Guitarist Carlos Santana, long admired as a bandleader, has always experimented outside the many versions of his famed rock band. Last year, his album Supernatural won a Grammy for his work with Rob Thomas and Everlast. But Carlos has collaborated with the world’s best musicians for over three decades.
This month, Sony, as part of its excellent Legacy remix and reissue series of classic compact discs, released two of Carlos’ mid-1970s jazz-rock albums on a single disc called Divine Light. Billed as a “Reconstruction and mix translation,” it is a startlingly liberal reworking of the old songs by engineer Bill Laswell. Laswell has always been a technical type. Co-authoring such hits as Herbie Hancock’s 1984 hit “Rock-It,” he has since translated Miles Davis’ later works to critical acclaim. Thanks to
Laswell’s reconstruction, two very different albums of experiment and indulgence have been greatly improved.
Most of Divine Light is material from 1974’s Illuminations, where the young Carlos worked with harpist Alice Coltrane, the widow of the great saxophonist John Coltrane. The music has New Age-like layers of droning ambience and a very Hindu-sounding string section, but they are icing on the cake of hot improvisation. The rhythm section includes jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland, who keep even the slow, ethereal parts propelling forward. Perhaps Alice is the senior partner in this enterprise, as it is far more sophisticated harmonically than the usual Santana fare. The original album does have some poppy moments, but Laswell carefully downplays them.
The Illuminations tracks are interspersed with metallic jams from the other album, 1973’s Love Devotion Surrender. This second album was made with English guitarist John McLaughlin, and is supported by members of McLaughlin’s band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Surrender was a lead-guitar wankfest and in its original form has not worn well, but Laswell has skillfully superimposed percussive and orchestral parts of Illuminations over tasteful edits of flashy string bending. The overall effect of Divine Light is that Surrender’s parts give spine to the interesting melodies of Illuminations.
Highlights include Carlos’ fat toned leads on “A Live Divine,” a flute solo in “Angel of Air,” and what can only be called “the percussion movement” in the 14-minute “Angel of Sunlight.” Overall, the album’s jazz, rock and ambient sounds hang together with just enough light and shade to prevent anything from being indulgent. Laswell has taken two B-grade period pieces, and brilliantly refurbished their most spirited performances into many layers of A+ music.