By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
Shakti remained but a fond memory in the storied careers of all four musicians until 1996, when McLaughlin reunited with Hussain and Vinayakram and added Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri (similar to a flute) in place of L. Shankar, for one song on McLaughlin's album The Promise. A 1997 Shakti tour followed, and five songs from that tour, amounting to two CDs' worth of material, make up the latest entry in the McLaughlin catalog: Remember Shakti.
Remember Shakti evokes images of Shakti because McLaughlin is playing eastern music with two of his old comrades, but the group isn't the same Shakti that shocked the world over two decades ago. L. Shankar is gone, as is his amazing mixture of eastern-western-style violin playing, which was so integral to the group's sound. Replacing Shankar is Chaurasia, an absolutely captivating player with superlative melodic gifts, but who has less western influence than Shankar. McLaughlin's acoustic guitar is also gone, replaced by a darker-sounding hollow-body Gibson electric. In addition to the change in lead instrumentation, this group is more reflective, uses more subtle tonal textures and is more lyrical than the original Shakti.
CD One opens with "Chandrakauns," a 33-minute adventure featuring Chaurasia and Hussain, with Uma Metha on tanpura. Metha's tanpura drones in the background, as Chaurasia's swirling melodic playing intoxicates for a full six minutes before Hussain even enters on tabla. Six minutes of bansuri and tanpura could seem like an eternity to the uninitiated, but Chaurasia's playing is accessible, masterful and beautiful, and it sets up Hussain's entrance marvelously. When Hussain enters, the interplay between him and Chaurasia is absolutely thrilling. Hussain's role varies from adding embellishments with his liquid textures to taking solos to serving as the catalyst that drives Chaurasia into frenetic playing. Though delicate, like an East Indian folk song, "Chandrakauns" is so charming that McLaughlin and Vinayakram are barely missed, which speaks volumes, considering their abilities.
Chaurasia takes a rest on "The Wish," an 18-plus-minute showcase for McLaughlin, Hussain and Vinayakram. Throughout "The Wish" McLaughlin combines his trademark rapid-fire flurries of notes with subtle dynamic shifts and tonal shading. McLaughlin takes off slowly, hitting some neat melodic tones, with occasional speed-demon riffs, but soon Hussain and Vinayakram push him to a mind-blowing climax, filled with blindingly fast notes. This is John McLaughlin, so that shouldn't be surprising, but 20 years ago McLaughlin would never have sounded like this. He places more emphasis on melodic themes today, and while his tone is less fierce, his playing is more sophisticated. A little bit of bite is gone because of the Gibson's warm sound, but McLaughlin's playing and use of shading is in many ways more challenging than what he did in 1979.
"Lotus Feet" is the only song that the original Shakti lineup performed that's on this new record. This version is actually less eastern-sounding than the original. In 1975 Shankar's lead was penetrating, and McLaughlin's acoustic tone clearly eastern. Today Chaurasia's sound is delicate, and McLaughlin's tone is western. Yet the melody's eastern style and the use of the tanpura clearly retain the song's eastern flavor. As one of McLaughlin's best compositions, "Lotus Feet" has a catchy melody and many subtleties. The varied use of percussion (Hussain and Vinayakram are masterful) combined with McLaughlin's unique comping create deep dimensions to what initially sounds like a simple Indian melody.
The second CD begins with "Mukti," which clocks in at 63:30. "Mukti" features the full Shakti quartet, and each member of the group shows his wares with ample solo space. Mysterious and dark, the composition unfolds slowly and deliberately, what with Chaurasia and McLaughlin methodically taking turns establishing the song's mood for more than ten minutes. The percussionists again prove to be integral to the composition, as Hussain and Vinayakram are fonts of colors and rhythmic device. Whether they are adding textures or dueling with McLaughlin or Chaurasia, the percussionists display exquisite taste, and their playing is almost mystical. At one moment they are beating relentlessly, inspiring McLaughlin to go over the edge, and at another moment they are delicately adding color to the picture. Then there's their solos. Though long percussion solos can typically be self-indulgent, here the long solos are captivating, as evidenced by the hoots and hollers of the crowd.
McLaughlin flashes his legendary technique on "Mukti," as it wouldn't be McLaughlin if there weren't at least one track that sent budding guitarists back to the shed. Yet McLaughlin's technique doesn't sound excessive (for that matter, it never has -- only those who can't attain his level tend to criticize his technique). Yes, there are flurries of notes, but the notes serve their purposes. Add in the tremendous synchronicity with Hussain and Vinayakram, and it's a joy to behold. Then there's Chaurasia, billed as the world-renowned master of the bansuri. That's not even hype. Any western musician would be well served to listen to the way Chaurasia ties melodic ideas together and interplays with the percussionists. Though "Mukti" is more than an hour long, the quartet is so hypnotic that at no point is it ever boring.
Closing out the second disc is "Zakir," a duet featuring McLaughlin and Chaurasia. It is easily the most accessible track, as it's the most "western"-sounding song of the five. Basically it's a ballad with Chaurasia playing beautifully over delicately western chords. Chaurasia's playing is more western here, and McLaughlin's playing is restrained and delicate.