When Carlos Chased the Coltrane

A man, a guitar, and a search for greater meaning (and sales).

Once upon a time there was a guitar god whom had grown bored with all his fame, riches and glory.   He longed for something more than another multi-platinum selling record.  He desired not simply acclaim, but respect.  He knew to get it he would have to walk away from his distinctive rock style that made him popular and wealthy.   It was a risk to confuse his band and his fans by making a radical change in his musical direction.   But he did it anyway and he did break up the classic version of his band and alienated much of his audience in the process.

It must have seemed worth it at the time to Carlos Santana.  Appearing at Woodstock had announced to the world there was a new guitar god on the scene and he was a skinny Mexican who fused elements of rock, Latin, jazz and funky R&B in one soul-stirring stew.   Santana delivered on the promise with a trilogy of terrific albums (Sanana, Abraxas Santana III)

Caravanserai is the sound of a band uncertain of its music and its leader equally uncertain of the direction he wants to take them. Following Santana III, it must have puzzled and panicked the execs at Columbia Records when Carlos presented it to them. While it has its definite highs, the low points of Caravanserai are very low.

Gregg Rollie was skillful on the organ, acceptable as a vocalist and totally out of his league trying to fake it as a jazz musician. Rollie simply lacked any feel for this dense, hook-free tunes and soon would leave to form Journey taking guitarist Neal Schon with him.

The record is disjointed as Santana can’t fully let go of the Latin rock that made him wealthy and famous. Rolle sings on three songs and not one of them is memorable. The songs aren’t strong and neither is the playing. You can almost feel Santana’s frustration. If he were going to pursue this new path he was on he would need something absent from Caravanserai.

He would need better musicians to play the way he wanted and better music for them to play.  Carlos took the first step when he joined with guitarist John McLaughlin for Love, Devotion and Surrender.  Santana brought along members of his band and teamed with McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra to produce an eclectic electric guitar summit that confused both Santana fans and Columbia Record executives.

Welcome solved both problems. Some still choose Caravanserai as the more adventuresome of the two and I can see their point. But David Brown (bass) and Michael Carabello (percussion) were already out by that time and Rollie and Schon were eyeballing the exit sign as well.

The sound of jazz and rock fused almost perfectly

Carlos Santana has always fused the spiritual with the secular and Welcome is as close as the guitarist has ever come to the former with no regard for the latter. Welcome yielded no hit singles and was never conceived as an album rock radio would play. It’s Santana’s A Love Supreme; full of reverence and passion and conceived and executed by premier musicians playing their asses off.

The drone of “Going Home” two organs played by Tom Coster and Richard Kermode build and soar with a grandeur I recall grooving on through a marijuana-induced haze.  Carlos doesn’t even play guitar here and frequently fades into the background.  He’s secure in his own playing and completely confident he’s playing with a band that can deliver the goods and they do.  I wouldn’t call Welcome my favorite Santana album, but I’d call it one of them and as much of a classic Santana album as the first three. It sounds great nearly 40 years after its release.

The only comparable rock act that altered his sound so drastically as Santana did with Welcome is Jeff Beck and Blow by Blow.   However, Beck was taking the next step after a series of unsuccessful albums.  Santana was at the peak of his fame when he followed the path of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in seeking to make music that satisfied his soul, not a record company’s ledger sheet.

Even Robert Christgau,  the noted rock critic/curmudgeon,and former music editor of The Village Voice smiled on Welcome.

“More confident and hence more fun than Caravanserai, this proves that a communion of multipercussive rock and transcendentalist jazz can move the unenlightened–me, for instance. Good themes, good playing, good beat, and let us not forget good singing–Leon Thomas’s muscular spirituality grounds each side so firmly that not even Flora Purim can send it out the window.” B+

Hey, I liked Flora Purim’s singing on “Yours Is the Light.”

Cindy and Carlos redefining “a musical marriage”

I didn’t completely “got” Welcome in 1973. It wasn’t slightly different like Caravanserai with one foot still in rock and another with a toe dipping lightly into not only jazz fusion, but even free jazz. The same old Santana blazing guitar riffs were there, but more restrained and at times even submerged within the collective of the group. For someone whom grew up on “Black Magic Woman” this came as something of a small shock.

The secret weapon of Welcome is Michael Shrieve’s drumming and Coster and Kermode’s keyboards. They encourage Santana to stretch and while critics some find the album disappointing and full of “bloat” and even commercial, that’s a charge that makes no sense to me.  There’s no hit singles or any concessions made to radio here.   Maybe an adventuresome jazz station would play “Samba De Sausalito,” but even the vocal tracks, “When I Look Into Your Eyes” and “Light of Life” feature Leon Thomas’ vocals. Alternating between soulful singing and off-the-wall yodeling, Thomas may be the most off-the-wall vocalists ever to sign up to for the position.

Something else unique in the Welcome band was the presence of Wendy Haas, a vocalist and keyboard player Carlos plucked from Azteca, the same band he found a hot-shot 17-yr-old guitarist named Neal Schon, the future guitarist of Journey.

If Welcome is the summit of Santana’s jazz fusion era, Lotus and Borboletta fall off a cliff. Lotus was originally a three-record set that was whittled down to two in the CD era, but it’s still total overkill as Thomas is inept trying to front Santana standards such as “Black Magic Woman.”  Borboletta showcases a sullen Santana fronting an equally lethargic band and cursed by the ugliest cover art ever to appear on a Santana record.

In 1976, Santana ditched his dalliance with jazz and returned to Latin rock glory with Amigos.  Though he was still billed as “Devadip” Carlos Santana he was drifting away from his guru, Sri Chimoy, and would leave both him and jazz behind for the rest of his career.  Blues For Salvador and Santana Brothers are good, but are primarily instrumental recordings closer to a typical Santana album than it is to jazz.

The Swing of Delight pairs Carlos with the classic Miles Davis quintet of Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter, but the result isn’t as satisfying because the songs here are loose jams and not as structured as Welcome.  They also are not as good.

Santana has continued to release instrumental albums, but they aren’t jazz and since the 15 million-selling Supernatural granted him late career superstar status on him in 1999, he has wasted the better part of a decade chasing similar success minus similar results.  The bottom of the barrel is Guitar Heaven, which sounds like the name for a video game but is a pandering mess of classic rock covers.

At this point in his life, Santana should be financially secure and has married his second wife, jazz drummer Cindy Blackman.  In May he released the 22nd Santana album, Shape Shifter.  With the exception of one vocal tracks it is a recording of instrumentals exclusively with just the man and his band and no awkward guest stars crow-barred in except his son Salvador playing keyboards.

In an interview, Santana explained why he was taking a break from his overly commercial direction of the past decade.

“In a lot of ways, yes, because I don’t need to accommodate lyrics, and I don’t need to accommodate artists. I say this in a funny way, but it’s more about letting a Mexican play the guitar, you know?”

“I’m never going to wait so long to brew ’em like this anymore. I’m going to make sure that I do one album like this and then another kind. I remember reading that John Coltrane would do one Pursuance album, and then he’d do a ballads album where he’d hardly play a solo – he’d just play the melody verbatim.”

Shape Shifter may be a slight retreat for Santana from pop music and return to pulling power chords from his guitar, but it’s not so bold as to be Welcome Part Two. That was a different man making different music in a different time.   The Santana of 1973 is not the Santana of 2012, but that man would not be the one he is now had he not chased his inner Coltrane and made a record as bold, brave and eternally beautiful as Welcome.

Young guns and electric guitars were their weapons.

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