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(51:47; Abstract Logix)
John Mclaughlin has been on the cutting edge of musical exploration for more than fifty years, and he shows no sign at all of slowing down now. His latest album, ‘Is That So?’, has been made available free of charge for people to download during the Covid 19 Pandemic. It was recorded over a period of six years and is definitely designed for fans of the mighty Shakti. This was a band formed by Mclaughlin in the Seventies and was one of the very first to combine Western and Indian influences. One of the co-founders of that group is famed Indian composer and percussionist Zakir Hussain, and when many years later McLaughlin decided to revisit the form with Remember Shakti the duo reunited and also within the ranks was another well-established Indian composer, singer Shankar Mahadevan. It is this trio who have recorded this album, which is quite unlike anything I have heard before. “Even though I had studied the theory and practice of Indian music for years, I remain a 'Western' musician and one aspect of Western music is the magic of harmony”, says John. “From the outset in the early 1970's, I constantly researched the possibilities of integrating harmony into the traditions of North and South India while at the same time keeping as close as possible to the melodic rules of the Raga system. However, the idea I mention above, was to abandon the rules of the Raga system completely and apply my own western harmonic liberty to the amazing voice of Shankar Mahadevan”. ''Before concerts, John and I used to dabble with free improvisations using Indian scales (Ragas) and different harmonies backing them”, says Shankar Mahadevan. “The whole texture, colour, feeling and the canvas of the music excited us as harmonic content does not exist in Indian classical music. In the beginning it was just a fun experiment, but it soon became larger than life and we knew we had to record it.” With just treated guitar and keyboards for the supporting melody, and the most amazing tabla playing I have ever heard (at one point I actually said to the speakers “you have to be kidding me” as I just couldn’t believe my ears), this is a very unusual musical backdrop. At times it feels almost New Age in approach, yet the tabla playing takes it into a very different musical sphere altogether. There is a very strange coming together of Western musical harmonic ideas with Indian percussion, and it feels in many ways that it just shouldn’t work in that context, but it is also apparent very quickly that it does. Then there is Shankar Mahadevan. He studied Hindustani classical and Carnatic music as a child and has won many awards for his work on Indian films as a composer and performer. His voice is incredible, and his control simply outstanding. He throws his voice in a way I have never heard before, keeping true to the Indian styles and forms yet also in many ways quite reminiscent of great scat singers. He doesn’t slide through notes but hits them perfectly and distinctly and often at great speed, so the ear really isn’t sure what is happening. The album is simply a delight, something both unusual yet familiar. I can count the number of Indian style albums I have on my fingers, and all of them involve McLaughlin, but in many ways, this is the finest of them all. It is simply astounding, and that it has been made available free of charge during these trying times is even more remarkable. It is also available in physical forms, including vinyl, and somehow, I think I will be getting that for myself. This is a wonderful piece of work, for fans of Indian music, McLaughlin, or just want to discover something that is not only crossing boundaries but getting rid of them altogether.
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