Interview: By Walter Kolosky
Gregg Bendian is a classically trained musician who has inhabited many musical worlds. He has played drums and various instruments with musicians as diverse as Cecil Taylor, Pat Metheny and George Garzone. He has composed and recorded his own original material. Along the way he has found the time and desire to honor the musical greats such as John Coltrane and John McLaughlin with recorded tributes. At the end of this interview you will find a listing of all of the projects featuring Bendian that are available from AbstractLogix. You will see what a wide-ranging artist he is and you will enjoy the thrill of discovery. I recently spoke to Gregg about his latest release Phase 2 from The Mahavishnu Project. Gregg created the band several years ago in order to interpret the classic jazz-rock music of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra for the new generations. It is a true labor of love.
GB: My uncle took me to what I believe was the first Shakti show in NYC, at the Wollman Rink in New York's Central Park. The opening bands were Flight, and The Sons of Champlin. I also remember a radio announcement for the concert on WNEW-FM (the big commercial station that actually played Mahavishnu) where DJ Alison Steele referred to the new John McLaughlin band-.Shocking-Tee!!! I could go on and on.
WK: Your interest in the original Mahavishnu Orchestra goes back to when you were a kid.
GB: Yes. My uncle played me Birds of Fire, back in 1973 when I was ten years old. It changed my life. I was extremely lucky, because it set the tone for the rest of my musical life - what music I was interested in (the challenging, creative kind) and it also made clear to me right from the start that there was no substitute for musicianship or hard work. Mahavishnu were the reason I decided to study both classical music AND jazz. Of course after MO, I went on to follow the amazing Jan Hammer Group around, and Billy Cobham's bands, and obviously The One Truth Band and Shakti. I have especially fond memories of that time. I wore out my copy of Like Children by Jerry and Jan. I Remember Me was so emotional, it used to freak me out. We perform that tune with the project. And when MO's Apocalypse came out, we had it on 8-track! It had a feeling of what I would describe as awesome discovery. This was a feeling that pervaded that whole period for me.
WK: While all the players in the MO were brilliant, most identify it as a guitar-centered band because its leader was John McLaughlin. You became a drummer.
GB: Ah, the truth finally comes out. (laughs) I DID want to be a guitarist! That was my first impulse. In fourth grade they asked us to choose an instrument, but they didn't even offer guitar. I took drums as my second choice and just loved it. Deep down, I think I have always been attracted to guitar-based music like Holdsworth, Morse, and sought out players like Pat Metheny, Derek Bailey, Zoot Horn Rollo, for that reason. I don't ever regret my choice but its amazing, even after Max Roach, Tony Williams, Billy, and Jack DeJohnette broke down the doors, I can't help thinking how much easier life as a bandleader would have been if I had just been a guitarist! Without those guys laying down the groundwork and challenging people's perceptions of drummers AS MUSICIANS, it would have been much harder. Drummers will know what I mean.
WK: You have some outstanding musicians in the Project. How do you find players who understand and want to play this music?
GB: Yes! Wow. I'm extremely fortunate. It's not easy. Steve Hunt and I have been working together since January of 1990. I first heard him with Holdsworth in 1989 and was blown away by how easily he would follow Allan's solos with his own unique lines. We started talking at one of Allan's shows and hit it off. Pete McCann was recommended to me by writer Bill Milkowski. Pete's an incredibly intense, balls-out guitarist. People will be blown away by this guy's musical range when they fully check him out. Our bassist, Stephan Crump was recommended by Pete. He's an incredible musician and a rock solid, creative accompanist. An even bigger Rick Laird fan than a Jaco fan! Rob Thomas, what can I say? He's one of the most important violinists since Jerry Goodman, and it's impossible to find electric violinists who have a beautiful sound, improvise and rock out. As for the kind of players it takes to do this music justice, I would have to agree with what I've heard Pat say about the Metheny Group. It's absolutely essential that you have serious jazz players to attempt any type of jazz-fusion. That's job one. Then, in our case they must also be into rock, Indian music, classical music and electric Miles. You also have to be comfortable with odd meters and some pretty complex rhythmic structures. Luckily, I found four other guys that fit that description. Plus of course, all of the guys love and respect the Mahavishnu music and want to dedicate serious time outside of their other projects to play it. In the end, that's what it's all about - and it makes non-stop rocking possible. (laughs)
WK: And what does the music mean to you? Why interpret it?
GB: There are so many reasons. On a purely musical level, the challenge is undeniable, unavoidable. I just can't believe no one else has attempted to approach this body of work! People play Coltrane tunes, Bird tunes, Monk tunes, so why not Mahavisnnu tunes? Its incredibly powerful live music, and it deserves a life outside of the existing recordings. I felt it was crying out for that. It's also an important part of jazz history, and therefore jazz reparatory, that has been all but ignored by the mainstream. We find that situation totally unacceptable, so I guess we've tried to correct what I would call an injustice by forming this Mahavishnu reparatory ensemble.
WK: On Phase 2 , you guys are hitting on all cylinders. There are many tunes on which you take the music beyond what it was by adding your own original touches. Is this a matter of the band become more confident over time in adding its own identity to McLaughlin's compositions or more?
