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Old 03-28-2012, 07:19 PM   #1084 (permalink)
Trollheart
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When you're young you do stupid things. Well, in fairness when you're old you do stupid things too, but at least you know they're stupid. Back in the mists of my long-forgotten youth, when you had to step lively to avoid being crushed by a tyrannosaur while still keeping a sharp lookout for people on penny-farthing bicycles, I heard “Samba pa ti”, by Santana. Now, no-one will deny it's a beautiful piece of music, a real classic and shows off Carlos' smooth command of the guitar like no other. So I went out and bought the album it was on, “Abraxas”. Not a bad move: it also has the other Santana classic from that era, one of their most famous and biggest hits, “Black magic woman”. So it was a fair bet I'd like it, yes? Well no, not really. I found Santana's brand of jazz and rock fusion married to salsa and other latin American styles to be very much not to my taste. I knew Santana were respected though, and even then I didn't want to look like a dork for not having given it a chance, so I did listen to the album a few times, but never really got it.

So perhaps I just left it at that? Might have been the intelligent thing to do, might have been the coward's way out. Well, in the end I decided I'd give them another shot, and went for “Caravanserai”. Why? Well, a few reasons. It had a cool cover, very mysterious and eastern. Plus I had been reading at the time a lot of sword-and-sorcery/fantasy novels --- the likes of Moorcock, Leiber and Burroughs --- and the idea of a caravanserai appealed to me: the mystery, the danger, the unknown. Looking down at the titles I thought they looked interesting, though in fairness I had already maxxed out my experience of Santana, having bought the album that had on it the only two hits of theirs I knew.

Caravanserai --- Santana --- 1972 (Columbia)


“Caravanserai”, as it turned out, was something of a left turn in direction for Carlos and the guys. First, they went almost completely instrumental. NOT a good thing to try and get into when you're 16 or 17! Also, the style was changing, concentrating more on the arty, experimental side of jazz, and going for more intricate, complicated musical compositions. The first three albums could at least be said to have had a core of rock, but “Caravanserai” dumped that and filtered out all the heavy elements that had characterised Santana's music up to then, leaving the album more an artist's expression than a fan's record. Not surprisingly, it was about here that Santana's commercial appeal began to wane. Add to that the fact that Neal Schon was already thinking about forming a band called Journey, something he would quit the next year to do, and you can forgive him perhaps for not having his head totally in this album, but it does take from it.

None of which I knew when I bought the album, this being long before Wikipedia, Google, itunes or YouTube (yes, there was a time when none of these services were available to us poor record buyers, and we had to make our own decisions, based on recommendations, hearsay, musical knowledge or just dumb luck) existed, and I had no way to know what the album was like. I was therefore a little impatient when the first two songs had come and gone and there was no singing. Now, I wasn't an idiot, even then. Well, let's qualify that: I was an idiot, as all sixteen year olds are. But even then I knew some albums were instrumental, and I even enjoyed some, being a fan of Vangelis, Tomita and Mike Oldfield. But I was unaware that this album was mostly instrumental, and more, it was not the sort of instrumental I liked! Jean-Michel Jarre's “Oxygene”. Vangelis' “To the unknown man”. Oldfield's “Tubular bells”. These were the kind of instrumentals I enjoyed. Electronic, atmospheric, ethereal, what would today be called (and probably is) ambient.

But the instrumental jazz on this album left me absolutely cold. I have never been a fan of jazz music, still do not like it, and to have to listen to a whole album of it, well it was just a little too much to take. I think I found one track I liked and included it on a compilation tape (ask yer dad!) but other than that the album was carefully repacked and left on my shelf to gather dust, until one day when I was desperate for money (as 16-18 year olds almost always are) and sold it with some others to some second-hand record shop, getting nothing like what I had paid for it. I was not sad to see it go, and to be honest, if I'd had to pay someone to take it... well, not quite, but we definitely parted company on frosty terms.

It's been over thirty years since I've listened to that album, so now here I am, back in the Last Chance Saloon to give it one more go. Has time and age made me wiser, more perceptive, more tolerant? I've learned over the intervening years that just because I don't like a particular musical style, genre or band it doesn't mean they're no good. I've opened my musical ears and broadened my musical horizons by listening to artistes I would never have entertained when I was younger. And I've gained a far greater appreciation of the music that is out there, that there is in reality no really bad music, just bad bands or people who think of money first and quality a very distant second. But those who play music because they love it, because it is their life, have to be admired because they are dedicating themselves to the one true happiness in their lives, and trying to make the lives of others richer by passing this on. Surely that has to be applauded?

