John McLaughlin Teams With Zakir Hussain & Shankar Mahadevan On ‘Is That So?’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

As the headline suggests, this may not be the kind of jazz fusion you associate with the guitarist John McLaughlin. And, unless, you’re a fan of his group Shakti and/or the chanting/tabla driven Indian music that is often the prevailing sound here, it may not meet your tastes. To be fair though, it’s an amazing sound that you may have never heard. Is That So? Is a monumental project involving three visionary musicians that was six years in the making and truly breaks new ground. On another level, given McLaughlin’s ‘Mahavishi’ moniker, it shouldn’t be that surprising to find him in this kind of company – India’s foremost composer and singer, Shankar Mahadevan and tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain with whom he has been collaborating since they founded Shakti in the early ‘70s, acknowledged by many to be the first East-West crossover musical group. 

”The idea for this album appeared in my mind early in 2013,” says McLaughlin. “Shankar and I had been touring with Shakti and I was constantly inspired by his superb voice and gigantic talent. Even though I have studied the theory and practice of Indian music for years, I remain a ‘Western’ musician and one aspect of Western music is the magic of harmony. From the outset in the early 1970s, I constantly researched the possibilities of integrating harmony into the traditions of North and South India while at the same time keeping as close as possible to the melodic rules of the Raga system. However, the idea I mentioned above was to abandon the rules of the Raga system completely and apply my own western harmonic liberty to the amazing voice of Shankar Mahadevan.”

Mahadevan corroborates McLaughlin’s sentiments, explaining that harmonic content does not exist in Indian classical music. The two began to experiment for fun but the project began to take on a life of its own, leading to this recording. Thus, we have a meeting of musician (McLaughlin), singer (Mahadevan) and percussionist (Hussain) joining as East and West in unexplored territory. One of the most amazing aspects of this sound is Mclaughlin’s guitar which blends so well with Mahadevan’s voice that you’d think it was a synthesizer. Actually, that thinking is not far off the mark as explained by McLaughlin in this letter that is a “must read” to really understand what is taking place in the music.

This concept of East and West meeting in a totally new way encourages the listener to abandon not only all preconceived notions about how a song should be sung, but also how a song should be logically structured. This can be a liberating experience.

I should point out that neither my acoustic nor electric guitars are integrated into this album in the way they have in previous albums. From the very beginning of our recording, I felt the need for a new “voice” for myself. What you are hearing is my guitar connected through a computer to a sound that I have been creating for the past 20 years using sine waves, oscillators and filters. It took that long to create a tone that reflects a particular aspect of my inner music.

I also had to develop a new technique in order to create a more vocal approach that would complement Shankar’s voice in the recording.

Everything about this recording is new. Shankar and I understand very well that your expectations may not be met as you might wish, but we fervently hope that you the listener, can listen with an open mind and heart and simply feel the profound depths of emotion from which this music springs.

So, we begin and end with a warning of sorts. Be brave, try something completely new.

 

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