Guitar Channel Exclusive: Carlos Santana Interview with Walter KoloskyFor my current book, Power, Passion and Beauty - The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra (Special Edition 2013 Updated eBook), I had the great privilege to interview guitar master Carlos Santana. I knew he was a fan of the band and a close friend of its founder, John McLaughlin. I had no idea, however, of the true breadth of his knowledge and his intense continuing interest in Mahavishnu. It was a revelation. We discussed Mahavishnu in great detail. (Carlos can recall specific live solos.) Many more of his thoughts can be found in the eBook, but Carlos also had some other noteworthy things to say.
Our conversation began by me asking if Carlos had read another recent book of mine, Follow Your Heart - John McLaughlin- song by song, that I had arranged for him to have. I was interested in the answer because the paperback version included never before seen images of the recording sessions of the joint John McLaughlin/Carlos Santana album Love Devotion Surrender. He told me the book must have become lost somehow because he had not seen it. He then went on to express his love of McLaughlin’s composition “Follow Your Heart” and that his favorite version was on The Joe Farrell Quartet album featuring Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. He explained why. I knew right then I would be talking with someone who had much more than just a passing interest in jazz.
It is true that many of his rock fans begrudgingly accept that Santana may go out sometimes, eschew his platinum selling hits, and play some jazz-rock music. Some of those fans have even come to like that, but probably very few appreciate that the pop star seriously risked his commercial viability in the 1970s by recording and collaborating with jazz fusion players such as John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Turiya Alice Coltrane and Larry Young. However, it is his continued involvement and support of that music and its artists that is the underreported story.
Contrary to the most common belief, Santana’s love of jazz and all of its tributaries predates his musical, spiritual, and personal friendship with fellow guitar god John McLaughlin. Though Santana’s love of McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra was the launching pad for his own fusion collaborations and albums, the guitarist was already enamored by the music of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis and Tony Williams Lifetime even before there was a Mahavishnu. (McLaughlin was a major factor in both the Davis and Lifetime music.)
In the years that followed, Santana developed a close and warm friendship with both Miles Davis and jazz drummer Tony Williams. Similarly, Carlos has maintained cherished friendships with pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter, each of whom acts as friend, mentor, and occasional collaborator. The fact that Carlos was able to enlist Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, each of whom is a Mount Rushmore figure in the annals of jazz, to play at his recent wedding reception in Hawaii is sufficient evidence of the esteem in which he is held in the jazz community.
When he first met McLaughlin over 40 years ago, after a Lifetime set at Slugs nightclub in New York City, he complimented the Englishman’s performance on Miles Davis’ album In a Silent Way. Santana also discussed saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s music at length, which really impressed McLaughlin.
Carlos Santana: I said the right things. [chuckles]
The two became friends right there and then.
Despite Santana’s growing fame at this time, the guitarist was in crisis.
Carlos Santana: My band was outselling the Beatles. I mean we sold more records on Abraxas than Abbey Road. But, somehow my joy wasn’t tangible. I felt really sad and disappointed. Something was missing. I could feel it from my gut. The only time I felt joy was when I was listening to John Coltrane, Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
At this time, John McLaughlin was on a quest to try to find self and his own role in the universe. He sought out a spiritual path.
Chinmoy espoused an amalgam of zen beliefs that provided guidance for the personal life, sometimes touching on the artistic and business life, of McLaughlin, Santana and a growing number of followers. Following an Eastern philosophized guru was not such an unusual thing during those times. Millions were seeking answers.
Aside from spiritual aspirations, Santana had already shown an interest in McLaughlin’s music by covering one of his pre-Mahavishnu compositions, “Marbles,” with drummer Buddy Miles for the 1972 album Carlos Santana/Buddy Miles - Live! (To this day, Santana plays the tune in concert.)
The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s first album, The Inner Mounting Flame (1971), had a profound impact on music and on Santana. It was really the first album to fully capture all of the creative virtuosity of jazz and place it into a rock context. It was also, like John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, an album inspired by the spiritual ambitions of its leader.
Carlos Santana: I felt it was music coming from a fire from the heart.
In 1972, Santana recorded Caravanserai. The album of mostly instrumental music was a clear departure from his previous pop-oriented output. Jazz-rock fusion was the new direction. Much of Santana’s fan base went into panic mode. A lot of records were still purchased, but the album marked the beginning of a long and steady decline in sales for the guitarist.
As the friendship between McLaughlin and Santana grew, a recording was inevitable. Love Devotion Surrender, named after a Sri Chinmoy poem, was to be it. With the support of Columbia Records head Clive Davis, the two seekers went into the studio with several members of their respective bands. Carlos was given the spiritual name Devadip by Sri Chinmoy. Some people were none too happy about Santana’s new direction. Eventually, even Clive Davis would have major misgivings.
Carlos Santana: We decided to do an album together. I felt really comfortable being next to John. I looked at John as a brother, who like B.B. King or Buddy Guy, as someone that was there before me in that arena with Miles. I had loved what he had done on In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. I was coming from the mentality of thinking that jazz is an ocean and that there was also a lake, a swimming pool and a bath tub. I knew I couldn’t go to the ocean where Charlie Parker and Coltrane, Miles and Wayne hung out. That was a whole other thing for me and I respect that. But, I can hang out in the deep end of the lake.
Santana’s career as a top-selling artist was not the only thing at risk. His reputation as a guitar player was on the line as well. In the pecking order of musicianship, rock players were seen to be inferior to their counterparts in jazz. Santana was well aware of this, yet decided to jump into the lake anyway.
