In the seventies, prior to the "World Music" explosion of the nineties, Brit fusion guitar god John McLaughlin teamed with a trio of Indian musicians to form Shakti in an attempt to make a jazz noise of the music of the Indian sub-continent. The joy of this particular cross-cultural union of musical souls was that McLaughlin and company - violinist L. Shankar and percussionists Zakir Hussain and Vinayakram didn’t seem to give a damn what genre they were tossed into, just as long as they could weave their improvisational tapestries.
There-in lies the rub and the reason that Shakti was never embraced Stateside in the birthplace of jazz. One would have imagined that the era of "fusion" would have been open-armed toward such an innovative marriage of East-meets-West eclecticism; but in actuality, the seventies fusion movement was less about expanding jazz’s reach then simplifying it for the rock-beat masses. So in 1977 after only two years together, the fire-honed rhythmic challenge of Shakti died a commercial death.
But not a musical one. Among musicians the band has always been revered for its ferocious improvisation, frantic rhythms and daring blending of form. And for McLaughlin, the band has always represented a high water mark. One imagines he was only waiting for the perfect moment to resurrect the concept.
That came in 1997 but it took some time to arrive at the perfect pairing of voices. In a recent performance by the latest Remembering Shakti unit at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, OR, McLaughlin and original percussion partner Zakir Hussain introduced the next generation of the group in young soul mates U. Srinivas on electric mandolin and V. Selvaganesh, the son of original Shakti ghatam master Vinayakram, on various percussion. They soon showed that perfection had been achieved.
Opening with "5 In The Morning, 6 In The Afternoon", the group immediately conjured their theme of the evening: that of a musical community joining hands. McLaughlin and Hussain played the parts of the sage gurus while Srinivas and Selvaganesh fired their wisdom and drove the "old men" to exultant heights. What resulted was an awe inspiring technical work-out with the innocent and joyful soul of the passionate beginner.
McLaughlin, who as the eldest and most bankable name obviously has the most riding on the project, seemed familial and relaxed, laughing and clapping out the intricate beats to his companions. Throughout the two-and-a-half hour set, the guitarist remained wed to the true fundamentals of fusion as he tossed Wes Montgomery runs, Chuck Berry-licks, even the theme from Bonanza into his grab bag of jazz, rock and Indian modality.
Srinivas’ playing is something otherworldly. McLaughlin, in introducing the thirty year, explained he'd heard him when the young mandolin player was 12 and vowed he would play with him someday. Their's is a perfect blending of harmonic voices with McLaughlin the more muscular and logical and Srinivas the more spiritual. The young man’s architectural building of chiming phrases and glissandos showed a mind awake to the myriad modal possibilities of this music.
Hussain is, of course, the world’s best known tabla artist and the Indian percussionist of choice. His eternal youth is apparent in every rhythmic pattern he creates and in Selvaganesh he has a young disciple with a locked-in musical mind. His mastery of the kanjira (hand-held drum), mridangam (two-headed conga) and ghatam (clay pot) of his father is astounding in its depth. The unquestionable high point of the evening came in the thunderous 30-minute duet between the two, a sustained yet ever-frantic exchange of rhythmic ideas that seemed inexhaustible.
Other highlights included the original Shakti ballad "Lotus Feet", with a delicate exchange between the two string men, and the Srinivas theme "Maya" which inspired the hottest improvisational fireworks of the night. As the quartet dove into the traditional Indian call and response passages at break neck speed, an Eastern equivalent of trading fours, they reached fever pitch exhortation. Yet, humor and spirit was ever-present amid the musical tension.
What’s so refreshing about this ongoing project is the affection the members have for each other and the spiritual joy of their playing. One never feels a gratuitous note is hit nor even that there’s a sense of competitive rancor. It’s refreshing to hear such a memory lane jaunt not as a pale reminder of a "reunion tour" but as a pair of consummate artists finishing what they’d started a generation ago.