Recent listening, current

Monday, July 13, 2020

213. Santana / Moonflower (1977)

Moonflower, released 1977, is a mixture of new studio material and contemporary live performances that demonstrate, in equal measure, all components of the Santana sound. Carlos Santana had spent the previous decade exploring the nuanced corners of this thing he’d invented called “Latin jazz rock fusion.” Of course, we didn’t call it that back then, we were still a few decades away from piegonholing everything into an early grave. The unique music was just the thing that Carlos did. But by the time Moonflower reached audiences, he’d come to the top of the pyramid and was ready to jump off. So the form I’m talking about -- a lysergic combination of free-form acid rock punctuated by Latin dance rhythms of primal intensity, and buoyed by the harmonic message of jazz and slick sensibilities of pop -- as far as I am concerned, was perfected right here. All the other Santana records up to this point demonstrate one of these aspects superbly, but only now are they brought together under a single heading. Such a culmination of style is the reason Moonflower is just so damned good, and why you need to stop whatever it is you’re doing, right now, and listen to it for at least a week, straight.

Santana’s guitar is a sustain bomb, famously so, and it comes in spades on this album. We call it, “neverending sustain” because that’s exactly what it is -- a controlled feedback loop between a guitar pickup and a very loud amplifier, and Carlos basically wrote the book on it: First, crank a tube amp to within a few volts of its life. Then, plug in your guitar and roll its volume knob back to a level that won’t cause a lawsuit. As the notes you play start to fade, roll that volume knob back up to keep them going. Once you hit the sweet spot, just stand there and let the message ring…. forever if you want. In this way, a few well placed strokes of the pick become epic vehicles of self expression, whole chapters in the book of whatever your song is trying to say. At least, that’s how it works if you’re Carlos Santana. During soundchecks, he paces around the stage playing the guitar until he finds the magic distance to stand from the amp, and marks off the spot with duct tape. His amplifier cabinets sit at waist level so the speaker can see the guitar. The whole process is calculated and diabolically simple, but the net effect is packed with an intensity that so belies its simplicity, you’d swear it’s witchcraft. The sound is rapturous bliss, or euphoric jubilation. Otherworldly. It’s a miracle note. It shouldn’t still be there, it should have melted away to silence by now, but there it is. And therein is another component of Santana’s music, amply demonstrated on Moonflower -- the magic-realism of Latin folklore, the power of the supernatural in everything, and the tingling, electric sensation of listening to a really good Santana record.

To get the gist of what I’m saying, turn up the stereo good and loud. Do it in the car, in a parking lot, standing still. Don’t try to drive while appreciating guitar feedback to its fullest capacity for fulfillment. Do it in an armchair with a good pair of flat response cans, or, if no one’s home, open the fader and let the sound blast through your speakers. Moonflower offers high grade sonic transcendence on tap. For the experience of a live concert, listen to the careening beauty of “Black Magic Woman,” “Savor,” or “Soul Sacrifice” from the Abraxas era, complete with Carlos’ signature fuzz and effects, and the raucous, chaotic energy of Chepito Areas on percussion. Songs like “Europa” and “Transcendence” softly (but not quietly) offer the quintessential example of the Carlos Santana Sound in its starkly beautiful phrases and lengthy single-note passages of sustained sound. The latter features a masterpiece solo that you don't want to miss. With a snazzy snap and velvet touch, the subtle hooks of newcomers like “I’ll Be Waiting,” “Zulu,” and “Flor d’Luna” point to the coming years when Santana transitioned to pop and album oriented rock. If Caravanserai is the album that bridges the gap between Santana's acid rock genesis and their more advanced forays into further realms of jazz and progressive rock, then Moonflower is likewise the album that marks where Santana funnels all it learned from the second part of the journey, and strikes off in a new direction once again.

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