Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for January, 2012

Masters of percussion

IT’S always a pleasure to see tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain and ace drummer Trilok Gurtu together on stage. After all, these two musicians have pioneered the popularisation of Indian percussion internationally.

Zakir’s numerous collaborations include Remember Shakti with guitarist John McLaughlin, Planet Drum with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and the electronica venture Tabla Beat Science with producer Bill Laswell and percussionist Talvin Singh. For his part, Trilok Gurtu has been respected as one of the finest drummers in jazz and world music, teaming up with McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Jan Garbarek, Angelique Kidjo and Robert Miles.

The two maestros came again together again at Mumbai’s Shanmukhananda Hall on January 27. In a concert organised by Madhyam Entertainment as a tribute to the great singer (and Trilok’s mother) Shobha Gurtu, they teamed up with young sitar genius Niladri Kumar, bassist Sheldon D’Silva and keyboardist Sangeet Haldipur to produce 90 minutes of scintillating music.

While Zakir and Trilok have taken the lead in spreading the reach of Indian percussion music abroad, it was actually Zakir’s father — Ustad Allarakha — who set the trend while accompanying sitar legend Pandit Ravi Shankar in the ’60s. While that mostly comprised traditional classical music, the trend later encompassed various kinds of experimental sounds and a variety of newer musician-combinations too.

Today, numerous drumming champions are doing the concert rounds.  Some of them focus on traditional music, and others on jazz and fusion. On the tabla, we have Anindo Chatterjee, Fazal Qureshi, Bickram Ghosh, Swapan Chaudhuri, Nayan Ghosh, Anuradha Pal, Tanmoy Bose, Aneesh Pradhan, Abhijeet Banerjee, Yogesh Samsi, Vijay Ghate and Rimpa Siva, among others. On drums, we have Ranjit Barot, Sivamani, Gino Banks, Kurt Peters, Talvin Singh, Karsh Kale, Adrian D’Souza, Amit Kilam and Nandan Bagchi.

Among other well-known percussionists, well-known percussionist Taufiq Qureshi is now concentrating more on playing the African djembe using Indian rhythms. Vikku Vinayakram is the master of the pot-like south Indian ghatam. Selva Ganesh excels at the kanjira, a rather difficult instrument held in one hand and played by the other. Bhawani Shankar on pakhawaj and Sridhar Parthasarathy on mridangam are other well-known names.

In the Indian cities, the season between October and February witnesses various combinations of these musicians in concert. Some accompany well-known classical musicians, whereas others team up with different artistes in fusion or jazz encounters. For the audience, each occasion provides reason to party.

Though percussion involves a lot of depth, precision and timing — or mathematics, science and art, if one prefers it that way — the truth is that even the first-time listener gets enchanted by the sheer rhythm and energy. Yes, the more traditional-minded listener may not often appreciate the experimental varieties, but the truth is that innovation happens only if the musician has mastered the basics. The best fusion artistes are the ones who are primarily masters of the pure form.

The fact that the music calendar is packed with a share of percussion events is great news. Paisa vasool, as they say — good return for money spent. However, what’s not so great is the truth that most of the musicians are not releasing fresh studio material too often these days. The obvious reason is that there’s more money and direct exposure in concerts, and CD sales are dwindling, as a result of which even the music labels don’t encourage new albums.

However, if one looks at the past record, Indian percussionists have released some fantastic albums. Though sales have been moderate, these recordings have had a cult following and rave reviews. If one wants to make a beginning, here are 10 CD recommendations:

1)    Rhythm Experience Zakir Hussain: A world music album with an emphasis on Indian percussion. One of Zakir’s amazing creations, along with ‘Masters of Percussion’.

2)    Rhydhun — Taufiq Qureshi:  Zakir’s younger brother comes up with a percussion album that’s great in every respect. It also has appearances by Allarakha and Zakir.

3)    African Fantasy — Trilok Gurtu:  A splendid fusion of jazz and funk with Indian and African rhythms.

4)    Bada Boom — Ranjit Barot: One of the newer releases (2010), this jazz-fusion venture features drummer Barot with appearances by U Shrinivas on mandolin and McLaughlin on guitar.

5)    Rhythmscape — Bickram Ghosh: Tabla player Bickram Ghosh gets into a wider range of percussion on this collection.

6)    Making Music — Zakir Hussain: Though it goes under Zakir’s name, it’s actually an Indo-fusion album featuring McLaughlin, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

7)    Drums On Fire — Sivamani and James Asher:  Popular Indian drummer Sivamani teams up with producer-composer-musician Asher on this album, which is of the more programmed variety.

