Celebrating a half century of the most definitive Santana studio LP
By now, Santana has burned through much of the cultural capital they earned at Woodstock and on their first few albums (have you watched the video for “Smooth” lately? The song is pure cheese and the visuals are full of offensive stereotypes of “spicy Latinas”).
But by the time I was buying used LP’s in the late 70’s, Santana was considered at the forefront of the American rock bands that arose in the late 1960’s. And the album that truly cemented their position in the rock pantheon was Abraxas, their second album, which came out 50 years ago this month.
In his richly detailed memoir, The Universal Tone, Carlos Santana gave a peek into the artistic motivations behind Abraxas. “At the time, everybody was taking the sounds and ideas from Jimi Hendrix and the British guys or from R&B players like the ones who played for Motown. I was thinking more from the back of my brain – way in the back – like, what’s the sound of a soul praying or a ghost crying?”
The fact that he was able to think in such metaphysical terms just months after the scrappy San Francisco band stormed the stage at Woodstock comes down to a couple of factors. First, the success of Santana’s first album, which had hit #4 on the Billboard 200, gave them the luxury of more time in the studio. A bigger budget also gave them a better studio, with most of the new material being recorded in Wally Heider’s studio, one of the best on the West Coast, and a more experienced producer in Fred Catero. As Santana wrote, “Fred helped make it easy for us to paint and play without worrying whether we were getting recorded in the right way.” Second, Santana became an early adopter of the Boogie amplifier, which was, as he writes, “…a small amplifier with enough beef to it so you could play with drive and sustain whatever the volume was.” He credits the Boogie as “the thing that most helped my tone,” going on to say, “Some of the best things I ever played – including most of Abraxas – came through that first Boogie amplifier…”
Success may have helped Santana, but they were also still seeking another kind of acceptance as their debut was not universally loved by rock’s critical establishment. On the West Coast, you had Langdon Winner proclaiming in Rolling Stone that Santana’s debut was a “masterpiece of hollow technique” while calling percussionists Michael Shrieve, Michael Carabello, and José “Chepito” Areas “incompetent.” On the East Coast, you had Robert Christgau calling it “A lot of noise,” and giving it a C-. Reviews like that must have stung. But it is also true that while often spectacular, from my current vantage point some of the debut is marred by crowd-pleasing cliches. Either way, the critical tongue lashing was counterbalanced by the support of fellow musicians like Miles Davis, who called Carlos Santana in the studio while Abraxas was in progress.
Miles must have had an inkling of what Santana the man and Santana the band were capable of, because the end result of their work in Heider’s studio is very nearly the Bitches Brew of Latin-American rock. You can hear the ghosts crying in the opening cut, “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” which starts with shimmering percussion and exploratory piano from Greg Rolie, before Santana enters with fiery feedback-drenched guitar, fading into a new section featuring Rolie on Fender Rhodes, sparkling over a bed of congas and whooshing cymbals. The song is credited to Carabello, who apparently sang his ideas to Rolie before the two of them laid down the basic track for Santana to solo over. He was spot on in his memoir when he called it “a very evocative way to start an album – little mysterious.” It also effectively serves notice that rather than giving us a rushed recording of concert material, Santana were presenting a “capital A” album.
“Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” fades into the extended introduction to “Black Magic Woman, with Rolie’s swirling organ and Santana’s delicate picking supported by Dave Brown’s propulsive bass line and Carabello’s bongos. Over 90 seconds, they build a luxurious tension, joined by Areas’ timbales and then trills from Rolie’s Fender Rhodes, only broken by Santana’s extravagant chord introducing the first verse. Written by Peter Green and released as a single by Fleetwood Mac in 1968, this was likely most Americans’ first hearing of the song. Good thing, too, as Santana’s take is almost as striking an interpretation as Jimi Hendrix’s epic cover of “All Along The Watchtower.” However, in this case, they had far less to work with, given the original’s overall anemic flavor with Mick Fleetwood and John McVie barely able to articulate anything interesting in their rhythmic approach. Shrieve, Carabello, and Areas don’t have that problem, making the Latin rhythms explicit without being too obvious, giving the dark-hued melody a flair that is barely hinted at in the original.
VIDEO: Santana performing “Black Magic Woman” on Beat Club 1971
After all, Green had based his song on Otis Rush’s 1958 “All Your Love,” a lusty rhumba with a bluesy breakdown. Santana not only rewire Green’s song to connect it back to Rush’s power, they also cannily combine it with Gabor Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen,” an instrumental from 1966’s Spellbinder. Santana’s smoking tone and precise attack turn Szabo’s slow burn into a supercharged conflagration. Green’s lyrics are a fairly schematic assembly of blues tropes, yet Rolie’s understated performance imbues them with drama. But it’s Santana and his Boogie amp who are the true stars, especially when they head into the Szabo section. Masterfully controlling feedback and pushing and pulling at the rhythms like a great jazz player, Santana created a solo for the ages, dynamic and fascinating, especially when he locks horns with Carabello’s timbales.
