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Powerful statement on the universality of music

Shakti, a group formed by star musicians, pioneered fusion of jazz and Indian classical music. This two-volume album showcases the group's live concerts in the UK

Remember Shakti
Vol 1 & 2
Rs 100 each

It's with some trepidation that I attempt a review of a double album that's a kind of landmark in the history of a trail-blazing association. Trepidation, because the main focus of my jazz self-education has been mainstream jazz, and I've never learnt much about the fusion of jazz with other musical traditions apart from Latin (American) jazz. Occasional exposure to the fusion of jazz with Indian classical music hasn't been an unpleasant experience. But, not having dipped into the work of leaders of this genre, I'm not conversant with the work of Shakti.

Some of what John McLaughlin has done with Shakti and Mahavishnu (two groups that have worked in Indian classical-jazz fusion and of which he's been a part) has come my way in compilation albums of his work, which also covers a wide variety of other styles such as jazz-rock fusion and mainstream jazz, besides Brazilian-influenced jazz. It's fair to say that I think McLaughlin has proved himself a versatile artist in several genres, to each of which he has brought originality and the emphasis on improvisation that characterises jazz, while trying with much success to absorb the main features of these genres. In fusing jazz with Indian classical music a jazz musician faces the additional difficulty that both genres have strong traditions of improvisation, so fusion is not simply a matter of grafting improvisation onto another genre - say, a folk music - and calling it a fusion with jazz.

Working with Zakir Hussain on tabla and Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam in Shakti, McLaughlin has had to fit his music entirely into the rhythms of Indian music. Yet what he puts in from his guitar onto this rhythmic base doesn't seem forced or unnatural, making the use of the phrase ''fit his music entirely'' above sound quite inappropriate. The concerts on which these two albums are based took place from September 24 to 27, 1997 in four different cities in Britain, marking a quarter century of Shakti. McLaughlin, Zakir, and Vinayakram were joined by their special guest Hariprasad Chaurasia on flute and Uma Mehta on tanpura. The four evenings produced music of a high order of fusion in the best sense of the term, in which jazz and Indian music blended seamlessly with each other.

There are five pieces in all, of which Mukti, composed by Chaurasia, is the longest of a set in which most tend to be as long as Indian classical pieces rather than jazz numbers. Mukti in fact takes up all of one side and most of the other on Volume 2, adding up to just over an hour of music. The first part has long spells of improvisation by McLaughlin and Chaurasia, both of whom adopt the cadences and phrasing of each other's musical tradition and make it sound perfectly natural. The second part starts with a solo by Vinayakram, with Zakir lending support in spells. Zakir takes over from him for his own solo, then finally Chaurasia returns briefly before the piece closes. The rest of Volume 2 is allotted to the (relatively!) short (nine-minute-long) Zakir, written by McLaughlin as a tribute to Hussain. There are no percussion instruments, the mood is relaxed, even languid, as Chaurasia and McLaughlin play a soft duet.

On Side 1 of Volume 1, we have the pure Hindustani classical Chandrakauns, with both Vinayakram and McLaughlin sitting it out while Chaurasia, Hussain and Uma Mehta provide some 33 minutes of music. The other side starts with The Wish. This time Chaurasia and Mehta sit it out. McLaughlin's guitar is close to jazz in style and cadence but the structure of the composition is Indian, with the main theme briefly but repeatedly recurring between long improvisations. On Lotus Feet, the shortest piece of all (some seven and a half minutes), all five musicians join together as Chaurasia and McLaughlin take turns to interpret the theme and improvise short passages.

From a jazz buff's point of view this is a satisfying album, showing that jazz can fuse well with a completely different (non-Western) genre of music that has an improvisational tradition of its own. McLaughlin deserves full marks for fusing so well. So do the rest of the musicians for accommodating their tradition to jazz. If, like I originally was, you are suspicious of Indian classical-jazz fusion, one can't think of a better album (or two) to try becoming less suspicious.


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