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L. Shankar (born Lakshminarayana Shankar) is a virtuoso violinist, vocalist, composer, and producer. A musical pioneer, his career defines the word "fusion"; he has amassed hundreds of recording and writing credits extending across Indian classical and folk traditions, jazz, rock, dub reggae, post-punk, EDM, and more. A first-call sideman, he has played on iconic rock, jazz, and pop albums. During the 1970s, he and guitarist John McLaughlin co-led Shakti, a best-selling acoustic Indo-jazz fusion group that issued three seminal albums for Columbia including Natural Elements. They reunited in the '90s as Remember Shakti. His 1979 solo album, Touch Me There, was produced and released by Frank Zappa. 1981's Who's to Know was the first of seven diverse albums for ECM released over the next decade that also included two experimental rock outings by the Epidemics. After spending the '80s and '90s as a very busy sideman, he released Eternal Light and Enlightenment with Zakir Hussain and T.H. Vinayakram in 2000, and a year later cut One in a Million with Indian vocalist, composer, and double violinist Gingger. The duo followed with Celestial Body in 2004. He released the star-studded Open the Door (as Shenkar) in 2007. Over the next decade he played on dates by Toto, Saul Williams, and Jonathan Davis. He issued Chepleeri Dream in 2020 and Christmas from India in 2021. Born in 1950, Shankar was the youngest of six children. He was raised in a highly respected musical family. His father, V. Lakshminarayana, studied Indian classical music, played violin, and sang. His mother, L. Sitalakshmi, played veena. A child prodigy, he was capable of humming complex lines from ancient Indian compositions by age three, and began studying the violin two years later. He performed his first public concert at a temple in Ceylon at seven. After a long period of apprenticeship, during which he accompanied many south Indian vocalists, Shankar formed a trio with his brothers, L. Vaidyanathan and L. Subramaniam, and toured throughout India. Moving to the United States in 1970 to study ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, Shankar sought ways to combine the musical traditions of the East and the West. He was befriended by several American jazz musicians including Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp. His first American recording session was on the latter's Attica Blues and Clifford Thornton's Communication Network. In 1974, he, his cousins, and a large cast of renowned session players cut Shankar Family & Friends for George Harrison's Dark Horse label. He also met guitarist John McLaughlin, who was studying veena, an ancient Indian stringed instrument, at the Connecticut school. Striking up a friendship, the two musicians decided to form Shakti, a group that originally included percussionist Zakir Hussain, that could -- and did -- wed jazz improv to the Indian classical tradition. Shakti performed their first show for a private party at South Hampton College on July 5, 1975. They recorded three groundbreaking albums for Columbia: an eponymously titled debut in 1976, and Handful of Beauty and Natural Elements in 1977. Inheriting the position from Jean-Luc Ponty, Shankar played electric violin for a short period with Zappa. The experience paid off as Zappa agreed to produce and contribute lyrics for his debut American solo outing, 1979's Touch Me There. Shankar has played a ten-stringed, double-necked fiddle (designed with guitar builder Ken Parker) since 1980. With five strings that sound like a double bass or cello, and another five that sound like a violin or viola, the instrument gives him greater flexibility as an instrumentalist. Shankar signed to ECM for 1981's Who's to Know, a raga album conducted by his father. He remained with the label for a decade, issuing five albums under his own name --including Vision with Jan Garbarek and Palle Mikkelborg -- and two as the Epidemics with his composer wife Caroline Morgan and top-flight sidemen who included Zappa, Peter Gabriel, McLaughlin, Phil Collins, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Yoko Ono, and Sting. Shankar's greatest contribution during the '80s was as a session and touring player. He worked on some of the decade's most important albums by Phil Collins (Face Value), the Talking Heads (Remain in Light), Lou Reed (New Sensations), Public Image Ltd. (Album), Echo & the Bunnymen (Porcupine), and Peter Gabriel (So and The Last Temptation of Christ). After appearing on Artists United Against Apartheid's Sun City, Shankar joined Springsteen, Reed, Sting, and Tracy Chapman for Human Rights Now! an international tour sponsored by Amnesty International in 1989. His first recorded appearance in the 1990s was on Material's Seven Souls (featuring William S. Burroughs) and it whet Shankar's appetite for more musical experimentation. He played on recordings by Swans (The Burning World) and Percy Jones (Propeller Music). He also released the album Soul Searcher under his own name for Axiom. Co-produced by the Epidemics and Bill Laswell, the single track, hour-long raga medley -- with beats -- featured his father V. Lakshminarayana on violin, Gabriel on keyboards, Hussain on tablas, and Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam. In 1992, Shankar played on Patrick O'Hearn's score and soundtrack for the film White Sands, on Egberto Gismonti's cult classic Circense, and on Yoko Ono's Walking on Thin Ice. He toured and recorded extensively with Gabriel, appearing on Us and several live albums. He also joined Material for Hallucination Engine and Western Lands (with Burroughs). In 1995, he released the traditional Raga Aberi with Hussain and Vinayakram, and in 1996 he added his double violin to Midge Ure's Breathe. In 1999, Shankar and McLaughlin, with Hussain, Vinayakram, and bansuri flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia, released the reunion album Remember Shakti. They followed with The Believer in 2000 that also included U. Srinivas and V. Selvaganesh. That year Shankar served as a co-billed guest on guitarist Warren Cuccurullo's The Blue. He also played on Gabriel's OVO, and released two acclaimed traditional albums -- Eternal Light and Enlightenment -- with his working trio of Hussain and Vinayakram. In 2001, with an enormous cast of Indian musicians, Remember Shakti released Saturday Night in Bombay for Verve. Shankar also formed a working duo with U.S.-born Indian double violinist and vocalist Gingger. Their One in a Million debut cut across and melded genres from jazz and pop to country and alt rock. Its studio cast included Mike and Steve Porcaro, Tony Levin, and Collins. In 2002, Shankar worked with Korn vocalist Jonathan Davis and Richard Gibbs on the score/soundtrack for Queen of the Damned. Two years later, Shankar & Gingger issued Celestial Body, which had an entirely different sound and cast that included Guy Allison. Later that year, Shankar appeared on the score and soundtrack for James Newton Howard's Hidalgo. In 2006, the violinist appeared on Toto's Falling in Between and Take That's Beautiful World. Remember Shakti performed a concert that netted the documentary film The Way of Beauty. In 2007, Shankar issued Open the Door, a set that showcased his work as a composer and conductor leading a stellar studio cast. He produced the 13-track offering and wrote or co-wrote all of its tunes; that said, he played on only two selections. His sidemen on the date included Patrick Leonard, Vinnie Colaiuta, Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, and guitarist David Williams, among others. It would be Shankar's last date as a leader for over a decade. Over the next several years he taught, accepted composing commissions, and toured with others. He appeared on Saul Williams The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! and the Human Abstract's Midheaven in 2008. In the studio he played on records by Richard Page (Peculiar Life), Saro Cosentino (One's & Zero's Reloaded), and worked with Ben Frost and Paul Haslinger on the score and soundtrack for the video game Rainbow Six: Siege. Shankar returned to recording under his own name with 2020's Chepleeri Dream. Released by Cleopatra, it showcased Shankar playing violin, keyboards, and vocalizing in the company of top-shelf sidemen who included Chester Thompson, Davis, Levin, Dileep Palakkad, and others. He followed it with the holiday collection Christmas from India in 2021.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo
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