8)    Taal Tantra — Tanmoy Bose:  A wonderful cocktail of percussion sounds from the Kolkata-based tabla player.

9)    Usfret — Trilok Gurtu: Released in 1987, this album was way ahead of its time, and has inspired many musicians from London’s Asian Underground scene.

10)  Tala Matrix Tabla Beat Science: A group formed by Zakir Hussain and producer Bill Laswell, this blended tabla with electronica and drum ‘n’ bass. Another innovative project.

 This is a fairly good list to start with. Besides this, there are more by Trilok Gurtu (‘Crazy Saints’ and ‘The Beat Of Love’) and Taufiq Qureshi (‘Taalisma’ and ‘Perc Jam’). Other good CDs would be ‘Made In Chennai’ in which Chennai-based vocalist-percussionist Uma Mahesh teams up with drummer Pete Lockett, and ‘Vikku Vinayakram: 60 Years’ Celebration.’

There’s some great work. But as we said, one wishes there are many more recordings in order to appeal to more audiences internationally.


CD review/ Superheavy

Superheavy/ Superheavy

Rock, multi-genre/ Universal Music/ Rs 395

Rating: ****

AFTER finding it super-weird on first hearing, and not being too impressed on the second and third listens, I finally began to enjoy the self-titled album of the group Superheavy. In fact, now it’s on repeat mode, and each time I hear it, I find something new.

Though the band’s name makes it sound pretty much like a heavy metal group with some superheavy vocals, superheavier guitars and superheaviest drums, the truth is that it’s not. In fact, it’s a rather unique combination of rock, reggae, soul, dancehall, ambient music, hip-hop and Bollywoodism. Which is perfectly understandable given the line-up of the Rolling Stones dude Mick Jagger, reggae singer Damian Marley, soul sensation Joss Stone (all on vocals), Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame on guitar and India’s very own A R Rahman on piano and synthesiser.

What makes Superheavy different from all the other supergroups we’ve heard? To understand that, let’s go back in time.

In rock history, ‘supergroup’ is a term that one comes across quite often. Quite simply, it refers to a band which consists of artistes who have already been famous in their respective specialities.

To begin with, one thinks of groups like Cream (Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker), CSNY (David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young), Blind Faith (Clapton, Baker, Steve Winwood, Rick Grech) and the Travelling Wilburys (George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne). Back in 1968, there was also this one-time instance of the Beatles’ John Lennon, Clapton, the Stones’ Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience forming The Dirty Mac for the TV show The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus.

There are quite a few cases, with the trend continuing through the ’90s and 2000s. Examples are Temple Of The Dog (which was basically a Pearl Jam meets Soundgarden outfit), Audioslave (Rage Against The Machine members with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell),  Slash’s Snakepit (fronted by Slash of Guns N ’Roses), the Foo Fighters (formed by Nirvana’s Dave Grohl), Velvet Revolver (also featuring Slash), Chickenfoot (featuring Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani), the Dead Weather (with Jack White of the White Stripes) and Them Crooked Vultures (which got Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones back in action).

All these groups have, however, primarily been rock supergroups, in that all members have essentially been rock musicians playing proper rock music. This is where Superheavy is different.

By blending various genres smoothly and seamlessly, Jagger & Co gives us a cocktail that’s quite heady in its own way. A song starts off with a reggae beat, Stonesy rock vocals follow, a soul singing stretch enters, a rock electric guitar takes over, bhangra-pop comes in, some dance beats are added here and there, a hip-hop groove comes in from nowhere, back to reggae or rock or soul or bhangra. Various permutations and combinations of them.

Confusing? Well, very confusing on the first few listens. But as I said earlier, the sound grows.  Slowly, but surely.

The title song, for instance, starts off with a typical reggae bit, after which Jagger and Stone do their bit, before Rahman sings an Indian phrase. The piece has got a catchy hook, and is probably the most commercial of the lot. ‘Unbelievable’ and ‘Miracle Worker’ continue in the reggae-based space.

Two songs, co-written by Rahman, have an Indian theme. ‘Satyameva Jayate’ begins with an Indian chant, but is also filled with some reggae, bhangra-pop-meets-Sufi-influenced and soul vocals, besides a sizzling lead guitar. The bonus track ‘Mahiya’ has a Hindi film flavour, besides doses of the other genres.

