Looking back on the epic summit between guitar gurus Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin
Despite the success of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s album Birds of Fire, guitarist and bandleader John McLaughlin found himself at the helm of a sinking ship.
One source of tension was McLaughlin’s deep devotion to his guru Sri Chinmoy. While his bandmates didn’t necessarily have an issue with his spiritual pursuits, they found themselves unable to live up to the expectations of McLaughlin. While not proselytizing, the other musicians felt that McLaughlin believed himself to be superior to them, damaging their relationship with the guitarist. Mahavishnu was coming apart at the seams.
It must have come as a relief to enter into a recording session with recent Chimnoy convert Carlos Santana. Recorded as a tribute to both Sri Chinmoy and John Coltrane, the recording sessions were reported to be a blissed-out stab at nirvana, with both Sanatana and McLaughlin barely able to contain their emotions. In fact, Chinmoy’s own press department had lent its support to the record.
Such ecstatic emotions are immediately obvious on the album’s opening track, “A Love Supreme,” a reworking of Coltrane’s tune “Acknowledgement” from his A Love Supreme album. Trane’s magnum opus had a tremendous influence on both guitar players, and McLaughlin also points to it as an important spiritual influence in his early years.
The song is overflowing with the kind of fretboard pyrotechnics one would expect from two of the instrument’s greatest virtuosos, yet it never feels like a technical exercise. Instead, each flurry of notes feels like an ecstatic prayer, reaching higher and higher toward the ineffable. Emotionally, it feels not unlike Albert Ayler’s own exhortations, even if it is musically quite different. This song also features organist Larry Young, performing here as Khalid Yasin. His beds of organs provide a strong center to the group’s sound, perhaps the only thing keeping the guitars from falling out of orbit.
Next up is another Coltrane composition, “Naima.” This short piece is performed as a duet between McLaughlin and Santana, both on acoustic guitar. It is delicate but at times McLaughlin’s ability to play rapid-fire notes shows through. Rather than a fiery display of technique, it sounds like a nod toward Indiana classical music, a huge influence on both him and Coltrane.
The McLaughlin-penned “The Life Divine” sees the ensemble return in full-throated, electric form. The piece seems to insert itself into a conversation with Coltrane, with chants of the title and “it’s yours and mine” echoing the rhythm of the “A Love Supreme”-chant from “Acknowledgement.” Santana comes in early in the tune with one of his most thrilling solos on the record. McLaughlin solos later in the tune, locked in an intense conversation with Young’s organ and a slew of percussionists, including Billy Cobham and Don Alias.
“Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord” is a new arrangement of a traditional gospel tune and finds the group sticking to their electric instruments. However, the feel here feels a touch more restrained. The opening few minutes of the nearly 16-minute epic dances around a beat rather than immediately diving into the burning fusion territory of its predecessors. Things due eventually pick up, but the entire piece feels more like a blending of modal and spiritual jazz, albeit with electric guitars taking center stage. Both Santana and McLaughlin trade jaw-dropping solos, but Young’s organ solo, about midway through, is noteworthy as well, despite being a bit buried in the mix.
The album closes with another short acoustic tune, “Meditation.” Here, McLaughlin plays piano leaving Carlos Santana to take the fore on acoustic guitar. He shows great restraint though, every phrase minimal but well constructed. At under three minutes, it is nearly over as soon as it starts, especially when set next to the previous epic.
Love Devotion Surrender was released right in the opening years of the jazz fusion movement and could certainly be considered at home in the genre. But while critics often portrayed the genre as full of self-aggrandizing technical workouts, this album feels different. The spiritual thread that ties together Santana and McLaughlin and seems echoed in Coltrane’s own life elevates this music in both meaning and purpose. One does not need to be a Sri Chinmoy convert to feel what these musicians felt, and surely not all of the backing band subscribed to the same belief system. But the music here transcends an intellectual understanding of a belief system, instead launching them towards spirituality beyond words.
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