Fusion guitar god John McLaughlin continues to blaze on these two exciting live releases. Remember Shakti: The Believer documents the 1999 European tour of his reconstituted Indian group, Shakti. The Heart of Things: Live In Paris captures highlights from two November 1998 shows by his high-powered fusion band. McLaughlin’s various reinventions may have produced mix results through the decades, but the music on both these records is quite brilliant.
Fans of the old Shakti will thoroughly enjoy The Believer. There are some differences, however: McLaughlin plays a Gibson 335 rather than an acoustic guitar, for one thing. Tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain remains in the group, and is joined by V. Selvaganesh on Indian percussion. The most notable addition is mandolinist U. Shrinivas, whose high-velocity style mirrors McLaughlin’s. Together, McLaughlin and Shrinivas lock in with dizzying unison lines, deftly harmonized passages, and furious solo trading. The grooves are hypnotic, the improvisations generally rather long. At times it seems all a blur, but the rhythmic ingenuity is often startling.
Shakti, it should be noted, puts "world music" in a whole different perspective. Combining elements of the Hindustani and Karnataka Indian traditions, the group also touches upon jazz and blues in the subtlest ways. The haunting minor-key ballad "Lotus Funk," in addition, is something one would never expect to hear from a group with Indian instrumentation.
On The Heart of Things: Live In Paris, McLaughlin is joined by most of the players from his 1997 studio effort, also titled The Heart of Things. This music somewhat resembles the various Mahavishnu Orchestra incarnations, but it has a more generic quality about it. To put it differently, you could imagine other powerhouse fusion bands sounding something like this. That said, the musicianship is incredible and the tunes are a blast. Bassist Matthew Garrison and drummer Dennis Chambers make up the killer rhythm section. Otmaro Ruiz is on keyboards; his trading with McLaughlin on the double-time section of "Mother Tongues" strongly recalls the old days with Jan Hammer. Victor Williams handles percussion, and the remarkable Gary Thomas plays tenor and soprano saxophones.
(Thomas played flute exclusively during vibraphonist Stefon Harris’s November 2000 run at the Village Vanguard in New York. During one set, Harris said he was glad Thomas restricted himself to flute, because "if he picked up that tenor, no one else would want to play." Thomas’s tenor work on this album makes Harris’s meaning amply clear.)
The highlights abound: Garrison’s solo on the slow section of "Mother Tongues," Chambers’s spotlight on the Tony Williams tribute "Tony," Thomas’s volcanic tenor foray on "The Divide." One of the most striking features of this CD is the relatively toned-down presence of McLaughlin himself. In no way is this a guitar hero record. Solo room is shared generously, compositions develop and go somewhere, and the group pays attention to dynamics. The music is almost entirely wank-free, so when the wank does surface, you actually enjoy it.
Two CDs, each with only six tracks, both running just over 77 minutes. That’s a lot of music, and all of it well worth hearing.