My personal favourites, however, are the ones in which Jagger takes centre-stage. ‘One Day One Night’ and ‘Never Gonna Change’ see him in Stones-like balladsy form, with the former having a marvellous keyboard stretch by Rahman. For rocksier tastes, ‘I Can’t Take It No More’ kicks off with a perfect hard rock riff, with Jagger taking a page from his Stones book.

On the more pop side, ‘World Keeps Turning’ is more of a Joss Stone gem, whereas Rahman effectively uses the fingerboard on ‘Beautiful People’, which also has a funky guitar line from Stewart.

Some of the numbers don’t feature Rahman, but are dazzling in their own right.  Marley is in top form on ‘Rock Me Gently’, and ‘I Don’t Mind’ has some amazing vocal interaction between Jagger, Stone and Marley. ‘Energy’ is a foot-tapping synth-driven reggae-rock-dance piece which pumps up the mood in the middle of the album.

To be sure, one may require a bit of patience — in fact, a lot of it — to develop a taste for this music. No point starting off thinking it will be too much of a Stones sound — or a Rahman sound, for that matter.

But therein lies its beauty. The album ‘Superheavy’ may not be an all-time classic, but it does set a trend for this kind of multi-genre sound. In an age when musical tastes are becoming more and more diverse and eclectic, this is a welcome effort.


RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

Goodbye, Etta James

A FEW people have defined the art of female singing in English. Etta James was one of them. Following her demise on January 20, an entire generation of singers has lost an idol, as she inspired many from Janis Joplin to Diana Krall to Beyonce to Joss Stone.

Some tend to classify Etta as a blues singer. Others describe her as the queen of soul. But that was her speciality. Whether it was blues, jazz, soul, RnB, country, rock or pop, she gave each tune her own touch, her own twist, her own tangent. Many music buffs may identify her most with the mega-hit ‘At Last’, but she did songs as brilliant as ‘Roll With Me Henry’, ‘Tell Mama’, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, ‘Pushover’ and ‘Something’s Got A Hold On Me’ in her own immaculate way.

This brings us to an interesting topic: who have been the most influential singers in western vocals? Thinking of the subject while reading through a series of touching obituaries dedicated to Etta James, I thought I’d come up with a ‘Top 10’ list. The problem was: it wasn’t easy to stop at 10. ‘Top 15’? ‘Top 20’? Well, I was still missing some names. So I came up with my personal ‘Top 25’.

I’ve probably missed some names, but all the singers mentioned below have had a major impact on the way an earlier generation of female singers sang or how this generation sings. Each one has shaped the way songs are rendered today.

While choosing this list, I kept in mind a few things. One, as a cut-off point, I chose singers who had been around between the 1950s and 1980s — and who still are a huge influence on the current generation, though some of them are no more. Two, though most of these singers have sung in English, I have included three who sang in other western languages, as their influence on English singers has been immense. Three, this list has been prepared in no particular order.

