McLaughlin's Shakti and Weather Report:
Some Defused Fusions

By Michael Rozek

(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: June 1976)

Personnel: Wayne Shorter, reeds, Lyricon; Joe Zawinul, keyboards; Jaco Pastorius, electric bass; Alejandro Acuna, drums; Manolo Badrena Medina, percussion.

Personnel: John McLaughlin, acoustic guitar; L. Shankar, vlolin; Zakir Hussain, tabla; T. H. Vinayakram, ghatham (claypot).

Beacon Theatre, New York City

Shakti, an all-acoustic group, is John McLaughlin and three Indian musicians. A different pair of females joins the band in every performance, and these ladies play drone instruments. Opening at the Beacon, the entire robed sextet sat in a close gaggle, front and center stage on a smaller platform. And a whooping audience loved 'em, though I found their ultimate achievement as modest as their format.
I'm told by manager Nat Weiss' office that Shakti's no exercise in purism. Their charts, by Shankar and McLaughlin, use some Indian scales; but the band's thrust is improvisation - something new for the Indians involved. "Yet," reflected Carlos Santana in a recent Rolling Stone, "it's hard to say (Shakti's) music is new because it was played before Christ." My feeling exactly. Santana goes on to say Shakti "sounds new because [McLaughlin's] combining the West and the East." But I couldn't hear any sweeping fusion - the Indian influence predominated.
Shakti's sound was linear, patterned, repetitive rhythm. And accompanying melodies and solos seemed harmonically restricted, only handmaidens to the pulse. McLaughlin's occasional, blues-inflected note-bending provided a slight Western tinge, but his speedy phrasing, percussively jampacked, showed the predominate Eastern influence it always had. There have been no significant stylistic alterations, a point further borne out by his duets with the drummers and Shankar, strongly reminiscent in their pacings of past duels with Billy Cobham and Jerry Goodman.
So, Shakti suits McLaughlin fine. And it was a cooking little set, which is why the audience whooped. Vinayakram's frantic drumming was a particular hit; it got the lusty reaction usually accorded Airto or Bill Summers. And of course, the crowd cheered McLaughlin's technical prowess. So what else is new?
Past that rhetorical question, I have a real one. Where is this music going to go? Santana calls Shakti's efforts "änot loudäbutäthe most intense music that I've felt since John Coltrane was alive." Yet Coltrane - if the comparison must be pursued - explored all the physical properties of music, not just its percussive power. Perhaps Shakti's vision is equally comprehensive, but I couldn't hear it on this occasion. However, maybe I was as unattuned as Woody Allen once claimed to be viewing mime. I think he went to watch Marcel Marceau, who was supposed to be "setting the table." Allen only saw the Budapest String Quartet climbing in and out of a large trunk.
Weather Report has a new bassist, Jaco Pastorius, who has contributed a batch of new pieces to the ensemble's book. Instrumentally, he appears to have a greater aptitude for countermelodic movement than his predecessor Alphonso Johnson, but his role in the group is nonetheless much the same: the keeper of time and funky bottom. Alejandro Acuna has moved from the percussion table over to the trap set, and was far too light and weak to support the instrumental weight of the band.
After a wonderful first half-hour or so of reworkings of tunes from the last three albums, things began to bog down. Zawinul had been a key orchestrator of movement in that first segment, filling gaps strikingly, suggesting original colors as a matter of routine. But Acuna's rhythmic uncertainty became more obvious as the ensemble balance shifted heavily to Shorter's side. For a time, the usually finely-tuned and well-oiled Weather Report became the rather tentative, mildly perplexed Wayne Shorter Quintet. After some uneventful solo Pastorius (his exercise on Parker's "Donna Lee" that opens his recent LP), there was a slight regrouping of forces on two more Jaco tunes and a heated Afro-Cuban duet between the percussionists. From that point, however listlessness and lack of invention prevailed for another 30 minutes.
But chalk it up to a bad night. At its best, Weather Report is far and away the most compelling fusion group because of the way its members suprise/improvise within a seamless flow. Smooth movement seems to be the be-all and end-all of most fusion ensembles, but this one strikes me as the only one around to recognize that the flow can be intricately patterned with changes in color, tempo, and harmonics. Their first half-hour on this occasion - six years of albums and memorable appearances - are conclusive evidence of their potency.