But maybe I haven't changed enough to appreciate, understand or accept this album. I still don't like jazz, but maybe I remember “Caravanserai” too harshly. Maybe it's not so bad. Maybe it's not so jazz. Maybe I just didn't like it because it failed to live up to my idea of what should be there on the record, maybe I was just disappointed and felt let down, that I had spent my hard-earned money on an album I ended up disliking, and wished I had bought something else instead. Maybe I blamed Santana, for making an album I didn't like, instead of realising that just because I didn't like it, did not necessarily make it a bad album.

Or maybe I'll still hate it. There's only one way to find out.

It opens with the sounds of crickets, which goes on for about forty seconds until it's joined by a wailing saxophone which sounds more like a ship's horn really, then conga drums slowly build in as the suitably hippy-titled “Eternal caravan of reincarnation” begins to get going. Problem as I see it though, even now, is that we're already halfway through the piece and there hasn't really been any appreciable melody, although Santana's guitar is beginning to slide its way in. This is really more like an introduction, an overture to the album, and as such it's pretty much over before it begins, taking us into “Waves within”, a shorter piece. To give Santana their due, there are few if any epic instrumentals, as each track here comes in around the 3-4 minute mark, only the closer hitting the higher figures.

Carried on a thick organ line and at last some proper guitar, this is at least a bit more cohesive, and you can hear the theme beginning to be created. That said, the opener did set the scene, evoking images of desert sands, nights under the stars, caravans of wagons pulled by camels slowly wending their way across the dunes under the blazing unforgiving sun. “Waves within”, however, for want of a better phrase, rocks out much better, most of this being down to Carlos' energetic guitar work, though Michael Shrieves' drums and Jason Mingo Lewis' bongos do also add a lot to the atmosphere, as does Gregg Rolie's organ work.

“Look up (to see what's coming down)” ups the ante even more, Rolie's powerful organ carrying the melody alongside Carlos' squealing guitar lines, a young Neal Schon helping out with some guitar licks of his own. The percussion gets fairly frenzied here, helped along by the organ, the whole tune verging a little into progressive rock territory at times. It fades out on a nice smooth organ with rolling drums, and we're into “Just in time to see the sun”, where Santana's guitar takes on a harder edge and we hear vocals for the first time on the album, which I think are those of Gregg Rolie, as it seems Santana himself only sings on the sixth track.

It's the shortest track on the album, barely two and a half minutes, then deep organ, guitar that would one day be reflected in the work of the likes of Gilmour and Clapton, more congas and bongos usher in “Song of the wind”, which conversely is one of the longer tracks on the album, at around six minutes. There are echoes of the guitar melody from “Samba pa ti” in there, with some lovely, expressive organ from Rolie counterpointing the guitar licks, but the song is essentially a showcase for the talents of the man, and Santana does not disappoint, putting his guitar through its paces in a display of some serious fretwork. No wonder he's so respected, and is such an influence, even now. It's interesting how quickly the six minutes go in: nothing seems strained or overextended, and then we have another vocal track.

“All the love of the universe” is another long track, just shading the eight minute mark, and opens on hard guitar with a rocky edge, some feedback effects, tricky percussion and even blues guitar riffs before settling down into a nice guitar and bass groove before the vocals come in and it then bops along nicely in a sort of latin/jazz beat with prog rock overtones. The jazz fusion experimentation does run a little out of hand on this one though, and I can begin to see where my sixteen-year old self started shaking his head and wondering why he had bought this album. Even now, thirty-three years later, I have to admit I find this boring. It's just uninspiring, something of an ordeal to listen to, and it's only at the four minute mark.

Some nice guitar coming up though, which serves to liven up the piece, and in all honesty it's the first one that's put me back in the shoes of a musically-naive teenager; prior to this, I had been thinking why didn't I like this when I was younger, but now I know. It takes a lot of discipline and effort to listen through this track, despite the super organ solo unleashed by Rolie at around the five minute mark, and as this song basically closed what would have been side one of the original vinyl album, I find myself wondering will side two redeem itself?

