To hear them tell it, the cofounders of Shakti — guitar great John McLaughlin, 81, and tabla master Zakir Hussain, 72 — are ecstatic whenever the group reunites for a concert. So expect the group’s current incarnation — now including Bollywood superstar Shankar Mahadevan on vocals, Ganesh Rajagopalan on violin, and Selvaganesh Vinayakram (son of original Shakti member Vikku Vinayakram) on kanjira, mridangam, and ghatam — to be in a good mood Thursday when they perform at the Boch Center Wang Theatre to open their US tour celebrating both their new album, “This Moment,” and a half-century of McLaughlin and Hussain performing together as Shakti.
“I sit down with these guys, and I’m thrilled every night because they just blow me away,” says McLaughlin via Zoom from his home in Monte Carlo. “I don’t think a band could last 50 years if that element wasn’t there.”
“What’s amazing is that we can’t wait to get on the stage together,” adds Hussain later by phone. “So the love, the excitement, the ecstasy, the joy is of such a high level that to keep my hands off the tabla while I’m onstage is difficult. When we start playing, suddenly there is this huge smile on our faces. It’s like two puppies playing in the field and jumping on each other and rolling. And the tail-wagging doesn’t stop.
“And I have to say that through various incarnations of Shakti, that feeling that John and I have is not just limited to us. It happens with the whole group.”
McLaughlin and Hussain were relative pups when they met in New York in 1970, having each moved to the United States the year before. McLaughlin would form his supergroup Mahavishnu Orchestra the next year, having already helped Miles Davis, Tony Williams, and others spearhead the creation of jazz-rock fusion with his electric guitar. Hussain, a prodigy still in his late teens, would soon relocate to California to teach at the Ali Akbar College of Music near San Francisco.
It was at the home of the college’s founder, Ali Akbar Khan, that McLaughlin and Hussain played together for the first time. “In that moment, the two of us just sat down and jammed in front of Ali Akbar Khan,” recounts McLaughlin. “I mean, how pretentious can you get? When you’re young, you don’t care. He had his tabla, I had an acoustic guitar. It was really the pivotal experience behind the formation of Shakti.”
They assembled a group for a performance in New York City in 1973, and in 1975 — after McLaughlin disbanded Mahavishnu — they played a concert at Southampton College on Long Island that became Shakti’s eponymous 1976 debut album. That same year came a studio album, “A Handful of Beauty,” but McLaughlin boasts that Shakti is primarily a live band.
“The two really distinct elements that separate the Indian musical culture from the West,” explains McLaughlin, “is [that] their development of rhythm is the equivalent of our development in harmony. And my role, if you will, is not just the improvisation, but to introduce harmony into what is essentially a linear concept of music.”
“What I do,” he adds, “is knowing the ragas that they play in, that they improvise over, I know how far I can go bending the rules, but not break them. This is thrilling for them, because they’re playing particular tonality raga; all of a sudden they hear transposition of harmony underneath that absolutely disorients them, but in a beautiful way. So for them, it’s a thrill because they discover different aspects of their own music, raga, in Western terms. This is basically the idea.”
Hussain now realizes that in Shakti’s early days McLaughlin was doing the heaviest lifting. “I have to say that sadly, [violinist] L. Shankar, myself, and [mridangam player Ramnad] Raghavan, the three other members of the original Shakti, were just having too good a time playing. And we did not realize how much of a sacrifice John was making by crossing over to our world. Having to reinvent the way he was going to play the guitar to the point that he actually had a guitar made that would be conducive to the way we play music in India, and learn to operate on that particular kind of a guitar with bended frets and sympathetic strings. And not only that, but just learning the ragas and modes and Indian rhythm cycles, and improvisational ideas from our part of the world.”
McLaughlin doesn’t begrudge having put in that extra work early on.
“I’ve been so fortunate, because I’ve had a chance to play with the greatest [Indian musicians], and still am,” he says. “And I know they love Western music as much as I love Eastern music, and they’re fascinated by it, especially this harmonic aspect.”
McLaughlin had a particularly difficult challenge when worsening arthritis in his right hand led him to announce his retirement and play a farewell tour in 2017. The problem had begun in 2014, a miserable year for McLaughlin that also included the death of his frequent guitar partner, the flamenco great Paco de Lucia in February and that of Shakti’s mandolinist U. Srinivas in September. (The new album includes two tracks inspired by Srinivas, “Shrini’s Dream” and the Carnatic traditional “Giriraj Sudha,” and a flamenco-flavored nod to De Lucia, McLaughlin’s “Las Palmas.”)
Conventional treatment wasn’t working, but by early 2019 McLaughlin had encountered Dr. Joe Dispenza, who was said to have cured himself of a broken back through meditation. “I think people think it’s just hocus pocus in this modern-day, technical world,” McLaughlin says, “but I’m a great believer in it. By the end of nine, 10 months, all swelling disappeared. All the pain disappeared. And it’s never, ever come back.”
“This Moment” is McLaughlin’s third album since his recovery.
“The heart really of jazz music, and Indian music, is improvisation,” says McLaughlin. “And this is the marvelous point, because as the album is called ‘This Moment,’ it’s the only one we have. And when you improvise, you only have this moment. Tomorrow will never exist, yesterday is gone forever. The only moment that we’re really alive is this, and an improvisation is where we can — depending on how inspired we are — we can experience this marvelous moment.”
“A billion thanks to God for having this moment arrive, where John was able to find somebody who could make this right for him, and bring him back to us and be able to play,” says Hussain. “I mean, he could not hold the pick with his fingers. It was like the starter doesn’t work on a car. So yes, it was a scary moment.
“But all that is behind us now, and John is playing like he used to. And so having that onstage, oh my God, we are flying again. We are in the field playing like puppies again.”
With John Scofield. At the Boch Center Wang Theatre. Aug. 17 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets from $53. www.bochcenter.org
Bill Beuttler can be reached at email@example.com.