John McLaughlin/Shankar Mahadevan/Zakir Hussain: Is That So?
British guitarist John McLaughlin’s immersion in Indian music stretches back decades, and among his collaborators within the genre, in variations on the group Shakti and its successor Remember Shakti, have been both the Mumbai-born tablas master Zakir Hussain and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan. Is That So? marks their first together in a trio setting, and although it’s not formally billed as a continuation of those earlier projects, essentially that’s what it’s all about. There is a twist though: for this meeting, the concept for which goes back to 2013, McLaughlin incorporates a synthesized guitar, giving to their creations a newly expansive, orchestral breadth that substantially widens the music’s scope. Explaining the theory, McLaughlin has said that his idea “was to abandon the rules of the Raga system completely and apply my own western harmonic liberty to the amazing voice of Shankar Mahadevan,” but it’s not even necessary to know all of that; all a listener needs to appreciate Is That So? is the ability to open up fully, surrender to the washes of sound and allow these sonic explorations to sink in deeply. Each of the six tracks, beginning with “Kabir,” is a pastiche of textures and shapes, music that merges with the air around you. Mahadevan’s flexibility is a thing of beauty, remarkably seductive; together with McLaughlin’s widescreen melodies and Hussain’s earthy, ancient percussion, it becomes, on tracks like the 10-minute-plus “The Search” and the surrealist “The Beloved,” an irresistibly delightful joy to behold.