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The first 10 years of British guitarist John McLaughlin’s 40-year career featured some amazing work with Miles Davis, plus groundbreaking solo releases and banner albums with both the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti. That South Indian group released its self-titled 1975 debut shortly after the final album by Mahavishnu’s second lineup, and followed with two more releases before the serpentining McLaughlin moved on yet again. The guitarist’s latest prolific streak started in the late 1990s, with the powerhouse band that contributed to the solo CDs The Heart of Things and The Heart of Things Live in Paris. A live reunion disc, Remember Shakti, continued the hot stretch into 2001.
On his new release, Floating Point (and the accompanying Meeting of the Minds DVD, which documents the making of the CD), McLaughlin combines the jazz/fusion and Middle Eastern sides of his personality, with mixed results. Recorded in India with some of the country’s top musicians, Floating Point opens strong with the dreamy “Abbaji (For Alla Rakha),” on which drummer Ranjit Barot navigates McLaughlin, keyboardist Louiz Banks, and Western players George Brooks (soprano saxophone) and Hadrien Feraud (bass) through a rhythmic maze. The only drawback is overplaying percussionist Sivamani, who sounds like he’s being paid by the beat.
It’s a recurring theme. Sivamani’s clattering obscures the traded solos of McLaughlin and Hindustani slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya on “Raju,” plus Shashank’s bamboo flute on “Off the One.” The percussionist calms down on the ballad “Maharina” (which also benefits from Banks switching from synthesizer to piano sounds) and the beautiful “The Voice,” with vocalist Mahadevan. But it’s debatable whether percussion needed to be on every track, especially with Barot providing such rhythmic drumming force. In the inevitable comparisons to Shakti, Sivamani comes up short on taste compared with tabla titan Zakir Hussain, and McLaughlin’s primary use of guitar synthesizer further over-digitizes that group’s acoustic guitar blueprint.
Meeting of the Minds: The Making of Floating Point, if anything, provides visual evidence of the CD’s strengths and flaws. Shashank explains the complexities of mixing the often disparate Western and Middle Eastern harmonic structures; Barot comes across as the Indian equivalent of Dennis Chambers, and Banks explains how the influence of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea turned him from traditional Indian music toward jazz.
Sivamani is more impressive visually than on the CD, particularly in creating his konnokol (vocal percussion) parts on “Inside Out.” Over the course of five days of filming, you see McLaughlin piece the impressive parts of all of the musicians on Floating Point together. Unwittingly, this points out the CD’s inherent weakness. Unlike his best work, the whole of Floating Point is less than the sum of its parts.