Thursday, 6 November 2008

Santana / McLaughlin - Love Devotion Surrender

We recently had occasion to relocate ourselves, and thus also our possessions, which involved taking down and reassembling our music collection. It must be admitted that this includes some rather strange items, some of which we feel are worth opining on.

For some reason or other, we own quite a few early fusion records, most of which feature the guitar, or sometimes plenty of them. This is obviously related to the rise of rock music in the public esteem. Whereas bebop in the forties had evolved as the experimental fringe of the popular music of the time, by the late sixties a gulf had opened up in listening tastes, where even the most obnoxious reactionary jazz was now a minority taste. The democratising influence of Pop music, long before punk, had made of jazz a music conspicuous for its instrumental and intellectual demands. Jazz musicians, most conspicuously Miles Davis, were jealous and wanted in. Electrifying their instruments, and augmenting their groups to be more akin to hard rock they looked to capture some of the energy, kudos and commercial appeal of the new music.

It worked the other way round though; pop musicians with a particular interest in virtuosity or improvisation wanted some of the intellectual capital that jazz music had. They desired the greater freedom of improvisation that jazz promised, they wanted to play more complex and satisfying music, they wanted to be taken seriously. Jimi Hendrix was due to collaborate with Davis around the time that he died, and there are numerous other movements in that particular direction.

The album Love Devotion Surrender is an example of this cross fertilisation, and is also perhaps the most utterly preposterous record I possess. A collaboration between 'Mahavishnu' John McLaughlin, who was there at the accursed birth of the fusion monster, playing on 'In A Silent Way' and with Tony Williams' Lifetime, and 'Devadip' (yes, that's right) Carlos Santana, who has been eating out on just one good record since 1970. At this point they were both under the sway of Guru Sri Chinmoy, one of those charming chaps who earn money out of warm and fuzzy world-peace platitudes. Essentially the album is Santana guesting as part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the big bad fusion daddies that we mentioned previously, although Larry Young and one or two of Santana's friends are also there.

The album is an early example of a genre that has become bloated and saggy with age and cliche, the John Coltrane tribute album. Even worse, this is a Love Supreme tribute album. Even worse, this goes all the way; from the very moment that the album begins you are assaulted with the sound of six musicians simultaneously practicing their scales at hideous volume, a direct lift from the late '60s collective horn improv method, Meditations or Ascension. Once it calms down somewhat, the rim-shots from the drums and the unmistakeable bassline let one know that this is a cover, a mimicking of the first section of Love Supreme. A little crass, you might say, taking Coltrane's 'It takes six hours of practice and at least as much religious study just to get me through one day without smack' epic confessional and treating it as a standard a la All the Things You Are. but then, subtlety is not this album's strongpoint, especially when the boys start half-heartedly chanting a few minutes into their machine gun guitar jam.

Naima comes next, a much more sedate achievement, but Santana seems so spiritually energised that he displays an interesting and irritating approach to long notes - just spewing them out as demisemiquavers, a habit that always seems to always trouble fusion guitarists when they pick up an acoustic. We've yet to hear somebody sing through a field of rolled 'r's, we don't see why guitarists need to play like that.

Track three; 'The Life Divine' is truly, truly mad. After a shimmering organ introduction Billy Cobham batters the shit out of his drum-kit, setting up a high tempo assault of percussion, onto which is laid a strangely charming descending minor chord sequence. This odd juxtaposition of brutality and prettiness then has the utter life soloed out of it by the two guitarists, all the while accompanied by hilariously unsubtle chanted couplets such as "the life divine... will always shine". Santana serves us with his offering first, which is gently melodic, interspersed with the usual screeching imitations of the cries of saxophones. It is worthwhile noting that Santana never leaves the home key - nearly all of his solo is built from the good old dorian scale, which contrasts with McLaughlin's more scholarly interpretation of the Coltrane ethos, reflecting their respective backgrounds in Rock and Jazz. Long, long lines predominate, no melody needs to be delineated by breaths, and so the solos go on, and on, and on, until eventually the song just fades away, as if they all just soloed on long into the night...

Oh well, we suppose that there was a market for this stuff at the time, and that it is born out of a sincere attempt to communicate some kind of spiritual message about love, yeah? but this genre gives rise to a terribly skewed notion of what virtuosity is and what it is for, one that has had repercussions in popular music to this day, resulting in the truism of 'this is why punk happened'. It is strange; the late '60s produced such fantastic jazz, from the chamber sophistication of the Davis Quintet, to the masterful madness of late Coltrane, to the intellectual and political work of his proteges, like Archie Shepp or Marion Brown, and all the other exciting music, yet it's strange that the intentions of the mainstream of this music could deteriorate so quickly, resulting in such utter pap as was generated over the next decade. And where the '60s had the marvelous record designs of Blue Note, Impulse! and other such labels,in the '70s the aesthetic degenerated, as well as the clothes, beards, sunglasses etc... It seems that these jazz musicians failed to realise that the trousers worn were as much a part of the success of a pop act as the sounds that were made, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing.


paddington said...

There should be a sub-genre for the sort of early 70s jazz-fusion which considers itself spiritual - the entire output of Alice Coltrane (some of which is faintly soothing, but most of which could have come out of a faintly hippyish English village hall). Who bought these records? Noel Fielding and Julian Barrett perhaps - one of the episodes of the Mighty Boosh is a priceless pastiche of this stuff.

The review of Love Devotion Surrender by Robert Christgau made me giggle:

"On the back cover is a photograph of three men. Two of them are dressed in white and have their hands folded--one grinning like Alfred E. Neuman, the other looking like he's about to have a Supreme Court case named after him: solemn, his wrists ready for the cuffs. In between, a man in an orange ski jacket and red pants with one white sock seems to have caught his tongue on his lower lip. He looks like the yoga coach at a fashionable lunatic asylum. Guess which one is Sri Chinmoy. B-"

yoyo said...

I think the guitar solo on life devine is one of the most inspired solos I have ever heard from anybody--true the rest of the record is lame, but that one solo saves it for me.

yoyo said...

btw, I meant the 2nd solo--John's.