Given the predilection in jazz for improvisation, it's not surprising that "East meets West" encounters have taken place. After all, to anyone who's heard music from India, extended playing, or "jamming", can be one of its most obvious qualities.

Listening to guitarist/composer/bandleader John McLaughlin's Shakti With John McLaughlin (the first of three recordings by the group of the same name), the implied, if not obvious connection is made with another master of extended improvisation: John Coltrane. Like Trane, McLaughlin was - and still is - attracted to the lengthier forms offered by traditional Indian music and the possibilities for integration with the more traditional Western methods of harmony, melody, and rhythm; in this instance, with the thoroughly Western expression known as jazz.

A vital link for both men to East was sitarist Ravi Shankar, known to millions as a major inspiration to ex-Beatle George Harrison. Shankar's virtuosity was not lost on any of these Western musicians. Likewise, his openness to cultural exchanges has left an indelible mark on a whole generation of players, including scores of Shankar's contemporaries as well as students and musical descendants. The other members of Shakti are all cases in point.

But back to our central figure. In light of John McLaughlin's recorded output to date, Shakti stands as the preeminent "blowing date", the recording that gives us a more wide-open view of John McLaughlin the improvisor. Jamming on music devoid of traditional harmonic structures and in accordance to shifting melodies, it's certainly no coincidence that Shakti was a live recording, as were most of Trane's extended blowing dates from the '60s. Seen from this perspective, the cultural distinctions fade, leaving us with pure artistry and invigorating displays of group dynamics, interplay, and the unexpected - elements common to both Indian music and jazz alike.

Unlike Coltrane, however, McLaughlin's use of Eastern and Middle Eastern effects had gone beyond the occasional inclusion of, in Trane's case, the stringed oud and Trane's prolific use of soprano sax. It wasn't "just" a sincere interest in new musical forms amd a new spirituality that so captivated McLaughlin. Rather, it was the eventual immersion of one person into another culture, allowing himself to be transformed in the process. Two examples need suffice.

First, there was McLaughlin's initial interest in Eastern philosophy and religion, which led to his becoming a member of the English Theosophical Society in the '60s. In the spring of 1970, he became a disciple (note the level of personal commitment suggested) of the guru Sri Chinmoy, under whose sway McLaughlin was to change his name, adding the prefix "Mahavishnu" (meaning "divine compassion, power, and justice"). McLaughlin's level of commitment to music demanded extra-musical considerations be integrated, considerations that would have lifechanging effects.

Secondly, aside from the lifestyle questions of dress, diet, and personal habits associated with a life of spiritual discipline, McLaughlin's approach to the music he played initially had him hanging up his electric guitar for an acoustic one. Certainly not the first time that happened, but undoubtedly the first time he recorded himself with the kind of ensemble gathered for My Goal's Beyond, in 1970. Remember, this was during a period when the guitar-heavy sounds of Hendrix, Clapton, Beck, et al., were surging right alongside McLaughlin's own electric jazz and rock adventures with, among others, the Tony Williams Lifetime, Miles Davis, and from his own projects, documented on such seminal albums as Extrapolation ('68), Where Fortune Smiles ('69), and Devotion ('70). Along for the ride on My Goal's Beyond - and to get back to our second example of cultural immersion - were non-Western and/or non-jazzer types Badal Roy (tabla), Mahalakshmi (tambura), and Airto Moriera (percussion). Typically, it was split between primarily solo "jazz" guitar - reflecting influences Tal Farlow and Django Reinhardt and including such standards as Mingus' "Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat" and Miles' "Blue In Green" - and music which used those musicians listed above along with jazzers Charlie Haden on bass, sopranoist Dave Liebman, violinist Jerry Goodman, and drummer Billy Cobham on two pieces much more modal and Eastern in approach, not to mention length. Both Goodman and Cobham were to follow McLaughlin into his next major (and most commercially successful to date) venture: the stunning, jazz-rock fusion archetypal Mahavishnu Orchestra. Ironically, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin's My Goal's Beyond music, acoustic and tempered by comparision, was to be blown out by electric infusion of free-jazz and rock elements; an essentially funky raga of sorts, miles and miles from India's serene, albeit oftentimes intense, modalities. Mahavishnu Orchestra's Inner Mounting Flame was its first and finest recorded example of spirit-meets-the-flesh jazz-rock.

