The Mahavishnu Project’s whole shtick is that they re-create albums by the Mahavishnu Orchestra in their entirety. They do this with the blessing of the members of the original group, including guitarist John McLaughlin, who has said that they re-create the tunes in “an unbelievable way.” At the Bearsville Theater, the fare for the night included the entire album Visions of the Emerald Beyond, and also a few selections from Birds of Fire and Inner Mounting Flame.
The drummer and bandleader, Gregg Bendian, announced that they would be playing the entire album from start to finish with no breaks in between. This direct-flight approach made the evening seem something like a guided meditation.
Some of the pieces built to fiendish intensity within odd, deeply grooving time signatures like 10/8, 9/8 or 14/8, exploding and collapsing into subdued interludes, like an elegant string quartet with screaming classical violin over pulsing, legato cello and viola.
The orchestration of the tunes was incredibly complex and just as stable as any of Beethoven’s epic symphonies. To access the full sonic spectrum, the instruments would often trade roles. Sometimes the keyboard would be comping and sometimes it would be leading. The same was true for the electric violin and guitar. On certain tunes, the instruments would use their “natural sounds” and, on others, the soloists seemed to emulate the sound of the electric guitar. This was especially noticeable from Neil Alexander on the keytar. When he was soloing, he would frequently use one hand to play fiendish single-note lines and the other to facilitate bends and expressive touches that emulated the sound of the guitar.
Another aspect of the orchestration was a musical gestalt in which new sounds were created beyond the mere sum of the parts creating them. Examples of this were the combination of soprano sax and electric violin, or vocals and keytar. This effect made it not immediately apparent what was causing certain sounds at times. Bendian or Alexander would conduct the inner layers to produce lush pads of ambiguous sound.
In addition to the music, there were projected graphics that seemed to fade in and out and assume different colors and brightness in relation to the music. One especially memorable graphic happened on “Pastoral,” which featured the string section, acoustic guitar, and Bendian on dumbek, an Eastern hand drum. This was an almost Renaissance-sounding piece, and the graphic on-screen faded in with the word “Greece” and an outline evocative of the curly hair on a Greek statue. Bendian grooved along on dumbek while Chern Hwei played a sitar-like melody on electric violin and Glenn Alexander strummed along on acoustic guitar.
The music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra incorporates many styles, from American jazz and bluegrass to European and Indian classical styles. The Project did not just re-create the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but they made it their own, while upholding the standards of excellence that were set by the likes of John McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, and the rest of the original crew.