Radio String Quartet – Celebrating The Mahavishnu Orchestra (2007)

FrontCover1.jpgHiding political tics behind faux-formalist boilerplate, pop aesthetes accused them of imposing Solidarity and Agent Orange on their musical material, but in fact such subjects signaled an other-directedness as healthy as Michael Stipe’s newfound elocution. Admittedly, with this one beginning “The world is collapsing around our ears,” I wondered briefly whether “Losing My Religion” was about music itself, but when Stipe says they thought about calling it Love Songs, he’s not just mumbling “Dixie.” Being R.E.M., they mean to capture moods or limn relationships rather than describe feelings or, God knows, incidents, and while some will find the music too pleasing, it matches the words hurt for hurt and surge for surge. The Kate Pierson cameos, the cellos, and Mark Bingham’s organic string arrangements are Murmur without walls–beauty worthy of DeBarge, of the sweetest soukous, of a massed choir singing “I Want To Know What Love Is.” (Press release)

This must surely be one of the most unusual releases in ACT’s distinguished canon. The idea of a classical string quartet playing the fusion era compositions of guitarist John Mclaughlin is initially mind-boggling but it all works surprisingly well. So well in fact that the project has won the endorsement of McLaughlin himself who demonstrates his approval by supplying the albums liner notes.

The seeds of the project were sown in 2000 when Austrian composer and accordionist Klaus Paier asked violinist Bernie Mallinger to assemble a string quartet to play on Paier’s CD “Moviemento”. The album was a considerable success and was nominated for an “Amadeus Award”.

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Mallinger’s string quartet acquired a life of it’s own and over the course of several personnel changes and numerous projects the group metamorphosed into the radio.string.quartet. The modish name hints at Mallinger’s willingness to reach beyond the classical repertoire and to embrace more diverse and contemporary styles of music.

He is joined in the radio.stringquartet by fellow violinist Johannes Dickbauer who studied classical violin in Salzburg and Vienna but also has an aptitude for jazz.
Cynthia Liao, another classically trained player is on viola, with Asja Valcic, from Zagreb completing the quartet on cello. Both Liao and Valcic have expressed their enjoyment of playing in the group and of the challenges and freedoms it offers them musically.

Mallinger had been a fan of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and was intrigued by the way Mclaughlin integrated the violin of Jerry Goodman (later succeeded by Jean Luc Ponty) into a jazz-rock context. He felt that re-arranging Mclaughlin’s music for string quartet would bring out the melodic and harmonic aspects of Mclaughlin’s compositions, qualities that were sometimes hidden by Mahavishnu’s somewhat bombastic approach. Mallinger’s arrangements reveal the structures within Mclaughlin’s compositions and bring out the beauty of tunes such as “A Lotus On Irish Stream”.

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This is not to say that the string quartet’s playing lacks energy. Indeed at times they play with a verve and intensity (as on “The Dance Of Maya” and “Birds Of Fire”) that I have never previously encountered from this instrumental line up. There is a great interaction between the players and a drive that also brings out the rhythmic qualities of Mclaughlin’s music. These string players play pizzicato and utilise their bows to create the kind of percussive effects that would be unthinkable in classical music but which are totally appropriate in this context. Mclaughlin’s complex compositions represent a considerable technical challenge to the players and they respond brilliantly. The arrangements by Mallinger and Klemens Bittman are superb and must have been a real labour of love.

Although Mclaughlin incorporated a string quartet into the second incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra the results were surely nothing like this. Radio.string.quartet have put their own stamp on the music and created a different type of fusion as classical discipline combines with the spirit of jazz improvisation to create something unique. There are even a few folk inspired flourishes for good measure.

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The project is a total success on it’s own terms and is a superb blend of passion and precision. However it is very intense and hearing the whole album in one sitting represents a considerable challenge to the listener. Although the album may be less of a commercial prospect than label mates E.S.T. it is to ACT’S credit that they continue to foster such adventurous music.

Fans of Mclaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra should find this album fascinating and hopefully enjoyable. Others like myself, who found Mahavishnu rather too bombastic and OTT will welcome the opportunity to view Mclaughlin’s compositions in a new light. It may even inspire me to revisit the original Mahavishnu recordings, which go back some thirty-five years, heaven help us all.

Radio.string.quartet performed this music to considerable critical acclaim at the 2006 Berlin Jazz Festival. They subsequently performed it at London’s Vortex Jazz Club in May as part of ACT’s fifteenth anniversary celebrations, but I’ve not heard any feedback regarding that concert as yet. On the evidence of this recording it must have been a very interesting evening. (by Ian Mann)

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Personnel:
Johannes Dickbauer (violin)
Bernie Mallinger (violin)
Cynthia Liao (viola)
Asja Valcic (cello)

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Tracklist:
01. Open Country Joy 3.58
02. A Lotus On Irish Stream 6.18
03. Vital Transformation 4.55
04. The Dance Of Maya 6.37
05. Dawn 5.03
06. Dream 5.06
07. Thousand Island Park 3.04
08. Meeting Of The Spirits 5.33
09. Celestial Terrestrial Commuters 4.59
10. Hope 1.44
11. Birds Of Fire 5.01
12. You Know, You Know 5.15
13. Sanctuary 6.52
14. Resolution 2.31

Music composed by John McLaughlin

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When I was first given the demo CD of the recordings of the compositions I wrote for the “Mahavishnu Orchestra” performed by the radio.string.quartet.vienna, I imagined something of dubious quality.
Remember, these compositions were written for an electric jazz-fusion group 34 – 35 years ago, and while the 2nd version of Mahavishnu Orchestra had a string quartet within the group, the drums, bass and electric guitar were always there and very present.
From the first note I was struck by the way this group had ‘appropriated’ my music and made it their very own. They even got the atmosphere which was present all those years ago. The other aspect that touched me deeply was the importance they attach to improvisation, and they do improvise!
The quartet is also not without humour: just listen to that version of “Celestial Terrestrial Commuters”…
This is no ordinary string quartet. The love of, and the dedication they have to their respective instruments is marvellous, and the fact that they have taken what was electric jazz-fusion music, fused it with their training in ‘classical’ music, and conserved the ‘electric’ atmosphere is outstanding.
Throughout the listening of this recording, the radio.string.quartet.vienna brought me back to the wonderful days of the Mahavishnu Orchestras with true enjoyment. Thank you! (John McLaughlin)

 

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