Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Santana (1969) and associated tracks

It's amazing to me that the first Santana album was recorded mere months after replacing the percussion section.  Marcus Malone and Bob Livingston were out, and Mike Carabello, José Areas, and Mike Shrieve were in, and that made all the difference.  They locked with David Brown and the chassis was fixed:  the ride went from shaky to smooooooth.

And that first album, the first eponymous one.  It hardly even needs to be described, it's so ubiquitous.  It doesn't have quite the amount of ear-candy on it that Abraxas does, but if you've listened to the radio in the last forty-three years you've heard "Evil Ways," and probably "Persuasion."  It's all so familiar that it can be hard to appreciate what a daring and inventive thing it was, this Santana music.

They combined at least two strains of '60s jazz, the kind "played with Verve":  the Jimmy Smith organ-combo sound and the Willie Bobo late-Latin boogaloo sound.  Already that's a wicked blend;  to these they added an Albert King-style coruscating blues guitar, but it was playing trumpet lines as often as not.  All of that was then filtered through the San Francisco ballroom aesthetic:  jam, get weird, let the dancers work it out, amp up the colors in the emotions. 

That it all sounds so simple and obvious on the record is a tribute to how well the band knew their brief, but make no mistake, this is complex music.  The Santana musicians were probably, collectively, the best musicians on the whole scene.  I mean, Gregg Rolie should have been quaking in his boots to go up against Jimmy Smith, but he holds his own.  Mike Shrieve - Mike Shrieve was all of 20 when this record was made, but he sounds like a veteran.  Carabello and Chepito - they're the key to it all.  Most bands that have extra percussionists, they're just color;  these guys were the core.  Without them, there was no Santana.

And Carlos himself?  Well, he just basically invented his own style.  His attack, his phrasing, his very sound, though you could hear his influences, was just wholly and completely his own, and just bigger, more intense, more ballsy than anything else in town.  I really think that in '69 he was the only guitarist who could have stood on the same stage as Jimi and held his head up.  And of course Carlos would only get better from here (just wait 'til we get to 1972).

So, yeah, the first album is essential.  But which version to get?

Like the third album, it's gone through a few permutations.  In 1998 there was a single-disc remaster that added a modicum of extra tracks, from Woodstock.  This has been totally superseded, but that's the last easy decision there is to make.

In 2004 there was a two-disc reissue that looks, at first glance, like the shit.  It has two alternate takes and a studio jam from the album sessions;  it also has the first-draft sessions with the previous lineup (discussed here);  and it also has most - but, crucially, not quite all of the band's performance at Woodstock.  It's missing "Evil Ways," which the liner notes say was not performed at Woodstock, but which actually was.

In 2009, as part of the Woodstock 40th anniversary push, the complete - for reals this time - Woodstock set was released, but only as part of another 2-disc reissue of the debut album, as part of something called The Woodstock Experience.  Great, right?  Except that this edition removes all the other bonus tracks.

What's worth having?  As much Woodstock as possible, for one thing.  It's true, their performance of "Evil Ways" is pretty tentative - it's the weak spot in their set, for sure.  But come on, this is immortal stuff, history in the making - seldom has a single show done so much for an act.

On the other hand, some of the studio outtakes on the 2004 edition are eminently worth hearing.  The "Studio Jam" is my favorite:  it's an up-tempo number with Rolie on acoustic piano, kind of like seven minutes of the middle section of "Treat."  Which itself is a highlight of the album, so.

Basically, you have to get both editions.  But even then you're not, because the best single track associated with Santana '69 is the version of "Soul Sacrifice" that shows up on the original Woodstock album.  Not any of the subsequent box sets, but the original Music From The Original Soundtrack And More triple-lp, or straight CD reissues thereof.  It's edited down - 8 minutes as opposed to 11 in the complete version.  And it's spliced together with rainstorm sounds and the "Crowd Rain Chant".  This is a lie - the rains and Santana fell on different days.  But it's one of those lies that reveals a greater truth.  This is the essence of what Santana were up to in 1969:  earth, sky, water, flesh, sinew, bone, voice, and sound, all the primal elements in a tribal moment of celebratory, worshipful frenzy that somehow resolves itself into music.  It's this version of "Soul Sacrifice" that is the cornerstone of even the most modest Santana collection.

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