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(113:56 2CD / Cuneiform Records)
TRACK LIST: Disc 1 (59:43) 1. Eternity’s Breath 14:30 2. Lila’s Dance 9:00 3. Can’t Stand Your Funk 6:56 4. Pastoral 10:58 5. Faith 2:55 6. Cosmic Strut 5:42 7. If I Could See 1:50 8. Be Happy 7:00 Disc 2 (54:41) 1. Earth Ship 12:00 2. Pegasus 3:39 3. Opus-1 2:09 4. On the Way Home To Earth 11:44 5. Smile of the Beyond 5:00 6. Vital Transformation 11:25 7. Sister Andrea 11:44 LINEUP: Gregg Bendian – drums David Johnsen – bass guitar Adam Bolzman – keyboards Rob Thomas – el. & baritone violin Glenn Alexander – el. & ac. guitars; vocals Premik-Russell Tubbs – saxophones, flutes Katherine Fong – 1st violin Zach Brock – 2nd violin Nicole Federici – viola Leigh Stuart – cello Maria Neckam – vocals
Prolusion. “Visions of the Emerald Beyond”, one of the cornerstones in Prog Rock’s architecture and my favorite album from the entire legacy of the great John McLaughlin, was the subject of one of my very first reviews in English, written some ten years ago. The main cause that pushed me then to publish that short piece was my discovery of the fact that the Maestro’s personal feeling about “Visions” (which is definitely his most symphonic creation, drawing together many elements of Classical and Indian music) fully coincides with mine. THE MAHAVISHNU PROJECT (TMP from now on) is the brainchild of New York’s drummer, composer and arranger Gregg Bendian. What it was that pushed him and his fellows to produce a live version of “Visions” was that The Mahavishnu Orchestra themselves never got to play the material from that album on stage. Recorded during the project’s 2006 performances, “Return to the Emerald Beyond” is my first encounter with this ensemble, though I am aware that they have two more outings to their credit: “Live Bootleg” from 2002 and “Phase 2” (2CD released one year later) kudos to the press kit:-).
Analysis. Tribute bands have never been my cup of tea, to say the least, so before I listened to this double-disc set I was fairly skeptical about its makers, even though it didn't escape my notice that one of the strongest and most serious players in the field of contemporary progressive music, the remarkably non-conformist label Cuneiform Records took them onboard with this recording. No one needs to be a prophet to foretell what I will say now (“It’s about time for this reviewer moved to positivism!”), but it’s really for the first time now that my attitude towards the matter has been changed for the better. I don't think I should even make an attempt to describe “Return” as being guided by its source material, i.e. by using a track-by-track investigation so as to compare the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. This particular version reveals so many new details and nuances that it’s impossible to, speaking roughly, squeeze them all into here. Unlike the other tribute outfits I’ve heard, TMP aren’t that predictable, appearing as something much weightier than a mere cover band. You'll see the thirteen “Return” tracks run for more than twice the length of their “Visions” counterparts. There is direct evidence of the fact that these musicians have solidly broadened the framework of the original recording (not only in terms of continuance of course), and it only sometimes seems there are no frontiers separating the interpretations and you know what. Especially amazing is that TMP give a really new reading of the “visions” by succeeding in keeping them intact, no matter that some of the original themes sound like they have found a bit of extra jazz potential. New improvisations are indeed added to the source material, but without changing any of its characteristics, let alone sonic constructions, and are well integrated into the basic fabrics. Drummer Gregg Bendian and bassist David Johnsen each can sound like Billy Cobham or Michael Walden and Rick Laird or Ralph Armstrong respectively, but it also happens that both play in a way that does not remind me of Mahavishnu Orchestra at all, providing a unique color in the bottom line. The musicianship of each of the participants is outstanding as is their joint performance, but while the ensemble playing is dominant, I have a sensation that guitarist Glenn Alexander carries much of the weight of “Return” on his shoulders. The three bonus tracks are all worthy additions to the basic material, reminding the listener of the other sides of the legend’s work as well as their creative versatility. Just logically, the frenetic and at times repetitive Vital Transformation plunges the listener into the world of early Mahavishnu Orchestra, the miscellaneous Sister Andrea reproduces the aura of the last stage of their activity, and the pastoral Smile of the Beyond, well, only features a violin quartet and female vocals. Hungry, ambitious performance, delivered with a youthful-like energy and vigor, marks this wonderful tour-de-force into the heart of progressive era.
Conclusion. Once you decided to venture on revisiting “Visions” with TMP, be prepared to meet with true visionaries and some of the best American musicians in Jazz-Fusion and Classical as well. The perspective from which they’ve approached their affair is really uncommon, something strongly distinguishing them from most, if not all, of their ‘brothers in arms’, making them a leading act in that area of performers.
VM=Vitaly Menshikov: February 19, 2008
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