Jason Goddard asks on his page “just what is Frank Zappa’s obssession with Carlos Santana all about?” Well, they were closet admirers of each other – the philosophical/political gap between them meant neither one could ‘fess up to it.
Which makes sense, as both were unofficially part of jazz-rock-fusion. And FZ must have noticed that Santana was producing some of the best jazz-rock-fusion ever heard, with a completely different flavour to either the prog-rock wing (the Softs, early King Crimson) or the jazz-based/Miles Davis-related wing (he was of course buddies with Miles, and recorded at various times with McLaughlin, Weather Report and the other four members of the Classic Quintet). And, of course, FZ must have noticed that Santana was in some ways a better improviser than him. Certainly more consistent – and unlike Frank he wasn’t the type to to ramble aimlessly through his effects-boxes without realising he sounded incongruous in his own band.
So having streamlined my collection with one of those useful MP3 CD-ROMS from Eastern Europe – where people are wise enough to see copyright for the human-rights-abuse that it is – let’s recap Santana’s golden era, long before Rob Thomas and Mary J Blige, long before he was reduced to covering “Smoke On The Water”…
Santana (the “lion album”) is an even mixture of simple jamming orientated instrumentals (“Jingo” and “Soul Sacrifice” being the most substantial) and bluesy rock songs, of which the unheralded best are “Shades Of Time” and “Persuasion”. Many of its songs also appear on the better-than-you’d-think Live At The Fillmore album, and also, if sometimes retitled, on the dreaded 1968 Demos which every budget label in the world has issued. In truth, those demos aren’t awful at all – parts (like the cover of “As The Years Go Passing By” or the long version of “Treat” are great. But they’ve damaged him by their ubiquity. Abraxas is considered the Santana materpiece, and while that’s debatable there are plenty of reputation-making solos and songs (never mind “Samba Pa Ti” and “Black Magic Woman”, what “Incident At Neshabur” – his first mini-guitar-concerto, dooyoo.com please note!). Santana III (the “flying baby and unicorn album”) may just be the best of the first batch, though. The man gets back to, not just his Latin roots but his Latin jazz roots for much of its second half. And there’s his endearingly awkward vocal debut on “Everything Is Coming Our Way”, there’s the first and best version of his failsafe rabble-rouser “Toussaint L’Ouverture”…and there’s his rivalry with Neal Schon, proving that twin-guitar wibbling-contests can be fun sometimes! The Buddy Miles live album is, like the 1968 demos, a strangely compulsive shambles. Buddy is the weak link, he wails and gibbers like a stereotypical cocaine fiend, so they mix him down at times to allow us to hear whose solos he’s interrupting. There’s crappy unconvincing edits all over the place, glazed over with a layer of crappy unconvincing canned-applause (it was actually recorded in a small club in Hawaii, not a stadium full of irrational hysterics). What saves it are ths solos, from Hadley Caliman, an altoist and a trumpet player whose names I forget, and the ongoing Carlos/Neal battle. (Neal actually has the most solo time here – Carlos is recognisable mainly by his discovery of the “volcano effect” which he would take to comical extremes later).
As Carlos began his collaborative/solo side-project career, the next sequence of Santana Band studio albums turned out to be (inarguably) the man’s greatest achievements. Caravanserai – a mostly-instrumental song-suite, including what may be the greatest song actually sung by Carlos himself, “All The Love In The Universe”; plus an inspired choice from the Jobim catalogue and the sheer speed and fury of “Every Step Of The Way”). Welcome – the jazziest of the vocal-orientated albums, with Richie Kermode and John McLaughlin on hand (and a badly out-of-tune Flora Purim), and with the eponymous Coltrane tune and “Samba De Sausalito” (you know it, even if you think you don’t!). And the underrated Borboletta which musically combines the concepts of the other two and is only really marred slightly by the replacement of singer Leon Thomas by his inferior namesake Patillo. And in between of course there was the amazing Lotus – the only Santana live album to have the balls-to-the-wall fury and the sophistication, in equal measure (as well as musical nods to Airto Moreira and Chick Corea).
Meanwhile Carlos made another wibbling-contest album – with John McLaughlin, his musical alter-ego. A better class of wibbling album. Two Coltrane tunes, and Larry Young is in the band – you know what this is going to sound like. And then his most daring album of all, Illuminations – with Alice Coltrane, who pours those unsettling Pharoah-Sanders-meets-Penderecki string arrangements all over it. Forcing Carlos to think harder and play harder, though in the end saxophonist Jules Broussard vitually blows them both off the map.
Then the declining years begin. Amigos is mostly just a fun listen – simple pop-soul-funk tunes with a heavy guitar/keyboard jam here and there to remind you who it is. “Europa”, then, sticks out like a sore thumb – Carlos’s own particular “Comfortably Numb”, with tinges of “Amor Adios” and “Song of Praise”. Festival lives up to its name – a party album with a Mexican flavour, made engaging by the fact that for every repetitive dancefloor-chant and underdeveloped song fragment there’s an instrumental in which the band get serious (“Juguando”, “Revelations”, the acoustic one beginning with v…!). Moonflower, despite its fame as the bearer of “She’s Not There”, is a bit of a shambles. The title track is a genuine lost classic, on the level of “Europa”, but the other new numbers are underwhelming fragments or under-written time-killers. And worse still, on studio and live tracks alike, Carlos wibbles aimlessly, and fires off volcano after volcano…has he forgotten how to improvise? Scott Parker thought Jean-Luc Ponty was overdoing the volcanoes with FZ in ’73 – I wonder what he thinks of this?! Inner Secrets isn’t a great album but it shows that Santana could make an adult-contemporary/AOR album that was at least listenable. Even if Alex Balsa-Wood is on it – he’s not become annoying yet. That was just around the corner.
Things get really sticky in the next decade: Marathon, Shango, Zebop and Freedom have one or two good tracks each, but it’s hardly worth looking for them. The rest of the albums are full of either generic AOR or generic lite-soul, which doesn’t sound like Santana, and doesn’t sound like anybody really. When Buddy Miles returns on the latter he’s audibly cocaine-free, but having lost his hysteria he’s lost his identity too – you wouldn’t necessarily know this was “Jimi’s fat friend”. There was also the “electronic” album Beyond Appearances album which I can hardly even remember – except that it sounded like the songs were written and played by a madlib-style computer program which happened to have a few Santana samples in amongst the generic ones.
All wasn’t lost. The old Santana style was still audible on Carlos’s “solo” albums – Oneness and Blues For Salvador both sound like the Santana Band record we wanted to hear in 1977 or 1978 (esp. the latter, which calls on a few old friends including McLaughlin and Chester-“the-other-one”-Thompson). There was Havana Moon – half of which was almost back-to-rock-and-roll roots (avec Willie Nelson and a few Thunderbirds and Lobos). And a fabulous final fling for Carlos the jazz lover, The Swing of Delight – which you can sum up by the fact it would be a great album even if Herbie, Wayne & Co weren’t on it.
Which just leaves the useful hits-and-rarities Viva Santana compilation. And then…I can’t be bothered with the post-1989 era.