The Street’s the same in New York or Frisco. It leads to heaven or hell, maybe both, and what comes down around you depends on how you travel just as much as where you’re coming from.
In that sense, Miles Davis from St. Louis by way of jazz and Carlos Santana from San Francisco by way of rock have a great deal more in common than either may realize. These are philosophical albums, if one may be permitted to apply that adjective to musical composition and performance. Both albums express a view of life as well as a way of life through the construction of sounds, some improvised and some deliberate and pre-considered. We may never know (and I am not sure it makes a difference) which sounds are which. All that really matters is the music itself.
Miles is a magician. When almost all of his contemporaries not only dismissed rock but R&B as somehow beneath their notice (for which read rival for geetz and gigs), Miles bought Sly Stone records and went to hear Jimi Hendrix. Anybody who doubts this doesn’t have to ask Miles. He tells you all about it in his music. It’s hard to be bar-by-bar specific about this, but the mood, the coloration, the sound, the particular rhythms juxtaposed against other rhythms from time to time evoke an immediate flash of Sly, as does the low, growling sound (which I suppose must come from one of the arcane rhythmic instruments Miles employs). When the latter appears, it sounds for one brief second (if you’re away from the speaker or the volume is turned down a bit) just like the way Sly’s voice sounds on “Spaced Cowboy.”
Miles’ album plays through almost without a pause even though the tracks are separated by bands. The groove runs quickly across the band or else the music continues into and out of it, I simply can’t tell. In any case, the music is laid out there for you as an integral whole, not a series of individual compositions arbitrarily selected and juxtaposed. They fit, like the movement of a long, planned work, and Miles plays them in this manner as well.
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Throughout the album, there is extensive use of a variety of rhythmic sounds. Shakers, claves, cowbells, weird and exotic drums, wetted thumbs drawn across tight-skin drumheads, anything traditional or invented which could make a sound that seemed to Miles to fit. Electronics include keyboards, guitar and a device on Miles’ horn. Despite the fact that the sound of Miles’ trumpet is heard less on this album than perhaps on any of his others, the totality of the music is possibly under even greater control. He wrote all the compositions and, I believe, personally edited and overdubbed or whatever else was done in the studio to produce the multiplex recording in which polyrhythms play such an important part.
In spite of the separation into tracks and the titling of them, I am inclined to think that one will not play excerpts from this album unless Columbia slices a single out of it (which could be the final track, “Mr. Freedom X”) because the music goes so well as a whole story. It is so lyrical and rhythmic. Miles’ own horn, as well as the soprano saxophone of Carlos Garnett, produces loving sounds. But the impact of the whole is greater than the sum of any part.
It is music of the streets, as I said, and as such it has the throb of the street as well as the beauty of a rose in Spanish Harlem. It is music which celebrates street life as well as the beauty of life itself, and it brings together (and celebrates the individual beauty of the rhythms of) many different cultures. Even the guitar sounds of David Creamer and the keyboards of Herbie Hancock and Harold I. Williams are utilized in the creation of a lyric feeling and lyric sound without laying them out in linear fashion. This music is more about feelings than notes, as Donald Ayler once remarked.
The use of the amplified sitar (Colin Wolcott) and the variety of rhythm sounds from James Mtume, Badal Roy (tabla), Billy Hart and Jack deJohnnette is magnificent. Mike Henderson’s bass turns out time after time to be responsible for some of the most elusive sounds on the record. This is music to live with in a variety of moods and circumstances and in listening to it, what comes back depends on the mood and the circumstance as well as on the degree to which the listener is able to open up and hear without a priori conception or assumption.
It is easy to segue from Miles to Santana or vice versa. Caravanserai, while it is different from all of Santana’s previous work, still has enough of the Santana original sound to provide familiarity. Carlos himself has as individual a sound on guitar as Miles does on trumpet and you hear him singing away on his strings on and off throughout the LP.
But this time, instead of the hard-edged, almost frenetic stomp of the previous Santana, there is much more emphasis on the romantic, lyrical and celebration-evoking sound; but the Latin excitement is still there. I think Santana is reaching for a spiritual feeling throughout. This feeling is implicit in jazz, though sometimes disguised, but jazz is always positive: To swing is to affirm, as Father Kennard, S.J., once said. Santana affirms herein and speaks directly to the universality of man, both in the sound of the music and in the vocals. The hard, street-edged sound comes in when Armando Peraza (along with Mongo Santamaria, the greatest living Cuban bongo and conga drummer, at least living in this country) appears on, appropriately, “La Fuente del Ritmo,” and, to a lesser degree, on “Stoneflower,” the Jobim song.
Horns appear only in Hadley Caliman’s opening statement and briefly in the back of the last song, “Every Step of the Way.” There are no purely Eastern instruments such as tablas or sitars, but the sustained sound and the singing feeling is similar. “Song of the Wind” is, as of this writing, the one which is getting played on the air because of its magnificently soaring lyric line. But the whole album deserves the same kind of attention. To put down, as some critics have, Carlos’ conception and sound is to define beauty from a very narrow view: Carlos need never play another note to rank as one of the most satisfyingly beautiful players of his instrument for his work on this album alone.
On almost every track, Jose Chepito Areas plays timbales and blends the razor-edged percussive sound of the small single-head drum into the general rhythmic mix of the bigger ones and the bongos magnificently. The bulk of the conga drumming is from a fine percussionist, James Mingo Lewis, and Mike Shrieve not only aided in some of the composition of material for the album, but continues to demonstrate that he is gifted with a unique ability to fit the sounds from the standard trap drum set into Latin music without losing its individuality.
Both of these albums, incidentally, are produced in such a way as to derive maximum effect from stereo. They should be listened to on earphones for the best results. There you find your mind blown repeatedly by the sound traversing the speaker line from left to right and reverse for a very unusual effect. Repeatedly, Carlos lays out charming and moving melodic lines as the music swells and climaxes to swell again. Like the Miles LP, it can be played from start to finish and probably should be, because, again, it is a whole composition in performance, with the bands between the tracks almost irrelevant. On “El Fuente del Ritmo,” Tom Coster plays a magnificent electric piano solo with Armando coming on up and under him and evolving into furious ensemble rhythm. Neither Miles nor Carlos insists on dominating the album with his own playing. Carlos does not even appear on guitar on “Eternal Caravan of Reincarnation,” playing percussion instead. Gregg Rolie, the organist who wrote some of the music with Shrieve and Santana (Neal Schon, Lewis, Tom Rutley, Douglas Rauch, Jose Chepito Areas also were involved in the compositions of various tracks), performs consistently throughout bringing, along with Carlos’ guitar sound, a kind of consistent tone to the music.
I have been playing these LPs back to back for days now with increasing enjoyment. Try it. You’ll like it.