Return to the Emerald Beyond
Gregg Bendian isn’t known for shying away from challenges. In creating the Mahavishnu Project seven years ago, the drummer had to re-enact the complex, militaristic, warp-speed style of Billy Cobham with the original Mahavishnu Orchestra 1971-1974 lineup. Cobham and founding guitarist John McLaughlin were the catalysts for a group that was at once beautifully melodic, profoundly harmonic and furiously rhythmic (akin to playing Cream LPs at 45 rpm). Currently working on a duo CD with another manic guitarist, Richard Leo Johnson, Bendian’s latest Mahavishnu Project release boldly goes where no band has gone before.
On the live, two-disc Return to the Emerald Beyond, Bendian expands his quintet lineup to 11 pieces to match the unmined gem of McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu catalog. Visions of the Emerald Beyond, released in 1975, featured violinist Jean-Luc Ponty in for Jerry Goodman, bassist Ralphe Armstrong for Rick Laird, keyboardist-vocalist Gayle Moran for Jan Hammer, and drummer Narada Michael Walden for Cobham. String and horn sections filled out McLaughlin’s vision, which never saw the stage, since the guitarist disbanded Mahavishnu soon thereafter.
Nearly every song on the sequential double-CD runs at least twice as long as the original. “Eternity’s Breath” clocks in at nearly 15 minutes, and features Bendian’s thunderous drumming, a shimmering four-piece string section and standout soloing by violinist Rob Thomas. Former Miles Davis keyboardist Adam Holzman introduces “Lila’s Dance” and consistently injects the influence of Hammer into Moran’s simpler lines. Bassist David Johnsen takes an extended solo in “Can’t Stand Your Funk,” which is highlighted by saxophonist Premik Russell Tubbs, also featured on McLaughlin’s original 1975 recording.
Guitarist Glenn Alexander and vocalist Maria Neckam update McLaughlin and Moran capably, but without the signature guitar fire on “Be Happy” or the vocal range on “If I Could See.” Bendian turned toward rotating personnel in recent years after losing his original and best lineup, and the occasional result is the sound of a well-rehearsed co-op lacking the original project’s cohesion. This cast also has the disadvantage of going up against arguably the best Mahavishnu Orchestra lineup ever. The session-seasoned Ponty eclipsed Goodman 30 years ago (a trend since reversed); Armstrong played with more personality than Laird, Moran allowed McLaughlin the use of space, and Walden had Cobham’s thunder with more musicality.
Disc two opens by pointing out the occasional long-windedness of the double-disc with the meandering, 12-minute “Earth Ship.” The ensemble rights itself with the original album’s muscular closer, “On the Way Home to Earth,” plus bonus encores including Hammer’s “Sister Andrea.” The live Return to the Emerald Beyond is an enviable achievement, but more importantly, it will encourage listeners to explore the disc that spawned it.