For fusion fans and guitar aficionados, every new release by the hugely influential guitar innovator John McLaughlin is greeted with wild anticipation. Over the course of his celebrated and ever-evolving career there have been literally dozens of landmarks along the way, including his pioneering work during the 1970s with Miles Davis, Tony Williams Lifetime and the fusion juggernaut known as the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Through all of those early outings, McLaughlin forged a unique vocabulary for the electric guitar that combined jazz improvisation, classical harmonic architecture, Indian rhythms and phrasing and white-hot rock intensity. In forming the groundbreaking Indo-Western group Shakti in 1975, he delved wholeheartedly into the deep well of Indian culture for musical inspiration and continued in that vein with a recent incarnation known as Remember Shakti, which he formed in 1997 with tabla master Zakir Hussain, a charter member of Shakti, ghatam player V. Selvaganesh (who replaced his father T.H. « Vikku » Vinayakram from the original Shakti lineup) and the young electric mandolin sensation U. Shrinivas (who replaced violin virtuoso L. Shankar).
McLaughlin has carried those North and South Indian influences with him through the years while also letting his jazz and fusion roots bubble up to the surface, as on his brilliant 2006 release, Industrial Zen, which alternately features Remember Shakti bandmates Zakir Hussain and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan along with drummer Mark Mondesir, keyboardist-drummer Gary Husband and French bass phenomenon Hadrien Feraud (from McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension band), powerhouse drummer Dennis Chambers and bassist Matthew Garrison (from his Heart of Things band) and saxophonist Bill Evans (from his mid ‘80s Mahavishnu band).
Now with Floating Point, McLaughlin’s 40th recording as a leader or co-leader, the British-born guitar virtuoso introduces a crew of oustanding Indian musicians who are equally fluent in Indian classical music and jazz. And in this particular cross-cultural adventure, it’s a case of the Indian musicians immersing themselves in Western music rather than McLaughlin once again delving into the rigors of Indian ragas. “The way that we play together is kind of the inverse of me playing with Shakti,” he explains. “Instead of me going with the rules and regulations of Indian music, these guys are coming over to play jazz fusion.”
Accompanied by the sensational young drummer Ranjit Barot, percussionist Anant Sivamani, bamboo flutists Shashank and Naveen Kumar, keyboardist Louiz Banks, electric sitarist Niladri Kumar, electric mandolinist U. Rajesh, Hindustani slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya and Remember Shakti vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, along with bassist Hadrien Feraud from his 4th Dimension band and American saxophonist George Brooks, McLaughlin pushes the envelope on high intensity instrumental improvisation on Floating Point.
“These guys are like the Young Lions of India,” says McLaughlin. “And they know what’s going on over here, musically. They buy all the records and they go on YouTube and Myspace and they’re really checking out everybody all the time. They’re part of this global culture that exists now through the internet. And if I can bring people’s attention to these wonderful players, then so much the better.”
Those Young Lions and the revered elder statesman are truly on one accord throughout Floating Point. The energetic opener “Abbaji”reflects the power and flexibility that this band can generate. Named for the late, great Indian percussion master Ustad Alla Rakha (father of Zakir Hussain who was popularly known as Abbaji), it features George Brooks’s soprano sax melding with McLaughlin’s warm flute-like guitar synth sound against a kinetic undercurrent created by whirlwind drummer Barot and percussionist Sivamani. Says John of this uncanny rhythm tandem, “They’ve played together for 20 years so they’re like hand-in-the-glove.” McLaughlin also explains that his hookup with Brooks came from playing together at one of the annual Abbaji Festivals held on the 3rd of February in Mumbai to commemorate the death of the master percussionist. “I had written this piece especially for Abbaji and it came out so nice that I said to George, ‘It would be great if we could record this.’ George lives in California but he has been going to India for years. He’s a real Indophile like me. He knows both Hindustani and Carnatic music and has done some serious studying into the theory side of it. So we had a great time playing together at the festival, which is why I invited him to be on the recording.”
“Raju,” which pairs Hindustani slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya on the frontline alongside McLaughlin’s unison guitar synth lines, resonates with a kind of Indian “Layla” motif, while Feraud grooves underneath with drummer Barot prodding the soloists with his own volatile cooking on the kit. After a particularly expressive solo by Battacharya, Hadrien runs wild on a remarkably fluent bass solo before John opens up with a blistering guitar solo that leads to some heated exchanges of eights with Battacharya.
