9/23/70: Santana – Abraxas
We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it “Abraxas”…. – from the Hermann Hesse book, Demian.
There are examples throughout all music genres of bands or individual artists who get into a groove where they can do no wrong in the studio, on stage, or both. In 1970, Latin/blues/jazz/rock fusion band Santana was one such group. It had been just over a year since their breakout performance at Woodstock, followed by the release of their self-titled debut album a couple of weeks after the festival. Santana’s followup was recorded with the same lineup over a period of two weeks in the spring of 1970, and Abraxas was released on this date 50 years ago. It reached the top of the Billboard album chart in the U.S. while featuring three prominent instrumental tracks.
The star singles from the album were covers: Black Magic Woman (Fleetwood Mac) reached number four in the U.S. (after leaving Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green derived significant royalty income from Santana’s version), and Tito Puente’s Oye Como Va hit number thirteen. But after many years and many plays, the tracks that keep me coming back are the non-hits, such as the instrumentals Incident at Neshabur with its heavy jazz inflection, and Samba Pa Ti. Carlos’s inspiration for this song was a heavily drinking saxophone busker outside his NYC hotel window. Two of my other favorites were written and sung by keyboardist Gregg Rolie, Mother’s Daughter and Hope You’re Feeling Better. The former maintains much of the Latin flavor of the rest of the album, while the latter features more of a straight forward rock sound. Carlos’s searing guitar licks are the common denominator along with Rolie’s vocals.
While the first three Santana albums have been stuffed into the classic rock pigeon hole over the years, this band perhaps more than anyone carved out a unique niche. The Latin rhythms which form the backbone of Santana’s music just feel good to listen to, and the band must’ve felt an immense sense of freedom when playing it. It could be a bitter cold winter day, but with Abraxas playing it’s always sunny and 75. For many including me, this continued into their lesser known (commercially speaking) fourth album, Caravanserai, before Carlos shifted into a different but also very interesting phase of his career.
Though Carlos and the Latin element of these albums understandably garner the most attention, I feel Gregg Rolie doesn’t receive the praise he deserves. Maybe he has and I’m just not aware. However, it’s no coincidence that Santana and later Journey (who he co-founded with Neal Schon, who also played on the third Santana album) were markedly different bands after his departure. His vocals and signature Hammond B3 were crucial ingredients to both.
- Oye Como Va, translated to English, means listen how it goes, my rhythm.
- The album was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2016.
- The album cover art is a painting titled Annunciation, by Mati Klarwein. His distinctive style would be found on later albums by Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Gregg Allman.
- Singing Winds
- Crying Beasts
- Oye Como Va
- Incident at Neshabur
- Se Acabó
- Mother’s Daughter
- Samba Pa Ti
- Hope You’re Feeling Better
- El Nicoya