Efforts at finding links between music of the extra-western world and jazz have been both earnest and otherwise, and not often artistically successful. One of the few effective examples of east-west, jazz-oriented symbiosis was the group known as Shakti, formed by John McLaughlin in 1975. As you'll recall, McLaughlin was coming off of his highly electric period in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, following a natural evolution of his long interest in Indian music. Shakti, featuring the young tabla dynamo Zakir Hussain and violinist L Shankar, produced a fiery and lyrical "unplugged" sound that bowed in the direction of both Indian classical tradition and McLaughlin's own, personalized jazz voice. The twain met, gracefully.
Those '70s recordings have been reissued on CD by Hussain's own Moment! Label. Now comes a latter-day edition of the group. Remember Shakti (Verve 7394; 59:47, 72:39) is an inviting two-CD set, recorded live during a UK tour in 1997. It's a different group, in some ways: McLaughlin is heard on hollowbody electric this time around, instead of the custom acoustic instrument with the scalloped frets of old, and there is more of a jazz tinge in his improvisational vocabulary. Shankar has been replaced here by virtuosic bansuri player Hariprasad Chaurasia. Percussion mastery emanates from Hussain on tabla and T.H. Viku Vinayakram on ghatam, and Uma Metha provides the all-important fundamental drone via the tambura.
What emerges from the new Shakti, which is set to do more touring this summer, is an inspiring cultural meeting, in which highly nuanced rhythmic intensity and ethereal harmonic territory blend in a more-or-less seamless musical accord. McLaughlin's vigorous linear excursions and elegant chording, on tunes like his "Lotus Feel" and "Zakir," are empathetically colored by the Indian musicians. Conversely, the UK guitar legend fits neatly into the luminous, hour-long sprawl of Chaurasia's "Mukti." Shakti is back, and not a minute too soon.