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Shakti was really the world’s first World Music super group. The only problem was that no one knew it yet! The group’s live performances were mesmerizing, but Columbia couldn’t give the albums away. Natural Elements, from 1977, was the third and last Shakti album. It offered a more cohesive and structured presentation in terms of themes and shorter tunes. The group attempted to make the music more accessible by including pleasing hooks and some humor, but there was no chance that this music would ever gain mass popularity in the Western world.
Natural Elements includes some mind-altering playing. This is especially true of McLaughlin's guitar on "Face to Face". His solo is a career highlight: he quite literally tears apart the elements of every scale, seamlessly dipping in and out of flowing lines and time changes. The speed and clarity he achieves are not the product of a mortal man.
The funk representative is "Get Down and Sruti," which has a delightful kick propelled by L. Shankar’s violin. The use of the juice harp (mouth harp) throughout the album is a welcome addition which complements the band's sound. Natural Elements avoids the long drum conversations featured on the first two albums, which leaves percussionists Zakir Hussain and “Vikku” Vinayakaram with fewer moments in the sun.
In a rather bizarre way, the jazz-Indian Natural Elements is more accessible than many of McLaughlin’s Western jazz-rock recordings. The shorter tunes and infectious hooks may have been a last ditch effort to salvage the business side of things, but they worked out musically as well. Despite the beauty and fun of this album, it was obvious the music was running out of steam and it was time to move on. At this time, Shakti just didn’t have a lot left unsaid.
If you don't have the thirty bucks or so it will cost you to purchase this import, search for the less expensive compilation album from Moment Records, The Best of Shakti. It's a satisfying introduction to the group, featuring several pieces from each of the Shakti recordings.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.