  1. Ella Fitzgerald: The primary influence on most singers, the ‘First Lady Of Song’ was an outstanding jazz improvisationist. Her style of ‘scat’ singing — using nonsensical syllables — was path-breaking.
  2. Billie Holiday: The queen of the jazz standard, ‘Lady Day’ had an astounding  way of using phrasing and tempo.
  3. Janis Joplin:  The ultimate female rock vocalist, she is still an icon for thousands, even 41 years after her untimely death. ‘Mercedes Benz’ and ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ are anthems of a generation.
  4. Nina Simone: One of the most versatile singers ever, as she rendered jazz, blues, soul, gospel, pop, soft rock, folk, RnB, classical, the works. Her song ‘Sinnerman’ is an institution by itself.
  5. Aretha Franklin: The Queen Of Soul, and the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. Need I say more?
  6. Betty Carter: Another great jazz improvisationist. One still remembers her show at Mumbai’s Rang Bhavan around 15 years ago. It was a goose-flesh moment in time.
  7. Etta James: Versatility personified, she leaves behind a legacy of treasures.
  8. Sarah Vaughan: Another legend from the American jazz scene, she had a stunning voice which many tried to copy.
  9. Maria Callas: One of the greatest classical singers, this Greek-born soprano sang Italian opera with a passion and purity that was unmatchable.
  10. Karen Carpenter: The singer from the Carpenters, Karen defined the art of singing easy-going, melodic songs. ‘Top of the World’, ‘Yesterday Once More’ and ‘Only Just Begun’ are among her all-time greats. Incredible talent cut short by an early death at 33.
  11. Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog: The singers from Swedish super-group ABBA were a huge influence for pop singers from the 70s onwards. Backed by the brilliant song-writing pair of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, they churned out super-hit after super-hit.
  12. Madonna: The world’s top-selling female recording artist, and arguably the single-biggest influence on today’s generation. Extremely versatile too.
  13. Whitney Houston:  A total of 415 career awards, and another major influence on today’s generation. Despite her personal struggles and an alleged drug history, her popularity remains unparalleled.
  14. Sandy Denny: Lead singer of the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, who also had a number of solo songs. Again, an early tragic death. Her song ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ is an out-and-out classic.
  15. Grace Slick: Lead singer of American rock band Jefferson Airplane, she was one of the first female rock singers at a time when most rock stars were male. Her vocals on ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody To Love’ prove her class.
  16. Joan Baez: As a songwriter, she had a style of her own. And as a folk singer, she produced some gems, including the magnificent ‘Diamonds and Rust’
  17. Carole King: Singer-songwriter par excellence. Her 1971 album ‘Tapestry’ is one of the greatest recordings of all time, and her song ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ — both her original version and the cover by James Taylor — is a masterpiece.
  18. Flora Purim: Brazilian jazz singer who was a major influence on bossa-nova and jazz fusion.
  19. Bonnie Raitt: Besides being a blues singer and songwriter, Bonnie’s advantage was that she played excellent guitar, and was thus an inspiration for many budding female singer-songwriter-guitarists
  20. Annie Lennox: The singer of the group Eurythmics who later pursued a solo career, Annie’s role may be somewhat under-rated compared to some of the names mentioned above. But for those who were serious about their singing, she was an icon.
  21. Dionne Warwick: American singer who has not only been a great influence on the younger generation, but has also had a huge number of songs on the charts. Check out her song ‘Heartbreaker’.
  22. Joni Mitchell: More known for her songwriting skills, thanks to songs like ‘Chelsea Morning’ and ‘Both Sides Now’. She also penned the Crosby, Still, Nash & Young hit ‘Woodstock’, which became an anthem for an entire generation.
  23. Donna Summer: The queen of disco, who set new standards with songs like ‘Love To Love You Baby’, ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘Last Dance’. A trendsetter when it came to dance music.
  24. Barbra Srreisand: Another singer who was constantly on top of the pops. What’s special is she also had regular stints in Hollywood, with films like ‘A Star Is Born’, ‘Funny Girl’, ‘Hello Dolly’ and ‘The Way We Were’.
  25. Astrud Gilberto: Brazilian samba and bossa nova singer best known for her rendition of ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, which was also made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. Astrud has been an inspiration for many jazz singers.

Okay, okay. That was my ‘Top 25’. Some of you may quickly come up with a list of omissions — that usually happens with these ‘Top 10’ or ‘Top 25’ lists. “Where’s my favourite singer? What does this dude know about music?” some may ask.

Well, I know I’ve missed some great people.  Among the evergreen singers, we have Patti Page, Connie Francis, Doris Day, Helen Shapiro and for that one super-hit, Mary Hopkin (‘Those WereThe Days’). From the ’70s and ’80s, there are Carly Simon, Diana Ross, Sade, Stevie Nicks, Cher, Tania Turner, Anne Murray, Suzi Quatro, Rick Springfield, opera singer Montserrat Caballe and Gloria Gaynor (if only for ‘I Will Survive’). From the ’90s, the names of Alanis Morisette, Bjork, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge and Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries come to mind. Tori Amos, Sarah Maclachlan, Natalie Merchant and Loreena McKennitt have had a cult following. And from the more recent singers, the Rihanna, Shakira, Beyonce, the late Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, Susan Boyle and Adele are already having an impact on the current and next generation.

As such, it’s tough stopping at 25. But then, of the 25 people mentioned above, none could have missed the list.

Once again, Etta James, thank you for the music.

Rhapsody on film

WHILE channel-surfing last night, I noticed that a movie called ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ had been scheduled for telecast on TCM in the late night slot. The title aroused my interest, as it was also the name of one of legendary American composer George Gershwin’s best-known pieces. I did a quick Google search to discover that the 1945 movie was actually a slightly fictionalised portrait of his life.

Later that night, I had no regrets staying up. Clearly, this was one of the best musical biopics I had seen, which gave me a much deeper insight into the life and thinking of the great Gershwin. Needless to say, the music was amazing — a good mix of 30s classical, opera, jazz, blues, Broadway and pop. After all, Gershwin was one composer who straddled both worlds equally magnificently. Add to that, Robert Alda’s performance in the lead role was simply amazing, truly bringing out the musician’s personality.

