Gregg Bendian: In Any Direction


Gregg Bendian. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Gregg Bendian is a composer, percussionist and drummer, and an adventurous improvisor. He has a vast catalog of original work, which includes pieces for string trio, solo bongos, and more traditional jazz ensembles of various sizes. He’s also worked with a jaw-dropping array of musicians, including free jazz legends Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, and regularly tours with beloved singer/songwriter/producer Todd Rundgren.

In his free time he’s the leader of The Mahavishnu Project, a wildly successful and ambitious tribute to John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. He also works as a freelance interviewer for Yale’s Oral History of American Music where he’s spoken with dozens of significant artists, including Quincy Jones, Cambodian composer Chinary Ung, Pat Metheny, Henry Threadgill, and Peter Schickele.

He’s also producing a series of releases drawn from the archives of The Bottom Line, a famed venue in New York City, featuring fantastic performances by Harry Chapin, Doc Watson, Pete Seeger & Roger McGuinn, Kenny Rankin, Tony Orlando, and The Brecker Brothers.

This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Bendian is performing with Mike Keneally and Doug Lunn at the Alvas Showroom in San Pedro. Keneally is a guitarist, keyboardist and singer whose career began with Frank Zappa’s final tour, and includes work with Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and many others. Lunn has lent his bass and writing chops to Brand X, Wayne Kramer, Bruce Springsteen, and Andy Summers. The trio will be performing new work, some covers, and improvisations while recording the whole thing for an upcoming live album.

Long Beach Post: In addition to being accomplished instrumentalists, all three of you are serious composers, too. How did you decide what work to bring to the trio?

Gregg Bendian: We want to present a wide array of things, the way bands used to do. We like to explore all areas of our musicality and so we play rock, heavy rock, pop, jazz and contemporary classical stuff. I write in all those styles, as do Mike and Doug. We decided that, if bands don’t really do that kind of variety show any longer, it didn’t mean we shouldn’t. In fact, it meant that we really should!

What kinds of material have you been preparing for the Alvas shows?

The main focus for the upcoming shows is to be spontaneous, and feature a lot of improvisation, so we’d be touching on all of our interests with a more associative mindset. Kind of creating new songs on the spot.


Mike Keneally, Gregg Bendian, and Doug Lunn. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You’ve played with all kinds of people. What’s it like for you to improvise in this trio?

When I was improvising with Cecil Taylor or Derek Bailey or John Zorn, I think it was me thinking there were things I shouldn’t do, like play a groove or keep time or patterns going. My rhythmic approach has really developed over the last 30 years to include all of my interests, and I don’t feel I have any limitations to harbor and so, with KBL, I feel I can go in any direction, if it makes the music more interesting and fun. I’m also using my full set-up for these shows, so that includes vibraphone, glockenspiel and hand drums, in addition to drum set. Mike and Doug will be playing acoustic instruments for part of the set, and we plan on switching instruments, so Doug can play drums, Mike bass, and me on piano. It’s going to be pretty wild.

What role did music play in your home, as a kid?

Music was ever present. My parents were not musicians, but true music fans with excellent taste. I heard the classics of jazz, rock and classical without even knowing during my early formative years, and I took to it with tremendous feeling from that early age. I remember playing along to Revolver on pots and pans, with Lincoln Logs as sticks, as early as age five. My parents took us to shows, and I saw Ravi Shankar and Alla Rhaka and Stan Kenton because my dad wanted to take us. So lucky. So spoiled.

My dad took me to my first Todd [Rundgren] show in Central Park in 1976. That one, because I asked, but he was totally into it. When I started working with Todd, it was a real honor to be able to introduce him to my parents because, in a very real way, they got me there.

What moved you from listening, and goofing around on pots and pans, to taking up musical study seriously?

As soon as I expressed interest, my parents paid for and drove me to music lessons for piano and drums. The schools in Teaneck, NJ had excellent music teachers who played in New York City orchestras and on Broadway. Again, [I was] really lucky and spoiled. I began studying drums when I was in third grade, and piano, theory, composition and classical percussion was seventh. Because of listening to ELP and Mahavishnu by age nine, I was convinced you had to know classical and jazz, so that’s what I studied.

Did your parents turn you on to that music?

