The original Santana band achieved huge commercial success through the fiery fusion of rock, blues and Latin musics. As Carlos Santana evolved as a musician, he took the group into equally interesting directions with often equally fascinating results, even if those projects didn’t match up to the first three albums’ impact in terms of sales.
Listeners who found the guitar interplay between Santana and young Neal Schon one of the highlights of the third Santana album no doubt found the largely instrumental Caravanserai to their liking. With vocals held to a minimum in this mysteriously atmospheric setting—Carlos Santana sang as much as original member keyboardist Gregg Rolie, who left soon after this recording to form Journey with Schon—and there was no discernible loss, as the eloquent vocabulary of his guitar playing more than compensated. But it isn’t just eh guitars that capture and hold your attention on this album; it’s the ebb and flow of the music as a whole, as the arrangements give prominence to keyboards percussion as well as the fretboards. Caravanserai plays like one long piece of music as the instruments move to the forefront and then recede almost indiscernibly into the background; the remastering overcomes the compressed sound of the vinyl and early CD mixes to reveal a much greater depth of sound where the contrast between acoustic and electric instruments plays off to much greater effect.
Welcome is less of a single piece than its predecessor: the rock, Latin and jazz elements are segregated into individual tracks instead of fluidly coalescing, though the sonic textures are increased proportionately in the digital remastering. The bonus track included on this expanded edition, “Mantra,” would have deepened the ethereal quality of this album, generated by the haunting and mysterious opener “Going Home” together with the equally moving and soothing instrumental version of John Coltrane’s “Welcome” at the album’s end. Instead, “When I Look Into Your Eyes," sung by Leon Thomas, and “Samba de Sausalito” become the first inklings of Carlos Santana’s willingness to sublimate his exploratory inclination to his desire for commercial success.
The two-disc version of Moonflower is a prime example of that creeping careerism, combining live renditions of earlier Santana studio pieces, played by rote rather than with abandon, cobbled together with newly-recorded tracks bereft of mood (“Dawn/Go Within,”) and patently commercial fodder (a cover of the Zombies’ '60s hit “She’s Not There.” This package come a few years after the burst of creativity that gave birth to the evolving Santana band‘s most compelling studio work, as well as Carlos Santana’s collaboration with John McLaughlin (which also took the form of a one-off concert tour). Hal Miller’s effusive liner notes make no mention of the live performances that followed the recording and release of Love Devotion and Surrender, and the CD reissue further lacks individual track credits that would illuminate the interplay of the revolving cast of musicians here, including Santana drummer extraordinaire Michael Shrieve, his counterpart Billy Cobham from McLaughlin’s groundbreaking Mahavishnu Orchestra, as well as Jan Hammer on keyboards and drums from that latter group.
Well-rendered in its original five-track form, this CD includes alternate versions of the more compelling tracks that not only consolidate the spiritual leanings of the music but give the gorgeous sounding disc a circularity appropriate to the zen-like atmosphere Santana and Mc Laughlin were evoking so tangibly otherwise. In addition to the electric guitar dialogues that include yet another homage to John Coltrane in “A Love Supreme” – “Flame Sky from Welcome" would fit right in on this album – the acoustic cuts expand the dynamics of this project even further. That begs the question of why Carlos Santana took the direction that led to Moonflower’s blatant underachievement; as well as why the Legacy label chose to include the latter in this release instead of the fusion-oriented Borboletta. The latter disc was next in line chronologically and stylistically, given the contributions by Stanley Clarke and Airto, who were both conspicuous figures in the jazz-rock landscape by the time of its release in the mid-'70s, and whose presence gave further credibility to Carlos Santana’s skill and ambition in this realm.
Grammy awards aside, Santana’s current careerist bent of the last three to four years is diametrically opposed to the experimentalism documented on three of these four reissues. It’s the kind of ambition that stretched him, as well as his collaborating musicians, beyond the scope of what was expected of them – rather than catering to the lowest common denominator. But if the consolidation of Carlos Santana’s name recognition draws curious listeners to Caravanserai, Welcome and Love Devotion and Surrender, they will definitely be pleasantly surprised... and chances are, deeply satisfied with what they hear.
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