GB: We were much more literal about the compositions when we first started the project, no doubt. But things have evolved, and our group concept is, and will remain, Mahavishnu is a form of jazz music. Therefore, we're required to make it our own, and take stylistic license, and stretch and take chances. We try to surprise each other, as in all the jazz projects we play in. The forms are just a bit different, and a bit more difficult in Mahavishnu music, so you have to study and get inside the tunes and know them very well. You can't just pull out The Real Book and read them down on a club date! But yes, I feel everyone in the band is pushing harder to reach within and touch the next level of expression with this music. One of the things I enjoy about this band, apart from the fact that we like each other and share the same sense of humor, is that everyone is seriously into (Miles') Bitches Brew, On The Corner, Big Fun and Jack Johnson. We've made a concerted effort to show that sonic connection between Mahavishnu and Miles on several tunes, not the least of which is Miles Beyond, which we take into an open, electric Miles-type jam, rather than remain strictly inside the form that MO used. Its really important for us to include Mahavishnu's roots in what we do. They certainly didn't develop in a vacuum. No truly great jazz music does.
WK: One of the cuts, Within the Womb of Night, is an original written by you, in the style of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I assume you didn't write out solo pieces based upon the astrological signs of the band's individual players, as McLaughlin was known to do from time to time - but how did you approach this task?
GB: It wasn't a task I set out to do. People at the shows were asking us, Do you guys play any originals? and it occurred to me that it would be nice to show the Mahavishnu influence continuing into the present day by playing new tunes inspired by Mahavishnu. Now, at this point I'm so saturated with Maha-vibes that when I started hearing a tune of my own for this band to play, Womb is what came out. Some people say it sounds like an Emerald Beyond period tune, some say Trident Sessions. We have another tune, Sarkis, The Warrior that we play at a lot of the shows. I didn't have a decent recording if it, so we couldn't include it on Phase 2. I find it remarkable that the fans who follow my band, Interzone have said they hear connections between Womb and my composing on Interzone's Requiem for Jack Kirby! That's when I think, Yes, it really is all the same stuff, isn't it? By the way, WE DO use our zodiac signs to determine key centers for the solos in our version of Awakening (as John indicates in the score) and it makes for some interesting key changes. I even use my key center pitch as a drone for my drum solo in that tune. Pretty obsessive, huh? (laughs)
WK: I would call it Devotion. How much does it mean to you to have received musical blessings from John McLaughlin himself?
GB: Well, it has meant the world to me, on an emotional level. I'm just so grateful. To have grown up with a kind of musical father, and then after 30 years to finally be able to meet him and have his approval - it's a very profound thing for me. Words fall short, because it's a deeply spiritual feeling, kind of like, You see? If you work hard and stay true to what you love in life, amazing things will happen. And John has been so generous. When I first met him, he told me he was genuinely concerned that I was spending too much time on his music and not enough on my own, which I assured him, was not the case since the message I received from Mahavishnu as a kid was to find your own voice. So I sent John the discs by my other jazz and classical projects and he actually took the time to listen to them and comment on them, which meant so much to me, I can't even tell you. I think we both felt better about clearing that up! Know I did.
WK: What are the upcoming plans for the band?
GB: We'll be doing a pretty regular, monthly night at Iridium in NYC, a club that has embraced the idea of jazz reparatory as being a bit more far-reaching than what they do over at Lincoln Center. The first show (June 17) will be an all-request show, where the audience members dictate which tunes from Birds, Flame or Nothingness, they want us to play. We're doing another all-request show in Boston at Johnny D's on June 30th. The second Iridium show (July 22) will be unplugged, where we do acoustic versions of tunes like Vital Transformation, You Know, Hope, Celestial Terrestrial, and of course the classics, Lotus and Thousand Island Park, which we have new arrangements for. We have a new booking agent in Germany and we're planning a European tour for November. Right now, it looks like we'll be mostly in Germany, with some shows in London and Rome.
WK: Do you have any other personal projects you are working on?
GB: Yes. Steve Hunt and I are finishing up a second disc with Trio Pianissimo, our jazz trio with bassist John Lockwood. I'm also starting a new band that will focus on my prog-rock leanings, called Amalgam. And Mike Keneally and I are working on a duet record that we hope to finish up this year. Just the two of us jointly composing and overdubbing parts. I recently became involved with Sony/Legacy, co-producing the MO's famed Cleveland 1972 show for release. Bob Belden asked me to come onboard as another set of ears on it, and he's asked me to take over the archiving of Mahavishnu tapes that sit in the Sony vault, unlabeled and un-transferred. It's a very exciting and fulfilling thing for me to be personally involved in helping to continue the legacy of the music that changed my life. It feels like I'm giving something back. Man, I'm so grateful to Bob for giving me this amazing opportunity! He is unreal. I don't think people realize how lucky we are to have this guy on the inside, fighting to keep this important period in music history available to those of us that love it. I firmly believe that without Bob, we would not have those Miles box sets and the re-mastered fusion stuff. Sony wouldn't do it - certainly not as well - without Bob pushing for it. So, in the future, I'll do my best to continue to push for creative music - on the inside and the outside. And my sincere gratitude goes to Abstract Logix for supporting what we do, and fighting the good fight!
Interview by Walter Kolosky