Taking its tip from the heyday of Latin music in New York City, Malo remains a classic and still sounds fresh and undated. Guitarist Jorge Santana (yes, he’s Carlos’ brother) provides plenty of sparks, but the group is rounded out by Abel Zapato, who provides a mean two-guitar attack along with Santana, percussionist Richard Bean, whose song “Suavacito” was the group’s biggest hit, percussionist Coke Escovedo, and a full-fledged horn section that kept the group in touch with its Latin roots.
Yeah, Malo sounds like Santana at times, but they also sound, variously, like the Rolling Stones, Eddie Palmieri’s La Perfecta, Willi Bobo’s Latin soul, Tito Puente’s mambo outfits, and some smooth Philadelphia soul.
“Pana” starts things off with a track that is rhythmically not unlike any number of Santana songs, but which exhibits the large horn sound and multi-layered percussion that adds that something extra, that something more authentically Latin about Malo. There’s some spirited vocal work and a high trumpet solo, and just when it seems to have picked up all the energy it possibly could, with just over two and a half minutes left to go, it raves up double-time and the horn section takes off on a hot mambo fantasia. And that’s the way the group takes it out.
“Just Say Goodbye” starts as a slow, steamy tropical exploration, with the guitar mixed far away, as if in a dream. Again there’s a big changeup, about a minute and a half in, where the percussion takes over and the bass line is reminiscent of the riff from “Expressway To Your Heart” by Philly’s Soul Survivors. Then Santana takes off on a long guitar solo that eventually erupts into a group vocal chant. And somehow the thing manages to download back into the introductory mode, with a complete set of lyrics. It’s as if most of the song is a jam intro that leads to the song itself.
All of the songs are extended jams, but most don’t rely on overly-long guitar solos. There are intricate horn arrangements and stretches that feature the percussion section ad-libbing on the basic groove.
Malo may have been the ultimate Latin rock album, the one where the perfect combination of rock, Latin, soul, and groove was achieved. And into the middle of this hotbed of Latin soul-rock, the group lobs “Suavacito” like a pop music dirty bomb. Sensual, soulful and sweet, the number is like a long lost Latin Motown production that never sounds dated or trite. Percussionist Bean wrote the lyrics, originally, as a poem to a girl in his high school algebra class, and he provides a suitably romantic lead vocal here.
The group ends the album with the heavy riff of “Peace,” perhaps the most San Francisco psychedelic number on the album, one that also invokes the heavy rock horn sections of Blood Sweat and Tears and early Chicago.
Oh, and the album has extraordinary cover art, a painting by Mexican artist Jesus Helguara whose work is filled with images of Aztec mythology, Mexican life, and scenery. Helguara’s work influenced the work of so many Hispanic artists in the United States during the 1970s and 80s.
Malo was released in 1972. Other albums released that year included Santana’s Caravanserai, Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones, Roxy Music’s debut, Vol. 4 by Black Sabbath, Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie, Close to the Edge by Yes, and much more.