By this time, Carlos had already gotten to know Miles Davis and he was considerably encouraged by the praise and support that Miles had so generously conferred. Around this same time, Santana had toured in the U.S. with jazz-fusion greats Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter (Weather Report) and here again Carlos was delighted by the support he received from them. The result was that while he knew that he was not at the level of these giants, he also understood as a result of their encouragement that he had something special to contribute.
Carlos Santana: I got the confidence I needed to get that, even with John McLaughlin, that I could hold my own...by that I mean, it doesn’t matter who you are. If you can touch peoples’ hearts and hold their attention for 2 or 3 hours... That’s really what it comes down to. Can you play for 500, 5,000 or even 500,000 people for two to three hours without them getting bored and walking away? I learned that music is a vortex. When you play it correctly, gravity and time disappear. So, Love Devotion Surrender was an incredible lesson for me because I was learning by fire coming into an arena from playing the blues of B.B.King and Tito Puente into this jazz form...whether it was like Return To Forever, Weather Report or the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Miles. I learned that I could find my way all through that.
Though the album, which featured takes on several Coltrane and McLaughlin tunes and the traditional “Let Us Go Into The House of the Lord,” is now considered by many to be a fusion masterpiece, Love Devotion Surrender was not all that well-received in 1973. Many rock critics seemed to despise the recording out of spite. This was not the rockstar Carlos Santana they were used to and they didn’t like it one bit. Santana took it all in stride.
I have learned to look everyone straight in the eye. I don’t look up to people or down to people. I look straight ahead because we are all at the same level. Some people may not like me saying that. But I don’t care. Whether it is Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Dali Lama or the Pope, I look at you straight ahead because we are equal. When it rains, we both get wet the same. If you think you have superiority, that is your problem. I don’t have that. I have a knowing that you may know something I don’t know. But, I have a feeling you may not feel. That puts me on an equal footing on this planet with pretty much anyone.
To support the record, McLaughlin and Santana collected several members of their respective bands and went on a short tour.
Carlos Santana: I remember every second. My joy was being with Armando Peraza, Doug Rauch, and I adored Larry Young (aka Khalid Yasin ) and, of course, John and Billy Cobham (Mahavishnu drummer). It was like being a few years out of high school and all of a sudden you are able to sit down and drive a 12 cylinder Maserati! It was a lot of energy with all of these people playing. I will just be upfront. A lot of these people played with Miles Davis. I loved Miles Davis. We all loved Miles Davis.
Santana’s next album, Welcome, was another in a series of fusion albums he would release through the decade. Of note is a collaboration with McLaughlin on the rave-up “Flame Sky.” Illuminations with John Coltrane’s ex-wife harpist and keyboardist Turiya Alice Coltrane would follow. The result was a wonderful foray into the worlds of orchestral textures and mantra-driven riffs.
In 1980, the last true all-fusion Santana album, The Swing of Delight, was released. The album was also the last he recorded using the name Devadip. (Both he and McLaughlin had decided that the guru’s way was not their way.) On the album he surrounded himself with such jazz luminaries as Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and others. Jazz fans tended to like these albums. Columbia, his record label, and legions of his rock fans did not. Santana’s jazz-rock records still sold well for jazz-rock records. But, compared to the multi-millions his rock albums sold, it was really no contest.
Santana’s focus since then has not been on fusion. (Though I think he would point out that ALL of his music is a fusion) As a consequence, he has once again enjoyed hit recordings and regained his massive selling power. However, to his credit, Santana has never shied away from playing fusion or jazz oriented music when the opportunity presents itself. (During the interview, Carlos was enthusiastic about a recent appearance.)
Carlos Santana: I just played about a week ago at the Hollywood Bowl with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. I still feel the same kind of glee and joy and respect for Wayne and Herbie and John or Miles Davis.
Santana’s proactive involvement in such events has allowed non-mainstream players like Shorter, McLaughlin and others the opportunity to be heard and seen by many more fans than otherwise. Carlos Santana, like fellow fusion fan Jeff Beck, can afford to take such risks at this time in their careers. They have nothing to prove. However, through their respective efforts, they help keep a genre alive that has long since lost the support of the music business. (Whatever that is now.)
Santana’s continued involvement in the genre means a lot, but his take on fusion’s first supergroup, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, goes far beyond the music.
Carlos Santana: Mahavishnu’s music inspired people to aspire like John Coltrane did. Everyone has a fire in the heart. Everyone is made of two things, light and love. Some people trade that for distance and separation from their inner self, their divinity. Mahavishnu music, from the first note, ignites you to remember your light. It is a no-nonsense music that has an effulgent invitation for you to remember your own light. A person who is not aspiring is like a computer that is not connected to the wall. You are existing, but you are not growing. Mahavishnu’s music, like Coltrane’s, is designed to ignite you, to help you remember the spark of the divine in you. You are not just here because of your mom and dad. You are a spark of the divine. That music is like a clarion call to wake-up and live the fullness of your divinity. Don’t be shuckin’ and jivin’, slippin’ and slidin’ and making excuses in this lifetime. Stand-up like a warrior and illuminate your life and other peoples lives...
Those words were spoken by somebody who doesn’t spend too much time wading in the shallow end of the pool.
Walter Kolosky is a music journalist and author of the books Power, Passion and Beauty - The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra (2013 Updated eBook edition) and Follow Your Heart : John McLaughlin song by song.
Walter would like to thank Ed Jennings and Adam Fells for their help in obtaining the interview with Carlos. Thanks also to Ron Apeksha Bacci