John McLaughlin / Remember Shakti

John McLaughlin is a restless musician. He changes musical surroundings frequently, always seeking a new challenge. Few musicians have attempted, let alone successfully covered, as much territory as McLaughlin. As his two latest CDs reveal, the 58-year-old guitarist not only is still vital in whatever genre he chooses to play, but he still has more edge than most up-and-comers less than half his age.

Recorded in 1998, The Heart of Things: Live in Paris is an electric fusion outing with Dennis Chambers (drums), Gary Thomas (sax), Matthew Garrison (bass), Otmaro Ruiz (keyboards) and Victor Williams (percussion). Three of the songs appeared on the 1997 release Heart of Things, and the live versions show McLaughlin's band to be more inspired in that setting. Their level of interplay and comfort also increased substantially from the prior recording. At times the band is funky, and other times restrained and beautiful. McLaughlin cuts loose with some amazing guitar pyrotechnics, including some intense doubling with Thomas, and he even kicks in some of the nastiest distortion he's played on record in years. At the same time, Live in Paris has many subtleties and complex passages that require a listener's undivided attention to fully appreciate. It's fusion, but one of a different style than he pioneered three decades ago.

On the 1998 Remember Shakti CD, McLaughlin and company brought down their intensity substantially from their furious mid-'70s recordings. This was partially owing to bansuri flute master Hariprasad Chaurasia replacing violinist L. Shankar. Chaurasia's strong suit is gentle melodic statements, and the band played to his strengths creating music that was beautiful and contemplative, but almost ambient by Shakti standards. Remember Shakti: The Believer is another story. Recorded last year, this variation of McLaughlin's legendary East meets West group includes founding member Zakir Hussain (tabla) and newcomers U. Shrinivas (mandolin) and V. Selvaganesh (kanjira ghatam, mridangam). A virtuoso who plays the mandolin unlike any Western musician, Shrinivas proves to be the foil that inspires McLaughlin to let out all the stops and play with the fire that his longtime fans expect. McLaughlin and Shrinivas create a kinetic frenzy when they play East Indian-sounding passages with blinding precision and trade testosterone-filled licks.

The Believer isn't just about two-string players drag racing, however. The group is a four-piece unit that conveys intensity, beauty and passion. Their performance of McLaughlin's classic "Lotus Feet," where Shrinivas bends and slides his notes in a manner akin to a violinist while McLaughlin comps delicately, is classic demonstration of both group and individual expression. New compositions by McLaughlin, Hussain and Shrinivas add a sense of freshness to the mix, and the overall feel is different from other versions of Shakti. But the result is a different Shakti that's almost as intense as the original, and just as spiritual.

On both albums, McLaughlin proves again why he is a legend. The depth of his compositions, his eagerness to evolve, his overall musicality and, yes, his fabled technique are all qualities other musicians should aspire to achieve and are why, after more than three decades, McLaughlin remains one of the most important forces in music.

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Paul J. MacArthur