After releasing his first twenty-six recordings on CBS/Sony, Carlos Santana begins a new phase of his career with Milagro, one of the finest sessions he’s done. The album reaffirms Santana’s position as the standard-bearer for fusion music.
Santana is the most successful practitioner of fusion because he understands the style not as a souped-up rock-jazz hybrid but as an embrace of musical pantheism. Elements of salsa, pop, blues, jazz, R&B, rock, world music and reggae work their way in and out of the arrangements on Milagro, due in no small part to the smarts of coproducer Chester Thompson, whose virtuoso keyboard work shares the soloing spotlight with Santana’s guitar.
Santana’s vision of fusion grew out of the same creative upheavals responsible for the social and political ferment of the Sixties and early Seventies. The difference between Santana and other guitarists, such as Alvin Lee, who first came to prominence as a result of the Woodstock documentary is that Santana never stopped considering his music an outgrowth of deeply held spiritual values.
Santana sees his music as an agent for political liberation and an expression of religious mysticism. He brings these elements into focus on Milagro, invoking the power of music to “free the people” one minute and likening Jesus Christ to Martin Luther King the next. His vision of Christ as an agent for justice stands in stark contrast to the fundamentalist cant underlying most North American Christian propaganda, extends his fascination with Eastern religions and marks a return to his own roots in liberation theology, an important philosophical strain of Latin American Catholicism.
On the musical front, changing labels has proven a tonic for Santana’s guitar playing. His attack is razor sharp, and his solos — on the title track, “Red Prophet,” “Gypsy/Grajonca” and “We Don’t Have to Wait” — rank among his best.
Milagro, which means “miracle,” is dedicated to two people who died last year and who were central to Santana’s life as an artist — Bill Graham, who gives the opening introduction, and Miles Davis, who plays a short, unaccompanied coda on the set-closing “A Dios.” It is a worthy tribute.