It starts with the by now, for me at least, familiar sound of crickets scratching their back legs together (or whatever it is that these insects do to create such an evocative choral), presumably on some sun-drenched savannah grassland rather than a Lotois lawn. Enter a lone tenor saxophone, sounding like the wail of one of those interminably long goods trains that lumber across the American continent. Then mix in some deep resonant double bass, some echoing electric guitar and finally a crisp metronomic drum refrain. Add shaker bells – et voilà! It’s pure jazz.
Listening to 'Eternal Caravan of Reincarnation' (whose title pre-figures Carlos Santana's coming preoccupations with Sri 'Chimney' and all that eastern spiritual stuff) reminds me why a childhood friend was prepared to swap Caravanserai for my almost pristine copy of The Groundhogs' Thank Christ for the Bomb. That was back in 1973 and I know who got the better deal. I've got nothing against The Groundhogs: Tony McPhee was a very decent blues guitarist, but his voice was limited, to put it kindly, and I doubt very much whether my friend Ian is still listening to it now.
Whereas I'm still listening to what I consider to be Santana's finest hour and still enjoying it as much as ever 40 years down the road. My friend Ian was not and probably never would be a 'jazzer'. We used to play 'bin-ball' in the car park of an architectural practice in the entry that separated the back gardens of our two parallel tree-lined avenues in middle-class Belfast. It was a form of two-a-side football with upturned dustbins as goals. The small target for our shots meant that there was little margin for error and crucially no need for goalkeepers. My brother earned the nickname of 'bin-ball wizard' primarily for a semi-legal tactic of 'tunnelling' against the wall of the architects' back yard, which the brothers Bamford tried unsuccessfully to outlaw.
We graduated from bin-ball to Subbuteo and I think it was during an away match in the Bamfords' upstairs sitting room that we effected the exchange. Santana's fourth album is still here in the shelves and I'm still as happy as Larry with my swap. Yes, I can understand Ian's disappointment. Anyone expecting more 'Samba Pa Ti' would have to wait until well into the second track for even a burst of Senor Santana's trademark crying guitar. There are no vocals until the fourth track, the brief 'Just in Time to see the Sun'.
As one track segues into another on Caravanserai's first side you appreciate that the album is less about Santana the guitar hero (as they would tend to become much later in his career) and more about Santana the band – and on this album especially the stellar three-pronged percussion attack of James Mingo Lewis on congas, José Chepito Areas on timbales and the splendid Michael Shrieve on trap drums.
After the guitarist's showcase on 'Song of the Wind', the first side ends with the dramatic ensemble work-out of 'All the Love of the Universe', which might lead you to anticipate that the second side couldn't live up to the first. Sure enough, I used to write down 'Future Primitive', the opener on Side 2, as a little too... primitive for my developing taste. I would lift the arm across it and let it drop on the second track. Now it's just about my numero uno: a minimalist masterpiece built around a deep reverberating organ note à la Sun Ra and some spacey guitar motifs before a dialogue of two sets of congas rises then subsides to leave only the guitar and the initial organ drone.!(upload://ovxS0mFbCkz72Si7adCHU1b9OXv.jpg)
It segues into the album's only non-original number: a delicious version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's 'Stone Flower' with words added by Santana and Shrieve and a juicy double bass rather than the electric model. Then comes the fast and furious 'La Fuente del Ritmo', which gave me an excuse to sit between the speakers and listen to Carlos soup-up the guitar and fire notes from left to channel to right and back again.
If Side 1 ended with a bang rather than a whimper, the band pulled out all the stops to close the album. 'Every Step of the Way' features some frantic flute, a barrage of percussion and some full-throttle blistering guitar all backed by the horns of a big band. It's an album that goes on giving. Perusing the sparse liner notes earlier, I noticed for the first time that the supplementary musicians on the finale were orchestrated by Tom Harrell, one of the finest jazz trumpeters of recent decades.
Maybe there's nothing quite as catchy here as 'Evil Ways', but Caravanserai clearly confirms what a monster of a band Santana were. That performance at Woodstock was no flash in the pan. For me, it's their most consistently satisfying album and a fine example of what would become much later in life my first musical love: Latin jazz.
I only hope that Ian is still enjoying Thank Christ for the Bomb as much as I'm still diggin' some classic Santana.