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Carlos Santana: Light of the Supreme: Carlos Santana’s Devadip Trilogy

Rob Caldwell By

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To the casual music fan in 1971 Carlos Santana appeared as if he was on top of the world. His band's appearance at Woodstock two short years earlier, plus their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Black Magic Woman" had catapulted him to stardom. Yet, behind the scenes, his band was splintering. Different musical and personal objectives, plus the increased usage of hard drugs by some band members were getting in the way. By the end of the year, bassist David Brown, percussionist Michael Carabello, and organist Greg Rollie had departed.

Santana had always been marketed by their record company as a radio-friendly singles band, but in reality their leader was an incessant musical explorer. At the same time his band was in disarray, he was getting deeper into more esoteric and non-mainstream music, specifically the jazz of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Wayne Shorter, as well as music from other countries. Against the advice of Columbia Records president Clive Davis and manager Bill Graham, he and Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, along with a cast of new musicians including the not-yet-fully-departed Rollie on some tracks, recorded the decidedly uncommercial Caravanserai(Columbia, 1972) (which Graham at the time, playing on the title, said should have been called "Career Suicide").

It was the launching album for an extended period of exploration, musical and spiritual, which included collaborations with guitarist John McLaughlin and the widow of John Coltrane, harpist Alice Coltrane. The Coltane team-up would be the first in a loose trilogy where Carlos Santana was credited as "Devadip," a Sanskrit word for "the light and lantern of the supreme," or "the lamp, light and eye of God." Why Devadip? Santana had been introduced by McLaughlin to the teachings of Sri Chinmoy and he and his wife Deborah became disciples of the Indian guru, who bestowed the name on him. Chinmoy's teachings advocated meditation and abstinence from drugs and alcohol. As well, he felt that creating music was a way of expressing thankfulness to the Divine, a philosophy which resonated particularly strongly with Santana.

The music on the three Devadip albums was made primarily with jazz musicians and released under the name "Devadip Carlos Santana," to clearly signify that these works were separate from the Santana band. It varies widely from the first, issued in 1974, to the last, which came out in 1980. What ties the three together is an adherence to a jazz aesthetic and sound, as well as a lack of concern for commercial acceptance. These works are some of the purist expressions of the guitarist's musical vision, works he refers to in his autobiography, The Universal Tone, as "his most personal."

In the summer of '74 Columbia issued a Santana Greatest Hits album and the high sales gave him a little leeway to continue the less commercial direction the band had taken. Concurrently, Illuminations came about when Alice Coltrane asked to add arrangements to a collection of new, more spiritual compositions Santana had been putting together in the down time after the Caravanserai tour. Living in Queens, NY at the time at Chinmoy's meditation center, he was attempting to re-evaluate where he was in his professional life and bring it more in line with the new direction his personal life had taken. Coltrane, though not a follower of Chinmoy, was on a similar path and had taken the name Turiya (short for Turiyasangitananda, translated as "the highest song of God") hence her credit as "Turiya Alice Coltrane" on the album.

Illuminations is quite a bold album, marking an abrupt departure from rock tropes and Latin rhythms and including a string orchestra on some tracks. The majority of the music was co-written with organist Tom Coster, who also played in the Santana band for much of 70's, with an additional track ("Bliss: the Eternal Now") credited solely to Alice Coltrane. The songs are the most overtly devotional sounding in Santana's career, always seeming to aim for mystic heights. At times bordering on New Age, it's much too adventurous to be pigeonholed as such and just when it seems to get too syrupy or cosmic, it veers into free jazz, as on "Angel of Sunlight." That track is the centerpiece of the album, at close to 15 minutes in length, and features a second half akin to some of Pharoah Sanders' atonal excursions. Coltrane puts her harp aside and coaxes unearthly sounds from a Wurlitzer as Santana's guitar and Jack DeJohnette's drums, Dave Holland's bass, and the saxophone of Jules Broussard swirl around chaotically.

The album is all about drama and grandiosity, from the opening short monologue by Chinmoy, to the string orchestra, to the overblown cover art. One thing that remains from Santana's earlier works is his signature guitar sound, emphasising long sustained notes and soulful string bends. That wasn't enough to save the album in the eyes of the public, however, and it created further distance between the musician and those wanting another "Black Magic Woman" or "Oye Como Va."

A five year gap ensued until the next Devadip album. It was not a gap of silence, by any means, with several new configurations of the Santana group and stabs at regaining commercial acceptance with songs such as "Dance Sister Dance" and a cover of The Zombies' "She's Not There." Through this time he remained a student of Chinmoy and after the band's Inner Secrets (Columbia, 1978), there was the rapid succession of what would be the last two Devadip albums, in 1979 and 1980.

With the first of the two, Oneness: Silver Dreams—Golden Reality, Carlos Santana's name didn't appear on the cover at all, with just the word Devadip appearing above the title. Even though this was essentially his first solo record, it marked the work as a definite remove from any "Santana sound," perhaps to avoid the inevitable comparisons which had plagued Illuminations. Ironically, though, Oneness is much more accessible than Illuminations and more likely to appeal to fans of the band. Gone are the lengthy and often meandering tracks of the first Devadip album, and Santana explores many avenues of expression, including live songs, acoustic songs, R&B, rock, and muscular fusion influenced by Weather Report's Mysterious Traveller. As such, the album doesn't work well as a unified statement, but does have a bit of something for everyone within its grooves, including three songs with vocals. One of these, a psychedelic soul ballad, "Silver Dreams and Golden Smiles," is sung by Santana's then father-in-law, musician Saunders King.

Two other highlights include "Transformation Day," based on classical composer Alan Hovhaness' "Mysterious Mountain," and "Song for Devadip" (written by fellow Chinmoy follower drummer Narada Michael Walden), which closes the album with a joyful, breezy showcase for some of Santana's most melodic playing.

The Swing of Delight is the most straightforward and "non-mystical" of the three Devadip albums. A clean-cut Santana (as pictured on the back cover) ventures through nine jazz fusion tracks, with detours into the percussion-heavy Latin excursion "La Llave" and an unlikely but affecting cover of "Love Theme from Spartacus" from the 1960 film.

Originally a double album, Swing hangs together remarkably well and still sounds fresh today. This is in no small part due to the exemplary accompanying musicians -essentially Miles Davis' late 60's backing band -including Herbie Hancock (keyboards), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums), and Wayne Shorter (saxophone). Shorter's playing, along with that of Premik Russell Tubbs, positions Swing as one of the few albums where we hear Santana in such a sax-heavy setting. Though a painting by Chinmoy adorns the album cover of The Swing of Delight, and a handful of songs on the album are credited to him, by the next year Santana had become disillusioned with the guru and some of his teachings and left his circle, thereby making Swing the last to be credited to Devadip.

Unfortunately, all three of the albums are now relative obscurities in Santana's discography, despite being some of his most interesting works. When originally released, they barely appeared on the general public's radar, and critical reviews varied considerably. For example, notoriously cranky critic Robert Christgau hated them, whereas jazz publications like Downbeat were more charitable.

What can't be argued is that the Devadip albums touch on a myriad of moods and styles, and are important steps in the evolution of Carlos Santana the artist. They show him in a light where he was less concerned with selling records and pleasing record companies, and guided solely by his muse.

Track Listing:

Title: Light of the Supreme: Carlos Santana’s Devadip Trilogy | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Columbia Records

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