John McLaughlin should have given this album a different name. Jazz-rock fans of the day (early 1977) did not want to be seen purchasing an album with such a title. It didn't help any to have a picture of John McLaughlin on the cover dressed and smiling as if he were a guru himself. Let’s face facts, even at this time: McLaughlin’s fans came from a rock background. In hindsight the Indo-jazz-fusion Shakti recordings are considered highlights in McLaughlin’s career, but they did cost him most of his early fan base.
In stark contrast to its album cover indicating joy and peace and all the related elements that were stretched beyond endurance in the 1970's, Handful of Beauty was in reality a dark and somber creation. Despite the opening cut, a free-spirited and wildly fun "La Danse Du Bonheur", this album features mostly dense compositions that provoke deep re-appraisals of one's own life. The musical highlight is "India". The tune seems to investigate the underside of the Eastern World and finds McLaughlin ominously bending and twisting notes while Shankar's violin dwells in the lower registers.
Of the three original Shakti albums, Handful of Beauty features the best playing from McLaughlin. Somber does not mean boring. The two master Indian percussionists Zakir Hussain and T. S. Vinayakaram provide the rhythm and much of the dynamic. The incomparable L. Shankar helps provide the mood. (It is too bad he and McLaughlin no longer seem to be friends in real life.)
As was later to be the case on the group's Natural Elements, one of the highlights of the two Shakti studio recorded efforts is the high quality of sound engineering. This album should be played relatively loud, late at night, lights-off, while you sip from a cup of tea. Best to be in a reflective mood.
Listening to the tour that supported this recording was a different matter entirely. The same tunes that had led to introspection suddenly led to emotional release. The band was hot and an absolute joy to see, both visually and sonically.
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