The calming ballad “Maharina” has John back on flute-toned guitar synth and Louiz Banks manning the keyboards while also offering a lovely solo. There’s a lilting, dreamy “Flamenco Sketches” quality to this piece, as McLaughlin attests to. “That tune haunts me. The structure haunts me. I mean, how many years have I been listening this tune? Kind of Blue came out in 1959, so it’s been nearly 50 years. Unbelievable. And it’s eternal, this thing that haunts me still. And it’s got the cyclical thing that I so like and that I just basically emulated on this piece. I mean, the harmonies are different but the vibe comes definitely from that tune, absolutely.”
“Off The One” is a potent funk number that grooves on the strength of Hadrien’s bubbling bass lines and Barot’s driving rhythms. It opens with tight unison lines between McLaughlin and bamboo flutist Shashank, who also engage in some bristling exchanges along the way, and is fueled by the Tony Williams-like intensity of drummer Barot, who pairs with percussionist Sivamani for an unbeatable rhythm tandem. McLaughlin launches into some pure, unfettered burn on guitar against the throbbing, Jacoesque 16th note pulse laid down by bassist Hadrien and his rhythm section mates Barot and Sivamani. John’s ferocious fretboard work on this slamming number is a highlight for fusion fans.
“The Voice” is an extended showcase for vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, whose passionate, spine-tingling power elevates the proceedings.
“Inside Out,” reminiscent of a Decoy-era Miles Davis jam, opens with some exhilarating konokol vocal exchanges before resolving to jaunty-funky line with Feraud’s flawless bass bubble underneath. McLaughlin bears down on another toe-curling guitar solo here while U. Rajesh (the younger brother of Shrinivas) wails on electric mandolin against the thrashing tumult of Barot’s drumming. Says John of Rajesh, “He started much later with electric mandolin and he’s really moving on it. He’s got a different thing going and he’s a totally different person from Shrinivas too. He’s taller than me and looks like he could be a basketball player or a real athlete. He grew up in India but he’s absorbed Western culture in a way more profoundly than his brother has.”
The catchy, upbeat “14U” is named for U. Shrinivas, the remarkable electric mandolin virtuoso and McLaughlin’s bandmate in Remember Shakti. As John explains, “His formal name is Upalappu but it’s always abbreviated as just U. So I wrote this piece for him. Shrinivas is a big star in India now and his younger brother Rajesh is one of the upcoming stars here.” Bassist Feraud steps out with an incredibly fluid solo here and the piece concludes with some dazzling exchanges between Naveen’s bamboo flute and John’s flute-like guitar synth.
They close out the collection in dynamic fashion with “Five Peace Band,” an aggressive number that has also been performed in concert by McLaughlin’s 4th Dimension band. From the downbeat they mean business. With Feraud running his funky basslines underneath, McLaughlin enters with electric zitar player Niladri Kumar, playing in tight unisons through the challenging head. Says John on this young, cutting edge talent, “Niladri also loves Western music and has been influenced by electric guitar players like Steve Vai and Steve Lukather. And you hear some of that quality in what he’s doing with his zitar, which is a wild instrument. And on this particular tune he’s really rocking on that thing!” Fueled by Banks’s organ comping, Feraud’s bubbling basslines and wah-wah-inflected bass solo, both Niladri Kumar and McLaughlin rise to the occasion with blistering solos on this exhilarating, chops-busting Indo-bop romp.
Over the past 40 years, the prolific guitarist-composer has amassed a catalog of recordings that is staggering for its sheer output, uncompromising artistry and uncanny diversity. And he has never stopped growing and changing, exploring different modes of expression, interacting with new artists in his lifelong search for the elusive sound of surprise. At age 66, McLaughlin still thrives on that essential give-and-take between musicians that fuels the music and stirs our souls. And he does so in typically uncompromising and exhilarating fashion on Floating Point. The title of the album, he explains, describes the near-telepathic feeling that musicians occasionally experience when everything on the bandstand is hitting on all cylinders. “Every now and then a group of musicians will gel together in such an incredible way, and at that point it’s like you lose normal gravity…you’ve got your own gravity happening and you’re kind of like floating with the other guys. It doesn’t happen every day, sometimes it doesn’t happen every month, but you gotta be ready when it happens. It’s not a Western thing, it’s not an Eastern thing. It’s a global thing.”
And Floating Point represents the next phase in the evolution of this truly revolutionary global musician. — Bill Milkowski