Having made an impressive name for himself in just a short space of time playing with such stars as Miles Davis and Tony Williams, John McLaughlin went from strength-to-strength with the various incarnations of his own Mahavishnu Orchestra. Turning up his guitar amp to previously unventured decibal levels and successfully bridging the gulf between the jazz world and the rock one, he suddenly called it a day and announced the group as finished.
The definitive electric guitar man, for his next move McLaughlin surprised and shocked everyone by downing his usual instrument and picking up an acoustic model. A further shock for long-time followers was his decision to play with four men from southern India not affiliated in anyway with the jazz or rock worlds, or in fact any music genre familiar to his usual fan base.
Calling his new outfit Shakti, although purely acoustic, it notably maintained the fury and speed McLaughlin had instilled with the Mahavishnu groups. The lengthy ‘Joy’ that starts things off is a great example, with the guitarist shredding his customised acoustic guitar at almost light-speed. Not that Shakti was to be a McLaughlin vanity vehicle, far from it, Lakshminarayana Shankar on violin, both Ramnad Raghavan and T.H. Vinayakram on mridangram, and Zakir Hussain more than match the guitarists pace and the sprinting tempo with comfortable ease.
By comparison ‘Lotus Feet’ that follows feels like a quiet breather for everyone to relax, stretch out and collect themselves, before the lengthy and extended raga ‘What Need Have I For This…?’ shows the quintet at their genuine best. Shankar’s violin is in a class all its own here, but it’s the interplay between all of the members that truly impresses, while the Englishman gets to bend his notes in a manner not unlike playing the sitar and still fly at a soaring and blazing speed.
Seen by many, if not most, as a blind-siding shock move, Shakti had in fact been hinted at to his fans for a good number of years before it, with McLaughlin’s acoustic playing on earlier perhaps less famous records, his eastern musical influences and his increasingly spiritual leanings. Also playing his acoustic guitar with just as much speed, skill and panache as he did with his electric, the music here is less a departure than one might initially think, with plenty for the casual McLaughlin rock fan to enjoy, and it achieves a truly astounding high level of energy and euphoria that few – acoustic or electric - have ever reached.