieces as a platform for improvisation, just like any other form of jazz music.

AAJ: I imagine a lot of rehearsal time was needed before performing this live.

GB: Yes. We rehearsed and did some concerts, and the recording that was released by Cuneiform is an amalgam of a couple of different performances.

AAJ: Has your own opinion of Mahavishnu Orchestra II ('73-75) changed since doing this album?

GB: Somewhat, yes. As a kid in'74, '75, listening to Apocalypse (Columbia, 1974), and Visions of the Emerald Beyond on eight track tape, they were, to me, as "Mahavishnu-ey as the original. I didn't see them as a lesser Mahavishnu Orchestra then. I just thought it was a slightly different musical direction.

I do now see just how ambitious Mahavishnu Orchestra II truly was for John, and for music in general, perhaps for the audience especially. It was really about reaching for the best aspects of musical fusion, and bringing together the interests of John McLaughlin—from Indian music, classical music, jazz, blues, rock of course, and making for lack of a better word, a fusion of these things, creating something unique and personal, making it his own.

The difficulty of an eleven-piece band on stage, the technical difficulties, and the musical challenge is completely real to me now, playing the stuff. And I can see what a great challenge it was for the original Mahavishnu Orchestra II to pull this off live.

It's very exciting for me because I see, and have seen over the last five years, what a fan favorite Visions of the Emerald Beyond is. Now that we are playing this music live, people are coming from all over to hear us play this because they love this recording and Mahavishnu II played so little of it live back in 1975.

Now that we have revisited this music on our new recording a lot of people are starting to very strongly support it. That's great because I think that for many people the barrier between the original Mahavishnu and the subsequent large band was always something in the mind of the writers, and perhaps not in the minds of the fans.

I feel the fact that it was a new direction for John's Mahavishnu concept was handled poorly by the critics, who I think at the time were looking for more and more commercial, accessible music and just were losing interest in how challenging and diversified truly great musicians could be.


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