“Gypsy Queen” goes out in a blaze of glory, cutting directly into Rolie’s organ intro to “Oye Como Va,” the Tito Puente classic. Originally released in 1962, it may have been as unfamiliar as “Black Magic Woman” to many American kids, at least those who weren’t Latin jazz devotees. Santana heard “Oye Como Va” as the cha-cha-chá equivalent of “Louie Louie” and sought to make it as ubiquitous. Replacing the lavish orchestration of Puente’s band, which had a penny whistle carry the melody, with gritty organ and his guitar, accomplished that feat easily, and had rock & rollers dancing in the aisles of ballrooms across the country. And for people like me, who grew up surrounded by Cuban immigrants playing in drum circles in the park all summer long, it helped spur deeper investigations into Latin music.
Closing out side one was “Incident At Neshabur,” an instrumental track from earlier sessions that hadn’t found a home on the debut. Co-written by Carlos Santana and Alberto Gianquinto, a pianist most known for his work with the James Cotton Blues Band, it moves impressively through a wide dynamic range of moods and styles, driven by Gianquinto’s powerful piano and Rolie’s high-flying Hammond B3. Santana shows off his jazz chops yet again in soaring and rhythmically detailed solos. The combination of lyricism, hard rock, and Latin percussion makes the song a perfect calling card for everything Santana did best. In the liner notes to the 1998 CD reissue, Rolie makes much the same case, proclaiming it “was one of my favorite things. We did time changes, colors, and things that musically were very sophisticated.” He also breaks down the songs roots in songs by Horace Silver and Burt Bacharach, saying, “We’d just combine things we had a passion for. We didn’t consciously know what we were doing.”
“Se A Cabo,” written by Areas, is a brief burst of excitement showcasing his timbales alongside Brown’s pulsating bass and massive riffs from Rolie and Santana. It was natural template for expansive live performances like this one from Tanglewood on August 18, 1970 when Miles Davis opened for them. Next up is Rolie’s “Mother’s Daughter,” which despite some ham-fisted lyrics, features one of his most convincing vocal performances and makes a case for Santana as a straight up hard rock band. “Samba Pa Ti” serves as a great contrast, a gentle, melodic wonder written by Santana alone, and one that he said came from “pure feeling,” telling Mojo it was the first true representation of “my tone, my fingerprints, my identity, my uniqueness.” There’s an endless river of melody coming from his guitar throughout, with astonishing dexterity at the top of the fretboard. It’s the the furthest thing I can imagine from “hollow technique” and it’s no wonder “Samba Pa Ti” became one of their most covered songs, with versions by everyone from José Feliciano to Angelique Kidjo.
“Hope You’re Feeling Better,” another Rolie original follows, a funky hard rocker with furious wah wah playing by Santana. In this and “Mother’s Daughter” you can hear the roots of Journey, which Rolie formed in 1974 with Neal Schon when they both left Santana – and which started out a very different band than what they became. The contrast between something like “Samba Pa Ti” and the two Rolie songs on either side of it was likely a hint of the tensions in the band that fueled their meteoric rise and would inevitably lead to their downfall. But none of that was known in 1970 and “El Nicoya,” the chill little percussion jam by Areas that ends the album, seems to show a band of brothers in collective harmony.
The album’s ambition was announced by its cover, which featured a densely symbolic 1961 painting by Mati Klarwein called “Annunciation.” In a record store, it must have resonated more with spiritual jazz albums – or even Bitches Brew itself, which also featured a Klarwein painting – than rock albums by artists like The Band or George Harrison, with their black and white imagery. Santana’s hard work was rewarded with bigger sales – Abraxas went to #1 – and better reviews, with curmudgeonly Christgau giving them a C+ and saying, “they’ve improved.” Jim Nash in Rolling Stone called them “one of the tightest units ever to walk into a recording studio,” concluding that “Abraxas is a total boogie and the music is right from start to finish.”
Rather than a sophomore slump, in Abraxas Santana gave us one of the greatest albums of the early AOR-FM era, with every cut ready for the radio, and filled with varieties of expression that make it a fantastic end-to-end listen to this day. If Miles Davis was able to get Carlos Santana on the phone again after this rocket was launched, I’m sure he would have said one word: “Congratulations.”
Santana truly arrived with Abraxas in August 1970 and the only question about them was where would they go next?