By: Nathan Rodriguez
There are a handful of bands that just shouldn't be covered. For my ears, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was one of those bands. It's a pretty tough sell to think that you can one-up - or even do justice to - the work of John McLaughlin & Co. That being said, the Mahavishnu Project carries the torch into the 21st century, proving surprisingly adept at interpreting 1974's Visions of the Emerald Beyond on Return to the Emerald Beyond (Cuneiform)
On "Eternity's Breath," and sporadically throughout, the vocals are slightly dubious - not so much the delivery but rather their utility. "Lila's Dance" features bona fide shredding on the six-string from Glenn Alexander, and is a definite early highlight despite the slightly tacked-on feel of the outro.
"Can't Stand Your Funk" was originally inspired by Headhunters-era Herbie, and bassist David Johnson slaps out a remarkably filthy line in the tune, which enables Premik Russell Tubbs to stretch out in an impressive sax solo. "Pastoral" offers a slithering, sashaying rhythm accompanied by light pattering percussion, lending it a definite Eastern feel. Indeed, many of the songs possess an ephemeral, spacious quality where the music comes to fruition organically.
There are a few valleys in the album, namely the majority of Disc Two. However, the Project can't be faulted for that as they were simply playing what was there. Some of the focused compositions of the first half of the album fizzle out in favor of more experimental pieces in the second half, and even those sections that are heavy on improv remain well played. For example, "On the Way Home to Earth" has instrumentation that bleeds together not from sloppiness but rather a calculated, exquisitely coordinated cluster fuck.
The second disc ends with a trifecta of bonus tracks, notably "Vital Transformation" from Inner Mounting Flame, which offers the frenetic 9/8 time signature aside convincing, passionate guitar wizardry. On this track and elsewhere, Alexander does a great job scratching out McLaughlin's trademark licks.
John McLaughlin called Visions of the Emerald Beyond his favorite MO album on several occasions, yet the band never touched the album in a live setting. It's fairly bold move, then, for the Mahavishnu Project to release the album as a live recording. It may not be possible to fully recreate the Mahavishnu experience, but - in the same vein as Dark Star Orchestra with the Dead - the Mahavishnu Project proves to be a viable, interesting and worthwhile present-day alternative to the group that spearheaded the jazz-fusion revolution.
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