Many of us know Gershwin for the immortal tune ‘Summertime’, one of the most ‘covered’ songs in history. His other brilliant standards include ‘Embraceable You’, ‘I Got Rhythm’, ’It Ain’t Necessarily So’, ‘A Foggy Day’, ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ and ‘Love Is Here To Stay’.  His orchestral compositions ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ and ‘An American In Paris’, and his opera ‘Porgy & Bess’ have attained their own place in greatness.

That was the era of musical innovation, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook. Besides George and his brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics of many of the later works, the star composers of the 30s included Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Rodgers-Hart and Rodgers-Hammerstein.

Though the Irving Rapper-directed movie does not specifically talk about the era, or refer to the contribution of Gershwin’s contemporaries, it does take a detailed look at his life. Yes, there are two romances in the movie, which are said to be fictionalised — though one wonders why that was necessary. But the depiction of his childhood, struggle and rise to fame are immaculate. Gershwin’s early death, at age 38 following a brain illness, has not been overplayed, but shown rather subtly.

Over the years, Hollywood has had many movies based on lives of legendary musicians. Each of them has boasted of a stunning performance by the lead player. Val Kilmer as rock star Jim Morrison in ‘The Doors’, Tom Hulce as classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in ‘Amadeus’, Joaquin Phoenix as country great Johnny Cash in ‘Walk The Line’, Jamie Foxx as rhythm ‘n’ blues great Ray Charles in ‘Ray’ and Jeffrey Wright as blues legend Muddy Waters in ‘Cadillac Records’ are examples that instantly come to mind.

In ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, Robert Alda plays his role to perfection. His effortlessness with the piano, the spark and ambition in his eyes, the passion in his expression and the sheer frustration of being unable to compose because of illness add the right meat to the character. For those who are interested in the history of 20th century music, this is a must-watch.

CD review/ Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu – Amit Trivedi

Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu/ Music: Amit Trivedi

Hindi film/ T-Series/ Rs 175

Rating: ****

AFTER making his Hindi film debut with ‘Aamir’, music director Amit Trivedi produced an amazing soundtrack in ‘Dev D’, where songs like ‘Emosanal atyachar’, ‘Pardesi’ and ‘Payaliya’ helped him get the National Film Award for Music Direction. Then came his outstanding ‘Iktara’ in ‘Wake Up Sid’, which overshadowed the film’s other songs composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. ‘Aisha’ and ‘No One Kissed Jessica’ and the ‘Udaan’ background scorehad neat work too, and he had a hit in the ‘Chillar Party’ song ‘Tai tai phiss’, despite its deplorable lyrics.

Clearly, Trivedi is a man to look out for. Now, he proves his verve and versatility again with the Imran Khan-Kareena Kapoor starrer ‘Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu’. With the help of lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, he chooses a variety of singers —not the regular names — to create a score that’s youthful, fresh and effervescent.

Of the five songs, two have additional versions. The title song, which comes with an extra remix by DJ Shiva, strikes you with its smart, synth-friendly orchestration and lively vocals by Benny Dayal and Anushka Manchanda. ‘Gubbare’, sung by Trivedi himself, Shilpa Rao, Nikhil D’Souza and Amitabh Bhattacharya, is boosted by nice whistling stretches, and smooth guitars and saxophones.

‘Aunty Ji’, rendered by Ash King and featuring vibrant choruses and rock-styled electric guitars, is the zingiest of the lot. ‘Aahatein’, featuring Karthik and Shilpa Rao, brings down the tempo, but impresses with solitude-filled lyrics like ‘Sab wohi hai par kuch kami hai, teri aahatein nahin hain’. In Abhijit Vaghani’s remix of this song, singer Shekhar Ravjiani (of Vishal-Shekhar) replaces Karthik.

Vishal Dadlani, the other half of Vishal-Shekhar, teams up with Shilpa Rao on the catchy ‘Kar Chala Shuru Tu’, which again impresses with smart guitars and trumpets. In fact, besides its consistency and freshness, the most impressive thing about ‘Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu’ is the sheer orchestral imagination that Trivedi puts into each song. After quite a lot of bizarre stuff in last year’s movies, this is a welcome musical beginning to 2012.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

McLaughlin moments

ONE still remembers that moment at the Talkatora Indoor Stadium in New Delhi, when John McLaughlin announced that the next piece was inspired by a bridge in Venice. “It’s called ‘Bridge Of Sighs’,” he said, and pockets of the audience clapped in delight. It was some time in 1983 or ’84, and many of us were hearing Indo-jazz group Shakti for the first time. McLaughlin on guitar, Zakir Hussain on tabla, L Shankar on violin and Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam. What a combination!

