Soul Sacrifice Santana was a big hit at Woodstock thanks to an explosive set, but not everyone was a fan of the eponymous first album. The original Rolling Stone review panned the record, finding playing by Carlos Santana and Greg Rolie to be repetitive and relatively dull. Robert Christgau concurred, dubbing the record “A lot of noise.” And so it goes. Because Santana, Phase One, is a jam band, a jam band that, like the Grateful Dead, learned to write and arrange songs to intersperse with jam numbers and/or serve as jumping-ff points. So you either love Santana I-III because of the high-powered jams or the songs or both, or you hate them because of the same reasons. That’s all on display on this showstopping number, a lengthy, energetic Afro-Latin jam that can’t really be topped.
Samba Pa Ti Abraxas had some of the jam feel of the first album, and it was something of a Latin rock masterpiece. The group introduced their highly successful version of the Peter Green Fleetwood Mac song “Black Magic Woman.” Certainly Sanatana, as a guitarist, was interested in the music Peter Green was playing, and he threw down a challenge in recording a version featuring his own instantly recognizable guitar solo. To further differentiate Santana’s version, they ended theirs with a segue into Gabor Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen.” The band also introduced their version of Tito Puente’s “Oy Como Va” and this pretty little tone poem for guitar and rhythm section boosted by Rolie’s organ swells. Based around Carlos’s talent for melodic improvisation, the track stays low key, even as the guitarist heats up his playing in the middle of the track. This is some of my favorite Carlos Sanatana playing, right here. In addition, the album cover artwork is by Mati Klarwein, who also did the cover art for several Miles Davis albums, including Bitches Brew.
Everybody’s Everything This track from Santana III is unusual in that it has a real soul feel, and there’s a good reason for that. Carlos was inspired by the single “Karate,” a local Philadelphia hit single by The Emperors. Carlos contacted “Karate’s” composers, Ty Moss and Milton Brown. Santana asked for permission to use the song’s groove with new lyrics he’d written, and the two songwriters agreed, receiving songwriting credits on the label and royalties. It’s also worth noting that Neal Schon plays the guitar solo on this track, not Carlos. The song also features the Tower of Power horn section, the first time the band had used guest musicians.
Stone Flower Caravanserei marked a turn by the group towards jazz fusion-influenced sounds. The band maintained its Latin base, deepening the sound beyond the ubiquitous congas and cowbells. According to drummer Michael Shrieve, who co-produced with Carlos, Columbia Records President Clive Davis told them they were committing career suicide when he first heard the record. In fact, the record sold less than the previous three albums, a trend that was to continue with the next few releases. Caravanserei was the last Santana record to feature Gregg Rolie and Neal Schon, who both left the band to start Journey the following year.
Mirage Barboletta was the last of three albums in a row ( along with Caravanserei and Welcome) that pursued Santana’s jazzier, more experimental side. For this album he worked with percussionist Airto Moreira and his wife, singer Flora Purim. The two worked with Chick Corea’s original Return to Forever fusion group as well as saxophonist Stan Getz. Purim had just recorded an album called Butterfly Dreams, and that influenced the naming of Santana’s album as well. Carlos also hired new singer/songwriter/keyboard player Leon Patillo, who promptly offered up this song, providing Barboletta‘s only hit as well as an FM radio staple for years to come. Patillo left Santana after the subsequent tour, but he returned for 1977’s Festival album.
Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile) Amigos, released two years after Barboletta, brought Santana back to the top of the heap, featuring a heaping helping of Latin grooves and some songs that turned out to be concert staples, like “Europa,” a ballad showcase for Carlos’ emotional guitar work. Carlos wrote the track with keyboard player Tom Coster, who helped stabilize the group with his washes of keyboards and a grounding in jazz/fusion that helped incorporate the band’s early Latin rock influence with Carlos’ more experimental fusion sounds.
She’s Not There Moonflower combined live tracks recorded during the Amigos tour with new songs recorded in the studio. The band’s cover of this Zombies hit has everything it needs–a Latin rhythm section, the smooth singing of vocalist Greg Walker, some great organ (Coster again), and a searing guitar solo. It was the first Santana single to crack the Billboard top forty since “No One to Depend On” in 1972. The album was #10 and was certified platinum, the last time that would happen until the 1999 release Supernatural. It’s also the version of the song used in the movie Long Kiss Good Night.
All I Ever Wanted The Marathon album accelerated Santana’s plunge into a bigger, thicker sound that helped define what became known as arena rock or, more derogatorily, corporate rock, and this track has plenty of haters. But I’ve always been caught up by the song’s energy and the monster guitar riffs the group deploys. The song has a faster tempo than most of Santana’s hits so far, but there is still a Latin flavor in the rhythm section and Carlos blows through a searing guitar hero solo. There are a lot of better Santana songs than this, but there are times when it just hits the spot. Sadly, arena rock became the prevailing flavor and lesser groups turned it into a formula that robbed it of any vitality it may have had. Only the first Boston album and “All I Ever Wanted” pointed towards fulfilling any kind of promise with this sound. Ironically, Journey had developed a sound that was quite similar and which their old boss felt compelled to emulate. This should have been the album’s single, not the schlocky power ballad “You Know That I Love You.”
Blues for Salvador Blues For Salvador, a Carlos Santana solo album, was the Santana album that should have been released in 1987 instead of the synth-drum mess that was Freedom. BFS does have its problems, but overall it’s a more relaxed album as Carlos unwinds with his guitar among friends like Chester Thompson, Alphonso Johnson, and Tony Williams. The title track, which closes the album, features just Carlos and Chester Thompson’s washes of keyboard. This is the kind of jam that Carlos could probably throw off at a sound check, and yet it’s just exactly right. Together with the gorgeous “Bella” this track was lodged in my head forever after just a few listens.
Anywhere You Want to Go In 2016 Carlos put together most of the surviving members of the original Woodstock-era Santana–Neal Schon, Gregg Rolie, Michael Shrieve, and Mike Carabello–and added current Santana bassist Benny Rietveld and percussionist Karl Perazzo to release Santana IV. Taking up where Santana III left off, this album feels exactly like a bunch of old friends getting together and doing what they do best. This Gregg Rolie song features a minor, bluesy key, just like old times, and his vocals and organ work sound like no time at all has gone by. Carlos and Schon provide the guitar fireworks and it’s one of the rare reunion recordings that lives up to its hype.