CARLOS SANTANA — Love Devotion Surrender (with John McLaughlin) (review)

CARLOS SANTANA — Love Devotion Surrender (with  John McLaughlin) album cover Album · 1973 · Fusion Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
When this album came out in July of 1973 my favorite LP at the time was “Caravanserai” and my favorite guitar player was John McLaughlin so I figured it would be an endeavor that had no chance of disappointing my ears. I surmised it wouldn’t sound much like the bands Santana or The Mahavishnu Orchestra and I was right. Yet I was still surprised by what it turned out to be. Over the years I’ve wafted back and forth between thinking it is a brilliant specimen of jazz/rock fusion for a while and then there are times when I consider it to be a mostly noisy display of self-indulgent excess. As of the most recent listen I find myself somewhere in the middle of those two opinions so it means you’ll be getting a fairly unbiased and accurate essay about “Love Devotion Surrender” in the next few paragraphs.

Both musicians were going through some big changes at the time. Carlos’ highly successful group had repeatedly conquered the singles charts but he was growing tired of the rut they’d found themselves in and had started to steer the ensemble into the more exciting yet risky territory of fusion. They were still a viable, somewhat stable entity but in the other corner the very influential combo of virtuosos that John had assembled and led was beginning to break apart because of inner conflicts. A few years earlier McLaughlin had introduced Santana to Guru Sri Chinmoy and a deep, spiritual-based friendship developed between them. Carlos was also in awe of John’s amazing skill and technique on the guitar so it appears that collaboration between the two was inevitable. Using their mutual admiration for John Coltrane’s envelope-pushing work as a foundation, they got it done in two intense sessions held in October of ’72 and March of ’73. I was thrilled with the prospect of greatness coming out of their union and bought it the day it was released.

“A Love Supreme” (a version of Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement”) starts with an explosion of sounds, then drops into Doug Rauch’s hypnotic bass line grooving over the track’s uncomplicated drums and percussion. After some organ noodlings courtesy of Larry Young Santana and McLaughlin duke it out back and forth like electrified maniacs and the result is extremely combustible as they goad one another to higher and higher peaks of passion. After a spell of this intensity the number backs off for some loose chanting of the song’s title by conga man Armando Peraza. I dare say that if this cut doesn’t do much for you then the rest of the album will not be something you’ll enjoy. Coltrane’s emotional composition “Naima” from 1959 is next and the beauty and etherealness created by the duo’s acoustic guitars is very refreshing, especially after surviving the fire of the opening song.

Billy Cobham’s boisterous drums make a huge impression throughout “The Life Divine,” making it the most arresting track on the album. Having said that, I could’ve used a lot less of the off-key chanting that consistently interrupts the flow of the music. A little bit of a repeating mantra goes a long way, fellas. Here each guitarist gets his own uninterrupted solo and, despite Carlos delivering some of his fieriest salvos, John absolutely bedazzles the mind with his speed-of-light shredding. Amidst all this six-string conflagration Rauch’s solid bass work does a great job of keeping things from disintegrating into chaos. The traditional “Let Us Go into the House of The Lord” follows and, at almost 16 minutes, it is by far the longest jam on the record. It opens with a free-form melee of drums, percussion and guitars colliding over what sounds like random organ chords and then settles into a fast-paced, conga-led Latin samba rhythm. This inaugurates a more defined movement, establishing a firm base for yet another Godhead-cutting guitar duel. Atonal organ spasms from Young break up the monotony after a while and then, after a cooling-down segment, McLaughlin indulges in a demonstration of his edgy, jazz-on-the-fringe-of-sanity approach to guitar playing. Santana jumps in on top of him at one point and they play simultaneously, setting the studio ablaze in the process before the number finally peters out from exhaustion. The closer is John’s “Meditation,” on which he plays some lovely piano and Carlo performs on acoustic guitar. It’s an atmospheric piece that provides a peaceful finale to their project.

What’s amazing to me is that, as wildly eclectic as this album is at times, it climbed all the way up to #14 on the LP charts. Even taking into consideration that some buyers mistakenly thought they were getting another dose of classic Santana fare instead of other-worldly explorations into the spiritual ether, that fact shows that the public in general was much more adventurous and open-minded in the 70s. The photographs on the album cover didn’t exactly give the impression that this was a pop record, either. They look like two reflective family members at a cousin’s wedding on the front and like two uniform-clad college freshmen posing with their Indian dorm supervisor on the back. No, I think that the tens of thousands that purchased “Love Devotion Surrender” knew they weren’t going to be hearing anything like “Black Magic Woman” on this disc yet I suspect that they got more evolutionary jazz than they bargained for in the deal. This is truly a one-of-a-kind happening that allowed a couple of outstanding guitarists in their prime to stretch themselves without restraint to the limits of their abilities and to hell with the consequences. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that it is incredibly unique in the realm of jazz/rock fusion.
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