Since Swedish bass phenom Jonas Hellborg parted ways with John McLaughlin after a lengthy stint with the guitarist in the 1980s-first with the reconstituted Mahavishnu Orchestra (the gig that introduced the Swedish bass phenom to Stateside audiences) and subsequently with McLaughlin’s electro-acoustic trio featuring master percussionist Trilok Gurtu-he has quietly gone about the business of creating provocative and noteworthy new works for his own independent labels. Under the auspices of Day Eight Music (DEM), he delved into the nuance and rich resonance of his Wechter acoustic-bass guitar on 1991’s startling solo bass project The Silent Life, which allowed him to explore to the hilt his inimitable use of chords on the bass, his awesome slap technique (marked by a profusion of thumbed triplets) and his uncannily lyrical single-note facility. There followed a wave of similarly ambitious recordings on DEM, including Hellborg’s intimate and alluring duet project with frame-drum master Glen Velez (1995’s Ars Moriende), an organ-trio outing with fellow Swedes Anders and Jens Johansson (1994’s e) and two thrashing, jam-oriented power trio outings: 1995’s Abstract Logic with fire-breathing guitar shredder Shawn Lane and drummer Kofi Baker (Ginger’s son) and 1996’s hellacious Temporal Analogues of Paradise with guitarist Lane and drummer Apt. Q-258 (aka Jeff Sipe).
After Hellborg formed the Bardo label in 1997, he continued down the power-trio path with Lane and Sipe on Time Is the Enemy and the particularly aggressive live offering Personae, which featured some of the most mind-boggling six-string work this side of Allan Holdsworth, Scott Henderson, Eric Johnson and Frank Gambale. “That period that we played together was really fruitful,” Hellborg says. “It was less than two years, but we did four records during that time.”
A decided departure from that blatantly electrified fuzoid path was Hellborg’s Zenlike acoustic project Aram of the Two Rivers (recorded live in Damascus with a crew of master musicians from Syria and released in 1999) and 2000’s mesmerizing Good People in Times of Evil, an adventurous East-meets-West hybrid featuring Hellborg and Lane in the company of master Indian percussionist V. Selvaganesh (also a current member of McLaughlin’s Remember Shakti band).
Hellborg’s latest on Bardo, Icon, is another investigation of complex Indian rhythms and rags involving some remarkably challenging and precise exchanges between the bassist, Lane, Selvaganesh, second percussionist V. Umashankar and vocalist V. Umamahesh. “It’s another step in the same direction,” says Jonas. “The music is more composed than the previous record. Of course, there is room for stretching out on solos. But all the heads and really intricate time signatures played in unison are all written out in the tradition of Indian drum compositions.”
The level of intense interplay and deep groove that the four achieve on Icon’s four extended tracks is nothing short of breathtaking, particularly on the opening track “Anchor,” when Selvaganesh and Umashankar launch into their astounding displays of konokol (the traditional, rhythmically disciplined, lightning-fast vocal exchanges that sound to American jazz ears like a South Indian version of Jon Hendricks and Eddie Jefferson in a cutting contest). And when Lane’s electric guitar shifts from swirling psychedelia (“Anchor”) to sustained legato lines reminiscent of violinist L. Shankar (“Vehicle”) to heavy-duty distortion-laced crunch (“Mirror”), this hybrid sounds like Shakti meets Led Zeppelin.
With Icon, Hellborg’s longstanding chemistry with Lane, the Memphis-based guitar wiz and former child prodigy, continues to blossom. “The thing with Shawn and me is how we can cover so much territory effortlessly-all the different influences from jazz and fusion and Indian music and classical music,” Hellborg says. “And the key to our collaboration is that it doesn’t stop growing. We always work on new ideas and develop stuff, and we always feed new influences to each other. Shawn was hugely influenced by meeting and playing with the Indians. And he’s really going places now. What he’s doing with all the Indian articulation and ornamentation on the guitar is absolutely incredible.”
Despite his career-long eclecticism, Hellborg says he is less interested in musical diversity than he had been in the ’80s and ’90s. “It’s becoming clearer and clearer that this Indian music direction is really what I’m doing effectively and naturally and what everything else leads back to. This seems to be the natural way for me to play and express myself. Other styles of music just seem like a deviation to me at this point.”
For Hellborg, this recent immersion in Indian music “goes all the way back to when I was a teenage hippie listening to Ravi Shankar and Allah Rakha. There’s no question that the more challenging music I’ve ever played is the Indian stuff. And for me it’s South Indian more than North Indian. The South Indian stuff is much more hardcore and raw.”