By the time Shakti was recorded in 1975 at South Hampton College, a lot of electricity had passed through separate Mahavishnu Orchestras. McLaughlin's move back to acoustic guitar was part and parcel of his move away from the Sri Chinmoy influence. As the cover photos illustrate, our friend John had once again decided to let his hair down; he also had dropped the name Mahavishnu - and all this despite the even more obvious Eastern direction his music was going in. Yes, cultural immersion was now complete, as McLaughlin found himself surrounded by Indian musicians, playing a more heavily raga-influenced form of acoustic guitar; a guitar as close to a sitar as one could probably get. No doubt, his sound and technique were inspired, in large part, by the vina, an Indian stringed instrument with a resonating gourd and moveable frets. The guitar heard on Shakti, his redesigned guitar with scalloped fingerboards and extra strings, is McLaughlin's synthesis of East and West in one instrument.

Shakti, which means "creative intelligence, beauty and power", was the springboard for the most dazzling virtuosic leaps of guitar mastery McLaughlin has yet to unfurl. Shakti, among other things, must be seen as a guitar-lover's album by virtue of the immediacy, originality, and sheer expressiveness McLaughlin is able to get out of his instrument. From the hit-the-ground-running jumpstart of "Joy", it is clearly evident that lightning-quick tempos are just part of "business as usual" for McLaughlin, prolific violinist/co-composer L.Shankar (nephew of Ravi), tablaist Zakir Hussain, R.Raghavan (mridangam), and T.S.Vinayakaram (ghatam and mridangam). Of particular interest is the way composers McLaughlin and Shankar, the principal soloists throughout, build their successive, alternating solos, each taking less and less time over the 18-minute opener until they reach the inevitable climax. Perhaps a more apt title would have been "Intense Joy", for the mood of this piece has a frenetic, dervish quality to it that never lets up. (It should be mentioned that the audience's participations sounds like what you'd hear at a football game or, more appropriately, a wrestling match. Appropriately, this enthusiastic Western audience, perhaps a Mahavishnu Orchestra-oriented one, is like another member of the band.)

"Lotus Feet", a sad breather from "Joy", offers repose. As with "What Need Have I For This - What Need Have I For That - I Am Dancing At The Feet Of My Lord - All Is Bliss - All Is Bliss", "Lotus Feet" provides a window to a more intimate and textural McLaughlin. The gradual building of "Bliss" demonstrates the various elements of Shakti working and fitting together. (Subsequent recordings, A Handful Of Beauty and Natural Elements, developed this aspect of the group to even greater levels of sophistication.) Eventually entering a medium-tempo gait (one might suggest an almost swing-like, funky dance groove similar to the last section of "India", from A Handful Of Beauty), the more relaxed "blowing" is a nice balance to the rip-roaring "Joy". Towards the end of the nearly half-hour piece, we are treated to something the group was to feature with the later albums: percussion discussions. Running roughly eight minutes, Hussain dialogues with the mridangams ( a clay pot sound distinguishes the latter). By the sounds of it, a good time was had by all, including the audience. (It should also be noted that Hussain's exquisite, telepathic tabla work with McLaughlin parallels that of Elvin Jones' with Trane.)

McLaughlin's Shakti music took the planet by storm as he forsook the razzle-dazzle world of electronics, preferring an acoustic immersion into another culture. This Englishman, born and bred on the blues and jazz of America and England, was no respecter of borders or cultural divisions. For unlike many guitarists, McLaughlin's range of not only styles but moods and tempos is seemingly unlimited: he can play it soft and subtle, he can play it hot and raucous, he can swing, he can rock, he can play unaccompanied, with other guitarists, or with a symphony orchestra. And yet, when it comes to playing with others or going it alone, for John McLaughlin, musical conversations and communications, not chops or flash, will always be the first order of business.

Those bold experiments from the '70s are being conjured up these days as McLaughlin continues his acoustic/electric music with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu and German electric bassist Kai Eckhardt-Karpeh. Whatever the musical setting, however, John McLaughlin is, and always has been, in love. As he told Howard Mandel in 1985, "I want to be more articulate; I want to be able to utilize space better, to play silence more profoundly...And that can all be accomplished on acoustic guitar. Acoustic guitar will never die...I'm a guitar player...that's what I'll always be."

by John Ephland (Editor, down beat)

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