Drummer Gregg Bendian's Mahavishnu Project is at it again: taking a complete recorded work by John McLaughlin's second (expanded) version of the original band, and playing it live. Visions of the Emerald Beyond
is unusual as a Mahavishnu Orchestra title in that very little of it was performed live, and was never entertained as a live date, according to Bendian in his liner notes. You'd never know it. With Bendian, guitarist Glenn Alexander, bassist David Johnson
, and keyboard whiz Adam Holzman
, the rest of the players, including a string section, Premik Russell Tubbs
plays both saxophones and flutes. Minimal vocal chores are accomplished beautifully and naturally by Mariah Neckham.
If anyone can help us hear the original album in a new light in Return to the Emerald Beyond
, it's Bendian. Having performed the first version of every title the original Mahavishnu Orchestra released, the Project had a duty in their collective mind to move on past the confines of the early band just as McLaughlin did, realizing his dream of a "full" orchestra on Visions of the Emerald Beyond
with an expanded string section. This 11-piece does just that on Return to the Emerald Beyond
. As is their wont, they performed the album live for an entire summer and took the best versions of the individual tracks to compile the CD. Sonically, it's warm, immediate and full. Musically, it's revelatory. Revisiting an album that early Mahavishnu fans had trouble with, proves the longevity and enduring contribution of the music, but more importantly, in the process, that this was music that can be, and perhaps should be, performed live. The guitar work of Alexander is full of emotion and power, but also restraint as he moves through the knotty changes in McLaughlin's compositions. Rob Thomas
' solo violin work meets the challenge of Jean-Luc Ponty
's original parts with an edginess and mutability that is rather astonishing. Bendian is no mere timekeeper; he's music director, leading and guiding the changes and improvisations in these pieces (check out the opener "Eternity's Breath" and "Can't Stand Your Funk" on disc one, as well as "Earth Ship" and "Vital Transformation" on disc two). The ensemble playing is tight but also very flexible, creating space inside some of these tunes that is not there on the studio recording but is necessary in live performance. In sum then, the Mahavishnu Project has accomplished not only their goal, but has also revealed how necessary and filled with innovation Visions of the Emerald Beyond
is; placing the jazz-rock of the '70s firmly in the continuum of the music's tradition, and offering a place for those compelled to both listen to and play it as a way inside the complexity of the music and its emotion.