As Carlos Santana evolves musically and spiritually — for the time being the two paths seem to be one — he chooses his associates more carefully. The demands of the music he conceives are dictating his personnel and the Santana band has become, for recording purposes, an aegis under which various players perform. Borboletta and Illuminations are noteworthy for their rhythm sections. Bassist David Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, who sparked Miles Davis’s late Sixties band, are on the latter album, while Borboletta includes Stanley Clarke and Airto Moreira (who played together with Gato Barbieri and in the first edition of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever), jazz drummer Mdugu, and Santana standbys David Brown, Michael Shrieve, Armando Peraza and Chepito Areas.
Saxophonist Jules Broussard and keyboardman Tom Coster share most of the solo space on Borboletta with Carlos, and their instrumental features are the LP’s high points. “Aspirations,” composed by Santana and Coster, is a shimmering, guitarless piece with Coster, Broussard, Clarke and Mdugu. Most of the second side achieves a high-flying groove that combines some of the old Santana band’s strongest qualities — rhythmic drive, thematic variation — with Carlos’s imaginative soloing and the sophisticated contributions of Broussard, Coster and percussionist Mdugu, Airto and Peraza. As on previous albums “Here and Now,” “Flor de Canela” and “Promise of a Fisherman” flow together into a suite, building from a lyrical guitar solo into the relentless Afro-Brazilian rhythms of Dorival Caymmi’s “Fisherman.” The scattershot approach of Welcome and the self-indulgence of some of the playing on Love Devotion Surrender have been trimmed away, leaving 15 minutes of instrumental excellence.
The rest of the LP, Airto’s introduction and coda excepted, suffers by comparison. Leon Patillo’s vocals are merely adequate and the lyrics, mostly by Santana, Shrieve and Patillo, are sincere but simplistic cosmic drivel. As advertisements for the inner peace to be found through various forms of meditation they are none too convincing, especially since the same message comes across clearly and without pretense in the accomplished instrumentals. Inner experience, nonverbal by nature, isn’t easily communicated in words; at this point Santana probably should dispense with lyrics altogether.
The entirely instrumental Illuminations is Carlos’s most ambitious project to date. And it is very much his: Alice Coltrane provided string arrangements and plays harp and keyboards but with the exception of her brief “Bliss: The Eternal Now” all the compositions are by Santana and Coster. Some of them tend toward the soporific with long atempo string passages and slow, blissed-out guitar melodies, but the sidemen and Turiya’s resourcefulness as an arranger inject enough fire to avoid tedium. The absence of a drum kit on most selections is compensated for by bassist Holland, who pushes and cajoles, emerging as the strong – man of the album.
The title tune is particularly bracing, with soft cushions of string sound giving way to Xenakis-like densities of overlaid glissandos. Carlos’s guitar sings through his pure, bell-like tone, elegantly down-turned phrase endings and melodic feeling, more than making up for his relative lack of harmonic sophistication and jazz chops. “Angel of Sunlight,” a live jam minus strings, is the liveliest music included. Carlos is freer and more exploratory, Broussard boils on soprano, Alice Coltrane has a fine, flying solo on Wurlitzer organ, and Holland, DeJohnette and Peraza take care of business in the rhythm section. The influence of John Coltrane’s later recordings — Om, Meditations, Cosmic Music — is pervasive: from the chanted mantra which begins the piece to the collective improvisations which erupt between and under the solos. The welter of overtones in the collective section is analogous to the experience of mantra meditation, which deals with resonances rather than with “pure” sounds, and the howling furies summoned are reminders, as were Coltrane’s duets with Pharoah Sanders, that “the path” is peopled with demonic as well as angelic presences. These spiritual “facts of life,” which are reflected in the stridency of Buddhist ritual music and in the sometimes torturous embroideries of Hindu devotional singers, are too often ignored by musicians in the Chinmoy/Satchidananda axis. More struggle and a little less never-never land would have made Illuminations a more balanced and believable LP.
There’s nothing consciously spiritual about Jose “Chepito” Areas’s solo album. Santana’s veteran timbales and conga player has assembled a big band composed of Latino musicians and a few Santana regulars (the ubiquitous Coster, Richard Kermode, Neal Schon) and turned them loose on a batch of original tunes, many with Spanish language lyrics and most with a progressive Latin flavor reminiscent of Eddie Palmieri’s work. The rhythms are hot, Martin Fierro’s Tex/Mex tenor is tough, and the montuno riffs and call-and-response vocals are very much in the urban Latin tradition. There are a few concessions to the rock audience, notably in “Morning Star” (English lyric, Santana-like guitar work) and “Remember Me,” but for the most part Areas is faithful to his roots and his album has a zestful, infectiously cooking feeling which is as spiritual in its own way as Borboletta and Illuminations are in theirs.
For diehards, Santana’s Greatest Hits reprises obvious favorites from the first three Santana albums, “Evil Ways,” “Black Magic Woman” and all. This widely imitated music is magnificent rock, great for dancing or daydreaming, but as an instrumentalist and an organizer of musicians and material Carlos has surpassed it. Even when he’s unsure, as he is in parts of Borboletta and Illuminations, his determination to replace effects with substance and one-note riffing with meatier improvisations is refreshing. And “Angel of Sunlight,” “Here and Now,” “Flor de Canela” and “Promise of a Fisherman” are his best efforts thus far.