One inherent risk of any tribute band is excessively literal treatment of the material. Since forming the Mahavishnu Project to honor guitarist John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, drummer Gregg Bendian has avoided every possible such pitfall. Bendian views this '70s fusion group's relatively small body of work as repertory alongside music by artists like Miles, Coltrane and Monk. TMP's first two releases put a distinctly personal spin on the music, expanding it and twisting it around without ever losing sight of its fundamentals.
Bendian ups the ante with Return to the Emerald Beyond. An expanded eleven-piece TMP performs Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia/Legacy, 1975) in its entirety, along with three additional MO tracks. Considered by many as inferior to the version of Mahavishnu Orchestra responsible for the classic Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia/Legacy, 1971) and Birds of Fire (Columbia/Legacy, 1973), the group that recorded Visions may not have been as immediate or visceral, but its scope was more ambitious and expansive. While less successful at the time, Visions is retrospectively one of McLaughlin's most envelope-pushing records.
Only violinist Rob Thomas remains from TMP that released Phase Two (Aggregate Music, 2004), and he continues to be a fiery and imaginative player deserving greater recognition. The core quintet of this revamped TMP is the best one yet, also featuring keyboardist/Miles alumnus Adam Holzman and guitarist Glenn Alexander. Alongside Bendian, Thomas and bassist Dave Johnsen, they approach the music with total authenticity while avoiding imitation. Since Alexander's the guitarist, the greatest weight falls on his shoulders, but while he adopts a McLaughlin-like fuzz tone much of the time, his mix of speed-picking and cascading legato runs is all his own.
What set Visions apart from earlier MO albums was its commingling of McLaughlin's growing interest in Indian and classical music with a broader musical palette. Bendian expands the music, sometimes to nearly triple its original length. The material ranges from irregular-metered boogie and funk to fiery rock, Indian-flavored pastoralism, free improvisation and overt classicism, all with plenty of solo space.
Bendian arranged all the music for this two-disc live performance that includes a string quartet, singer and woodwinds (played by original MO member Premik Russell Tubbs), but not all the expansion is devoted to lengthy solos. A classically trained musician whose body of work ranges from free jazz with Cecil Taylor to the progressive rock-informed but unequivocally jazz-centric band Interzone, Bendian is that rare artist with fingers in enough musical pies to be capable of taking McLaughlin's music as a reference for expanded form.
With Mahavishnu Orchestra's relatively small repertoire, Bendian has turned the Mahavishnu Project into an increasingly popular venture with no end in sight. No less ambitious than its source, Return to the Emerald Beyond is the group's best album yet.
Gregg Bendian: drums, dumbeq; Glenn Alexander: electric and acoustic guitars, voice; Rob Thomas: electric and baritone violin; Adam Holzman: keyboards; David Johnsen: bass; Premik Russell Tubbs: saxophones, flutes; Katherine Fong: first violin, Kindler cadenza (cd1/4); Zach Brock: second violin; Nicole Federici: viola; Leigh Stuart: cello; Maria Neckam: voice.
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