No. That was my Uncle Dave. [He was] like an older brother. He was in college, experiencing all that stuff as it happened, and he brought it to my house and it blew my door open.

With such an eclectic musical aesthetic, was it hard to find peers your age to play with?

Yes, but I ended up with the older high school kids, and they were playing YES and Allmans and Crimson and lots of prog and current pop rock. They could play and had good taste. We did shows locally. I formed my own band in high school, and we played free jazz and prog without batting an eye. Ornette and Zappa were standard for us. We never got anywhere with it, but it was a formative education for me.

What was the process of deciding to study music in college? Did you consider alternatives?

Yes. I quite enjoyed studying English and creative writing. My English teachers were excellent in high school and college, and I found those classes enriched my mind and gave me lots to think about, as did art history. I’m Armenian on my dad’s side, and he was an art teacher and sculptor, so art and history were also interesting to me. These things had a real affect on my outlook of music as an art form, which could express many personal things, and I figured I could get all of my interests into my music, Which is what I’ve always tried to do.

How does the music you compose express your personal history?

With The Gregg Bendian Project, Trio Pianissimo and Interzone I’ve explored the Armenian genocide and folklore subjects as inspiration. I have solo percussion pieces inspired by the work of painters like Paul Klee and Kandinsky. Comic books were also inspiring to me. Interzone recorded ‘Requiem for Jack Kirby,’ who is widely known as the guy that co-created the Marvel universe with Stan Lee. That project allowed me to write about my ideas of comic books as high art, back in 2001, when nobody spoke openly that way. I was able to license Jack’s art for the album package.

Back in the ’80s, filmmaker Stan Brakhage was big for me, and I wrote percussion music for his silent films and got cool results. I gave him a tape but never heard from him. I’m a big fan of the band XTC, and have written a new jazz piece that we’ll play in appreciation of Andy Partridge, [the band’s] chief composer. I’ve also written a new piece in memory of my dad, who passed away three years ago, which reflects the influence of Morton Feldman, a composer I’ve always found to be very unique and interesting.

After you left college, did you have a plan for a career?

Yes. I went out and immediately sought out Derek Bailey and John Zorn and, within months, was working with them and all the guys in their circle. That’s how Cecil Taylor heard me and then came to see me. I had also formed the Gregg Bendian Project thing in 1984, and that was my outlet for what I call chamber jazz. We could play intricate compositions and improvise freely. Shortly after that, I began touring as a solo percussionist, so it was full-on as soon as I started because I was young and full of creative energy.

What connected you with Taylor?

Well, I sought him out. I had studied with his drummers Andrew Cyrille and Steve McCall while in high school, specifically to be educated by the guys at the source. By the time I was on the downtown New York scene, I was confident enough to sneak backstage at [one of] Taylor’s solo shows at Symphony Space and told him exactly what I told Todd Rundgren a few years ago: “I’m a big fan and, if you ever need a drummer that knows and loves your music, please consider me.” Cecil’s response was, “when can I hear you?” so I told him and he showed up at the Knitting Factory. We became friends and hung out for a year, going to concerts and films. When Tony Oxley was unavailable for a Boston show, Cecil called me at 7:00 in the morning, woke me up, and asked if I was available.

I wanted to jump ahead to Interzone, mostly because that was when I discovered you. For the first record, you had the Cline brothers on drums and guitar, I believe. How did you connect with those West Coast cats?

Interzone happened when I met Alex [Cline] in Los Angeles through Vinnie Golia. Alex and I hit it off, and I was looking to do a band where I featured my vibes playing, to challenge myself. Alex was the perfect fit because we love all the same drummers. I asked if Nels would be interested and he was. I was already using Mark Dresser for GBP. That was the first Interzone. The second one was with Steuart Liebig on electric bass, and then Requiem was back to acoustic bass. I wanted this band to be rock, jazz and classical all in one.


The Mahavishnu Project, with original Mahavishnu Orchestra member, Jan Hammer. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You mentioned developing an early love for Mahavishnu Orchestra. What was the impetus for the Mahavishnu Project, and what were the parameters, musically?