Shakti was a miracle that came and went, only to be transformed years later into Remember Shakti. And while many of us may identify McLaughlin primarily with this Indian sound, the truth is that he’s dabbled in various other forms of jazz and fusion, right from flamenco to gypsy to jazz-rock. Both electric and acoustic. Today, as he celebrates his 70th birthday, it’s an apt moment to salute one of the world’s most imaginative, innovative and inspired guitarists.

The Shakti show wasn’t actually the first time this blogger was exposed to McLaughlin. A few months earlier, I had tried out ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’, the first studio album of McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. Honestly, that wasn’t love on first hearing. As a 20-year-old, I was more into Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Doors and Santana those days, and Mahavishnu seemed maha-heavy. I had also heard his piece ‘Flame Sky’ on the Santana album ‘Welcome’, but that wasn’t one of my favourite albums at that time.

Things changed after watching McLaughlin, Zakir, Shankar and Vikku unleash their magic on stage. From my limited budget, I bought LPs of Shakti’s album ‘Natural Elements’ and McLaughlin’s solo ‘Belo Horizonte’. The former was a sheer masterpiece featuring gems like ‘Face To Face’, ‘Mind Ecology’, ‘The Daffodil and The Eagle’, ‘Peace Of Mind’ and ‘Bridge Of Sighs’. In contrast, the much mellower ‘Belo Horizonte’ took time to grow, but the nylon string acoustic guitar did wonders on tracks like ‘Waltz For Katia’ and ‘Stardust On Your Sleeve’.

Those days, a shop called Pyramid at Delhi’s  Palika Bazaar recorded some great albums on blank cassettes. From their McLaughlin catalogue, I chose Mahavishnu’s ‘Birds Of Fire’ and the classic ‘Friday Nights In San Francisco’, which also featured guitar greats Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia. ‘Birds’ was just brilliant, and the guitar-playing and Billy Cobham’s drumming made me revisit ‘The Inner Mounting Flame’, and appreciate it truly this time.

The brilliantly-constructed ‘Mediterranean Sundance’ was my favourite track from ‘Friday Nights’, and it was only later, when I did a full-length interview with McLaughlin in 1997, that I discovered he did not play on that tune, as it only featured the other two. “Don’t worry. If you want to still believe I played on it, you’re most welcome,” he had quipped.

The interview took place just before the first avatar of Remember Shakti was to perform at the Rang Bhavan, when flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia was part of the group, and mandolin wizard U Srinivas, kanjira king Selva Ganesh and super-vocalist Shankar Mahadevan were yet to join. In the 45-minute chat, the guitarist came up as a very pleasant speaker, who displayed a profound knowledge of Indian culture while speaking of his spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy or Swami Vivekananda or sitar maestro Ravi Shankar or veena great S. Balachander .

Over the years, there have been numerous McLaughlin favourites, besides the ones I was earlier exposed to. Examples are his work with Miles Davis on ‘Bitches Brew’, with Cream’s bassist Jack Bruce on ‘Things We Like’, with Zakir, Chaurasia and saxophonist Jan Garbarek on ‘Making Music’, with various artistes in ‘The Promise’  and with the other groups he formed, like ‘Electric Dreams’ with One Truth Band or ‘To The One’ with 4th Dimension .

Still, if one looks at his discography, there’s so much more I haven’t heard, like some of his recordings with Weather Report’s saxophonist Wayne Shorter or ace of bass Stanley Clarke. Another regret is that much as I’ve seen Shakti once and Remember Shakti four times, I am yet to watch an out-and-out jazz-rock show featuring McLaughlin. Hopefully, one of the Indian concert organisers will think on those lines.

Clearly, McLaughlin has been one of God’s gifts to jazz guitar. There have been many other great players in the post-’70s phase when jazz-rock and jazz guitar became huge —names like Al Di Meola, Paco de Lucia, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Lee Ritenour, Larry Coryell, Larry Carlton, Mike Stern, Bill Frisell, Frank Gambale, Earl Klugh, Wayne Krantz and Allan Holdsworth come to mind.

But what’s unique about McLaughlin is the way he has explored various cultures from Indian to European to Latin American to North American. Once again, Happy Birthday, John!

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