Legendary jazz fusion guitarist John McLaughlin released his latest album Is That So? back in January. It was a three-part effort between McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain and Shankar Mahadevan. While McLaughlin had already worked with Hussain before during his days working on his widely successful fusion project Shakti, he came across Mahadevan back in 2013 while touring Shakti.
If you're familiar with McLaughlin's work, then it shouldn't surprise you to know that Is That So? makes heavy use of classic Indian music elements, complemented by McLaughlin's stellar guitar playing. However, what is surprising is that while Is That So? is still a fusion album, it's probably like no fusion album that you've ever heard before. To know more about what makes it so different, read on for our review of John McLaughlin's Is That So? East and West Collide
Now, it's safe to say that the music featured in Is That So? isn't for everyone. The album opens with the track Kabir, a song that is driven by the beats of the tabla and Shankar Mahadevan's melodic chanting, setting the tone for the entire album. And while we can define this album by its varying elements that take inspiration from the Indian music tradition, it can be better defined by what's not in it. In an interview with Glide Magazine, McLaughlin notes that the album is devoid of any prominent guitar playing — a conscious decision on his part in order to achieve something new. Notably absent is McLaughlin’s trademark tone and delay, for which he utilized the warm effects of the MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay pedal along with a few other pedalboard staples. He instead swapped out his guitar for soft synths that accentuate the chanting and the rhythmic tabla drumming. This was done as a way of seeking out a new voice for himself, to diverge from the musical path that he's been on for over two decades. And the musical experience that the album provides is indeed new, as never has a melding of western and eastern musical elements been achieved so seamlessly. If anyone has ever doubted McLaughlin's Mahavishnu moniker (a combination of the word "maha" meaning great and the name of the Hindu deity Vishnu), those doubts have certainly been put to rest. The Verdict
So how does the album hold up? Well, if anything the album is a testament of how far a great concept can go. The tracks on the album represent the spirituality of South Indian Bhajan and they take the listeners on a trip that encompasses boundaries of culture and genre. During your first listen the tracks may sound hollow, but keep listening and you'll find that the musical experiences that McLaughlin has crafted on Is That So? will resonate within you soon enough. Indeed, this minimalist approach to music can only come from someone with the years of experience that the trio has under their belt. This magnificent show of restraint has resulted in a gripping masterpiece that will have you in a trance from the first track to the last. We recommend that you check it out, even if you think you won't like it, as it's truly an experience that'll enrich your life as a music fan.