Sunday, June 30, 2013

Santana, "Stone Flower"

It's from Caravanserai, the 1972 album on which Santana switched gears drastically from highly-accessible Afro-Latin jam-rock to rather arcane Afro-Latin jazz-rock.  He lost a lot of his audience with this record, and the two in the same vein that followed it, and while I have a lot of love for Welcome and Borboletta, I've never quite warmed to Caravanserai.  I think it's because there are two or three too many atmospheric waves-of-sound tracks to wade through before you get to the rhythmical stuff.

But the rhythmical stuff is there, and some of it's amazing.  Take for example Santana's take on Tom Jobim's "Stone Flower."  Here's Jobim's version for comparison. 

What's apparent here is how hard Santana is trying not to rock this up.  He'd loosen up a bit on the following two albums, allowing his band to mix the new jazz aspirations with enough soul and pop indulgences to make the whole thing sound natural, but on this album it's apparent that Santana is trying very hard to be taken seriously as a jazzer, and is reining in any tendencies toward rock overkill.  Whether that's the right decision for the lp as a whole is where I'm undecided, but on "Stone Flower" it produces a wonderful sense of restraint, of abandon held carefully in check, that really makes the record.

Santana has a whole army playing on this track:  two guitarists, an acoustic bassist, organ, piano, Rhodes, not to mention vocals and a phalanx of percussionists, both rock and Latin.  It could easily have overwhelmed Jobim's fragile bossa melody, which often happens when big bands get their hands on his tunes.  That doesn't happen here:  everybody knows his or her place and plays in it, carefully, intricately, and with great deference to each other and the song. 

Listen to Mike Shrieve's characteristically busy, inventive drum work, and how subtly it submits to its role in the overall percussion framework of the track.  Listen to Tom Rutley's acoustic bass, how it leaps into almost a lead-instrument role here and there, and consider how many times you've heard that happen in a predominantly electric setting. 

But most of all check out Carlos's playing.  (Or is that Neal Schon?  I confess I have a hard time telling them apart when they're both on a track.  But I think this is Carlos.)  He's got a beautiful melodic line to himself, and he plays it with blood and sweat, but not too much.  Just when you think he's about to cut loose he drops out and the band goes into that little laughing break.  When Carlos comes back in he's back to that melodic line.  The emotional energy goes, not into some cathartic run, but into the bite with which he plays the notes he's given, and the organ-sounding distortion on his guitar (I don't know what precisely he's doing, but it comes out sounding a bit like when Clapton played through a Leslie.)

The result is a rich, lush, intricate sound that conveys a lot of energy without ever losing the cool.  Very nice.

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