John McLaughlin: Risk, Magic And Mystery
As for Shankar's influence on Shakti in particular, the guitarist responds without skipping a beat: "I think it's impossible to overestimate the impact Raviji had on all of us, individually and collectively. This man, we have to realize, changed the Western world. Between him and Abbaji [Alla Rakha], they built this marvelous bridge that allowed us Westerners to cross over and experience this marvelous music in this culture that they were coming from."
One of Shankar's highest-profile students and disciples was guitarist/songwriter and Beatle George Harrison. "How did George Harrison get to know him?" asks McLaughlin rhetorically. "Because Raviji and Abbaji had already been playing in the West for at least a decade. Raviji and Abbaji were the ones who brought this fantastic music to the West. I cannot overestimate the impact he had on me as an individual and as a musician. His impact on the Western world was phenomenal."
McLaughlin and his guru Shankar would subsequently meet periodically over the years, and although McLaughlin was aware of the great sitar player's declining health, his passing has clearly deeply affected McLaughlin: "It was just a terrible shock because when you lose someone you love, there's a terrible sense of loss. He's passed, and we'll just do what we can to keep the flame burning, and that's all." With Shakti due to release a new studio recording in 2013 with accompanying tour, McLaughlin and Hussain will in no small measure keep Shankar's indomitable spirit of bridge building alive for another generation.
However, it is to the 4th Dimension that McLaughlin next turns his thoughts, and in listening to McLaughlin it's hard to escape the feeling that this 4th Dimension band is a bit special for him. It is special not just for the musical personalities involved but for the fact that it has been togetherwith just a little seat shufflingfor more than half a decade. Already, five years is longer than the life spans of the Mahavishnu Orchestras I and II combined and longer than the original Shaktithe bands that stand out in McLaughlin's endlessly fascinating trajectory for their originality and lasting impact.
The 4th Dimension's second studio recording, Now Here This (Abstract Logix, 2012), picks up the narrative where To the One (Abstract Logix, 2010) left off, with driving jazz fusion and elements of funk, rock and McLaughlin's often-unsung lyricism all there in the mix. The lineup, however, has changed in the interim, altering the chemistry of the group. "The minute you change one person in a small group, the whole group changes," says McLaughlin. "It's inevitable."
Since the 4th Dimension's first major tour in 2007, bassists Hadrien Feraud and Dominique di Piazza have come and gonethe position is now held by Cameroonian Etienne Mbappeand drummer Mark Mondesir has been replaced by Ranjit Barot. McLaughlin is in no doubt as to Barot's impact on the 4th Dimension. "The new recording is really the result of Ranjit's presence," McLaughlin acknowledges. Since his tenure in drummer Tony Williams' Lifetime, McLaughlin has consistently worked with extremely dynamic drummers and percussionists, from Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden to Dennis Chambers, Trilok Gurtu and of course Zakir Hussain, in a 40-year association. As a drummer, Barot seems to provide the missing link.
With the bustling polyrhythmic energy of Cobham and a deep understanding of Northern and Southern Indian music, Barot is McLaughlin's kind of drummer. "He provokes me," says McLaughlin, laughing, "but that's what I need to get to the unknown. You can only get to the unknown if you have a certain kind of stimulussomebody behind you putting their foot in your backside. And of course, it's my job to put my foot in their backsides."
There was a lot of mutual backside kicking on McLaughlin's Floating Point (Abstract Logix, 2008), which brought together a stellar group of Indian musicians to play Western jazz fusion. That CD marked the first time Barot and McLaughlin had recorded together, but as the guitarist explains, their association goes back further: "We played together for the first time about nine years ago in a spontaneous jam session."
The jam session was part of the annual February 3rd free concert in Mumbai organized by Zakir Hussain in memory of his father, Alla Rakha Khan. As McLaughlin explains, it's something of a marathon: "It starts at 6:30 in the morning, and it goes on until midnight because this is the day of his [Alla Rakha Khan's] passing. Every time I'm there, I meet Ranjit, and this is actually where we first met."
McLaughlin is, as he never fails to point out in interviews, a Western musician, but he's spent more than half a lifetime studying Indian music, and in Barot, he recognized a musician with similar sensibilities: "Ranjit is a Western drummer, which I love, but he's got all of this wonderful Indian feeling, North and South, because he also knows both schools."
Barot studied at the same school in Madras as did original Shakti member Vikku Vinayakrama school Vinayakram took over from his fatherbut as Barot described in an interview with All About Jazz in 2010, he grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra before going on to play with such jazz free spirits as trumpeter Don Cherry and saxophonist Charlie Mariano. McLaughlin notes of Barot, "He's got this other side to his playing, which is very provocative, like Zakir."
Barot was thrilled to be invited to play on Floating Point, but McLaughlin was just as excited by the chemistry. "It was a marvelous record," the guitarist says. "When Mark [drummer Mondesir] left, it was on the cards that Ranjit should come in to the band." This lineup of the 4th Dimension, McLaughlin acknowledges, has taken the music to another level. "Since Ranjit joined, about two years ago now, a lovely kind of cohesion happened in the group," says McLaughlin, "another kind of complicity that we didn't have with Mark [Mondesir], who's a lovely person and a lovely drummer."