Gregg Bendian: Inner Flame, Musical Visions

Ian Patterson By

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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!

AAJ: The Moogfest last year at BB King's Blues Club brought together Keith Emerson, Jan Hammer and the Mahavishnu Project amongst others. What was that like?

GB: Playing with Jan Hammer, being his band for a night was a dream come true. It was incredibly exciting just rehearsing with him. We all had known his songs for many years and we had actually performed them in the Mahavishnu Project before ever meeting him.

He came to hear us at the first VishnuFest in the summer of 2005 and at that point he felt comfortable that if he were to play live again we would be able to come in and play his music. So when he was asked to play and to be honored at Moogfest 2006 he said, "If you get me the Mahavishnu Project to be my backup band, then I'll do it. So as you can imagine, it was an honor to be chosen by him and then to actually spend time working and hanging with him.

He was also very complimentary of my piano trio disc, Change (Aggregate Music, 2005). I was so honored that he took the time to listen to it. The MoogFest performance was his first in America since 1990, and it was quite exciting to play those pieces from Oh Yeah (Nemperor/Sony, 1976), The First Seven Days (Nemperor/Sony, 1975) and [guitarist Jeff Beck's] )Wired (Epic, 1976) with him.

It was a wonderful evening for Jan and his fans, many of whom, including his children, had never had the chance to see him play live. Jan had a good time and he played so great! The show's been recorded for DVD, so hopefully that will come out some time this year.

AAJ: Do you have any ambitions to record Apocalypse, or perhaps conduct an orchestral recital of that work?

GB: Of course, yes. It would be a huge undertaking. Return To The Emerald Beyond includes my string quartet arrangement of another Mahavishnu gem, "Smile of the Beyond, from Apocalypse. In a way, working from Visions of the Emerald Beyond—and going back to Apocalypse—gives me quite a clear picture of what would be involved. It would be a matter of finding the right orchestra, finding the right conductor, among other things.

I would love to do this for Sony Classical. I've done some Mahavishnu archival work for Sony Legacy and of course it's a matter of budget and interest higher up. I don't know that there is a lot of interest in a company like Sony. So, it's in mind, It's just a matter of whether it happens in the next two years, five years, or ten years. But it is something that I've discussed with John and he said: "If anybody can do it, you guys are the ones.

AAJ: Do you think the Mahavishnu Project will end once you've recorded all the Mahavishnu Orchestra material or can you see it continuing in one form or another?

GB: I would hope it can continue. There are a lot of places around the world where we haven't played this music. There are places the Mahavishnu Orchestra didn't perform that would want to hear this music performed live. So we have a bit of a job to do in terms of continuing to spread the word.

I also think there are additional musical possibilities for the band. I'm more and more interested in playing with other musicians and having more and more collaboration going on in the music, and more and more abstraction. At the moment it's difficult for me to see an end point. It's a thing that keeps feeding itself—just like any other form of great music.

AAJ: You studied classical percussion under Gary van Dyke of the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble; do you get much opportunity to perform in a more classical context these days?

GB: I also work in contemporary classical composition and right now I'm working on a CD of my music for strings and a CD of my solo percussion works.

AAJ: What other projects do you currently have in the pipeline?

GB: Now I'm working on a duo record with guitarist Richard Leo Johnson for Cuneiform, and I'm hoping to do another Mahavishnu Project recording, which I think will be all original compositions. Then there's also a trio I've been doing with Glenn and Adam which is looking at the Tony Williams Lifetime material, Miles Davis material, as well as Mahavishnu material. I'm also producing live recordings from The Bottom Line archive which will be part of a Koch box-set featuring great jazz artists like The Brecker Brothers, Tony Williams Lifetime [with Allan Holdsworth], John McLaughlin Trio, and the Cobham-Duke Band.

AAJ: Obviously Billy Cobham and Tony Williams are big influences; what other drummers particularly inspire you?

GB: My big hero is Jack DeJohnette. Just in terms of his pure musicality, his range of endeavor, the sound he gets from the drums. He's just the consummate drummer and musician. And of course, before him, Roy Haynes and Max Roach. Max Roach has been a tremendous influence on me as well. I had the great honor of spending a couple of weeks with him on the road back in '89. I was on tour with Cecil Taylor's group and at that time Max was on tour with his quartet. Max took me under his wing, and took a liking to me and was very supportive of my playing with Cecil's band. He told me a lot of stories and I was able to ask him a lot of questions. I was twenty-five at the time. That was a huge inspiration. Life-changing.


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