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John McLaughlin Shankar Mahadevan Zakir Hussain: Is That So?

Ian Patterson By

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When mandolinist Uppalapu Srinivas passed away in 2014 it seemed to signal the end of Remember Shakti. A great loss to music on both scores. Five years later, in early 2019, the band reformed with violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan for a one- off concert in India, sparking a new lease of life for the band. And many, no doubt, will eagerly seize upon this John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain and Shankar Mahadevan project as a scaled down Remember Shakti. After all, from the original Shakti's earliest incarnation in 1973, through the Remember Shakti years from 1997 to 2014, McLaughlin and Hussain were the only constant members.

Is That So?, however, is markedly different music from Remember Shakti's frequently exhilarating interplay, so much so, in fact, that McLaughlin offers a disclaimer of sorts on the inner sleeve that gently deflates any such comparisons.

What we have then, is a collection of bhajans, or lyrical Indian devotional songs, sung quite beautifully by Mahadevan, with Hussain and McLaughlin largely in supporting roles. That's not to say that the trio keeps a lid on improvisation. On the contrary, most of the tracks feature princely solos from Hussain and Mclaughlin, but the predominant vibe of these six bhajans is laid back, serene even. The English guitarist turns his back on the pure acoustic and electric guitar sounds of Shakti/Remember Shakti, and instead, via computer, channels his guitar through sine waves, oscillators and filters to produce a soft, vibrato-less tone, not a million miles away from an electric flute. It's a sound McLaughlin has been experimenting with for some time, notably on Floating Point (Abstract Logix, 2009).

Yet Mclaughlin's chief role in this trio is arguably as an orchestrator. Honing half a century of bringing Western and Eastern traditions together, McLaughlin's dreamy, synthesizer-like waves couple harmonically with Mahadevan, a feature that permeates all the tracks. The guitarist's solos, on "Kabir," "Tara," and another more expansive one on "The Search," all bear the maestro's hallmarks of fluidity and melodic invention, but in the main his playing is lyrical and understated. Likewise, Hussain rarely lets fly, the one exception being a trademark ripping solo on "Sakhi," his propulsion in contrast to McLaughlin's slowly spun, six-note mantra. Not to be outdone, Mahadevan explores an improvised alaap on "The Search," his deep, chant-like intro gradually taking flight, before tablaist and guitarist take up the impetus.

Though the three musicians combine beautifully, it is Mahadevan who is undoubtedly the star of the show. The Mumbai-born singer, trained in both Hindustani and Carnatic music from an early age, seduces with his alternatively powerful and caressing lines. The songs' unifying themes of spiritual—and earthly—devotion and love, lend themselves to heartfelt interpretation, but Mahadevan's ability to take a phrase from tender confessional to soaring release in a heartbeat is captivating. His undulating embellishments, notably at the end of stunning sustained notes, find their echo in McLaughlin's own improvisations. After nearly two decades playing together—over four decades in the case of McLaughlin and Hussain—it should come as no surprise that these musicians share a common language.

A gorgeous recording that somehow soothes and uplifts at the same time, Is That So? can be played on repeat indefinitely and continues to reward. Timeless beauty

Track Listing

Kabir; Sakhi; Tara; The Search; The Guru; The Beloved.

Personnel

John McLaughlin: guitar; Zakir Hussain: tablas; Shankar Mahadevan: vocalist.

Album information

Title: Is That So? | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Abstract Logix

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