Mahavishnu Project grew out of my frustration as to jazz history being painted into a corner by historians and musicians that I feel were limiting it to less abstract forms. When Nels [Cline] and I were playing in Interzone, together, we got the idea to do Coltrane’s Interstellar Space duets as repertoire. We knew at the time that very few musicians took Coltrane’s later work seriously, and felt he had gone mad or some such nonsense. We loved it and, as an historian, I felt a certain duty to represent what was “my important moments in history,” and Rashied Ali’s drumming with Coltrane was very important to me as a young free jazzer [sic].

I felt we should consider those Interstellar Space pieces as repertoire in the same way you would play Giant Steps or My Favorite Things. Nels and I play it live, and we recorded it, and it met with widespread acclaim, and particularly pleasing was the positive response from Rashied, and from Alice Coltrane.

After that, I felt emboldened to approach repertoire from that personal perspective, and Mahavishnu [Orchestra] was a huge part of my development. We had recorded ‘Sanctuary‘ from Birds of Fire on the 2nd Interzone disc, ‘Myriad,’ to make this point. I enjoyed it so much that it had me asking, “why doesn’t anyone play these pieces, either?” Well, it turns out it was because they were difficult to play and, in 2001, when we started, jazz-rock like Mahavishnu Orchestra and electric Miles [Davis] was not fashionable, and not accepted, the way it is today.

The idea was to form a permanent repertory ensemble and play the material, but keep it open to interpretation and improvisation. We received John McLaughlin’s endorsement shortly after, and then the other original members followed. That did a lot for the our project because, at the time, no one was playing that material. John McLaughlin, Jan Hammer and Rick Laird came to hear us play the complete ‘Inner Mounting Flame’ album in New York City, and each of them actually came on stage to tell the audience how much they dug us. That was an incredible moment.

About a year later I got a call from Jan’s manager saying that he had been asked to play Moogfest 2006, and he told them that he would play if we would be his backing band. That was a dream come true, and it was officially released as a dvd, which also featured the late, great Keith Emerson.

You’re producing CD releases drawn from the vast archives of live recordings made at The Bottom Line, featuring some truly stellar artists at the peak of their careers. How did you get involved?

In 2001, when we started the Mahavishnu Project, we played our first show at The Bottom Line in New York on a double bill with Mike Keneally’s Beer For Dolphins. I met Mike for the first time, and we hit it off. I also met Allan Pepper, the club’s owner, that night and he got that what we were doing was jazz repertoire, much like the Mingus Dynasty band’s approach. Allan and I remained friends after the club closed, and he asked me if I would produce The Bottom Line archive. I jumped at the chance. We’ve released 10 discs over the last year. The archive contains over 1000 shows and, so far, my favorite releases are The Brecker Brothers (1976) and Kenny Rankin (1991). I’m currently producing Jack Bruce & Friends (1980), which happens to include Billy Cobham on drums. Next up is a one time only performance from 1994 of Kris Kristofferson and Lou Reed playing, and speaking about their work on an In Their Own Words show.

You’ve been working steadily as a freelance interviewer for Yale’s Oral History of American Music [OHAM] project. What does that work mean, for you?

The work I do at Yale’s OHAM is very gratifying for me. I was a fan of Vivian Perlis, a grand dame of oral history in America. I met her while visiting the collection. She, and Libby Van Cleve who now runs the project, asked if I could contribute more jazz artists to the collection of interviews. So far, I have done about 40 since 2012.

Are there some highlights that come to mind?

Speaking at length with Wayne Shorter and Quincy Jones about their 80-plus years on the planet were mind-blowing highlights. The most recent was Henry Threadgill, a few months before he won the Pulitzer.

Why is the OHAM archive important?

It’s extremely important that we capture and document these great American composers speaking about their work in depth. Yale’s OHAM is a primary source archive, and we do not edit anything that is said. It’s all available as audio, and as transcript, for future generations of musicians and historians to use openly.  

Watch Bendian perform his solo composition, Crosshatching: for Iannis Xenakis:


Alvas Showroom is located at 1417 West 8th Street in San Pedro. To get there, drive West on 7th to Weymouth Avenue, turn left, and then left onto 8th. To purchase tickets in advance, call 310. 519.1314 or visit To learn more about Gregg Bendian, visit Check out OHAM’s YouTube Channel. You can also read last week’s interview with Mike Keneally.

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