I do remember hating “Future primitive”, but let's listen again with the experience of thirty-some years and see if it sounds any better to my ears now. A heavy, spacey synth line opens the piece, humming along with added piano effects, some strummed guitar lines, very like something out of an old seventies science-fiiction movie, until percussion ambles in in the form of bongos, congas and timbales, hitting the whole thing upside the head with a real salsa makeover, though the droning synth remains in the background. It's sort of fading now though, overridden by the heavy, almost joyous percussion that tries to drown out its monotonous, dour dirge.

The piece is almost completely percussion now, as you might expect from a song written by two drummers. In ways, it's like a drum solo but very structured, not just the wild abandon of a drummer “going off on one”. Then, having introduced itself to the melody slowly, it fades out quickly, leaving the droning synth to carry us into “Stone flower”, upbeat organ joining as the drums come back in, bass popping up as if it's just been waiting to be asked to join the party, some sort of chant going on low in the background, then Santana's guitar snaps in, taking the tune. And now vocals begin, almost taking me by surprise. I must admit, although I believed the reverse would be the case, I'm finding that the music creates such a soundscape on its own on this album that vocals almost detract from it, breaking the spell, as it were. This is, at any rate, the last vocalised track.

Opening on a nice solid piano line, “La fuente del ritmo” very quickly gives itself over to fast percussion, mostly bongos, congas and timbales, and the guitar then directs the melody against this backbeat, the drums flying along while the guitar doesn't try to match them for speed, but does keep pace with them musically. Some energetic organ joins in, but it's really only background as Santana takes over the tune, wringing every note he can out of his guitar. Great solo on the electric piano then from Tom Coster, quite mesmerising as the guitar bows and takes a break while Coster and Rolie rack out the melody, even they bowing out and allowing the frenetic percussion to bring the song to its fadeout.

And so we close on the longest track on the album. Nine minutes long, “Every step of the way” is a multi-instrumental epic, opening on sharp guitar and organ, slightly restrained (for once!) percussion, but this, like the last one, is drummer-penned, so expect some big input from the percussion later on. For now, heavy organ alternates with snarling guitar as the song enters its third minute, then the percussion assault begins, as Santana winds up the guitar and lets fly, the bongos and congas rattling along behind him, Rolie's organ doing its best to keep up. Santana also use an orchestra on this track, for the first time, and the effect is really quite stunning, as the strings and brass and woodwinds all join to really flesh out what was already a pretty powerful piece of music.

Santana really goes crazy on the guitar here, giving it all he's got, while the orchestra sedately fills in the gaps, like an old butler picking up after his untidy but brilliant master. By the time we reach the seventh minute, Carlos is out on his own, the drums rushing along to try and catch him, but the man has by now left Earth and is inhabiting some strange, inner place to which only he has the passport. Almost an epiphany to hear what this legendary master of the guitar can do when he wishes to. The orchestra comes back in as the song nears its end and Carlos rejoins us mere mortals on this planet, and the whole thing slowly and sublimely fades away into the distance as the album comes to a close.

I can understand why as a sixteen year old I hated --- well, was disappointed with --- this album. It's the old adage, isn't it, that things improve with age. But that's not to say the album improves; no, it's me that had to age to, not improve, but to better appreciate this record. Now, I'm not saying I love it, but I can very much more “get” it. You have to listen to the nuances of the playing, the way the songs are structured, the tightness of the whole band as a unit, the imagery they create without (mostly) the use of words, lyrics or any vocalisation. That takes skill, dedication and real talent.

The sixteen year old me just wanted to hear good songs. He was too young, too inexperienced, too naïve and too impatient to realise that he was hearing good songs: great songs even. He just needed to open his ears. Well, mine are open now and I can say that this is a fine album. I don't know that I'll listen to it that often after this, but I can say without fear of contradiction that, had I still got it in my vinyl collection, I would definitely think twice now about selling it.

TRACKLISTING

1. Eternal caravan of reincarnation
2. Waves within
3. Look up (to see what's coming down)
4. Just in time to see the sun
5. Song of the wind
6. All the love of the universe
7. Future primitive
8. Stone flower
9. La fuente del ritmo
10. Every step of the way
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