Caravanserai, by Santana

At the end of 1971 the Santana band was disintegrating. After an iconic performance at Woodstock and three excellent albums that defined the blue print for Latin rock, plus a succession of hits like Black Magic Woman and Oye Como Va, the band was falling apart. That phase in the band’s timeline is chronicled well elsewhere so I will let other sources document the inevitable results of too much sex and drugs and rock n roll. The gist of it is that by the time recording sessions commenced in February 1972 for the band’s fourth album, percussionist Michael Carabello and bassist David Brown were gone, replaced by James Mingo Lewis and Dough Rauch. More changes were to come soon, and these sessions document a band in transition while in search of a new purpose. The result is one of the best albums of that period, a spiritual blend of jazz, rock and Latin music like no other. This is the story of Caravanserai, my favorite album in the band’s catalog.

Caravanserai front

In the Near East the word Caravanserai means a large courtyard that provides accommodation for caravans, or simply a group of people travelling together. But Carlos Santana found a different meaning for it when he was reading a text by Indian yogi and guru Paramahansa Yogananda: “The caravan is the eternal cycle of reincarnation, every soul going into and out of life, from death to life and back again, until you arrive at a place where you can rest and achieve an inner peace. That place is the caravanserai.” He could not come up with a better title for the album, as it represents not only his personal quest for spirituality at that time, but also the music that the band created for the album. There is a level of intensity and urgency about that music that has its peers in the beginnings of jazz rock: albums by Miles Davis, Tony Williams’ Lifetime and John MacLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. But unlike most albums in the genre that came about when jazz musicians discovered that rock attitudes and instrumentations can add a new dimension to their music, it is rare to find a rock band foraying into jazz territories. Sure, progressive rock bands, mostly from the British Isles like Soft Machine and King Crimson, where already doing that in spades by 1972. But for an American top 40 band to do that, and with such a level of integrity and sincerity, that was unique.

Santana 1970

Santana 1970

Musically, the road to Caravanserai started with drummer Michael Shrieve’s love of jazz. Shrieve belongs in the great society of drummers who are into jazz and improvisation but found themselves through various circumstances playing in rock bands in their early careers. Bill Bruford of Yes is another fine example. These drummers have a lighter touch on the drum set and their jazz esthetics and dynamics broaden the range of the typical rock band rhythm section. Shrieve was Carlos Santana’s portal into the world of great jazz albums: “When I was living on Army Street, Michael would bring me all kinds of records, Miles Davis and John Coltrane and I’d say ‘Aw man, bring me some Albert King.’ But when I heard In a Silent Way I thought it was interesting and when Michael brought me Miles in the Sky it was all over. I owe Michael a lot; He’s the one who turned me onto John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I just wanted to play blues until Michael came. He opened my eyes and my ears and my heart to a lot of things. Some drummers only have chops, but Michael Shrieve has vision.”

Santana started hearing new approaches to music making and was drawn into the world of spiritual jazz and the blend of jazz and rock: “John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and Antonio Carlos Jobim and Alice Coltrane, with their looser rhythms and spiritual, praising melodies, were inspiring a change in the kind of music Shrieve and I wanted to do. We were looking for Weather Report and for Miles Davis. We were looking for our identities in the same places with a spirit of exploration and the courage to try something new, even if it didn’t make sense or we weren’t supposed to do it. Caravanserai was the album we weren’t supposed to do.”

Michael Shrieve

Michael Shrieve

Another album Santana was listening to was Thembi by Pharoah Sanders, released in 1971. The album opener, Astral Travelling, has a laid back atmospheric mood, with lots of reverb and echo effects on the electric piano.

Carlos Santana was looking for the same mood to start his album, but had an additional request: “I told engineer Glen Kolotkin at the beginning of the sessions that I wanted the album to start with the sound of nature, and he said ‘I got just the thing – in my backyard I have a cricket chorus, and you won’t believe how loud they get.'” The result was Eternal Caravan of Reincarnation, opening up Caravanserai with 35 seconds of nothing but crickets before a saxophone intro by Hadley Caliman, a friend of Michael Shrieve who joined the sessions on an invitation by the drummer.

The rest of the track takes us into a territory the band lightly explored on Singing Winds, Crying Beasts, the track that opened Abraxas. But here it segues immediately into a jazzier space with Tom Rutley’s acoustic bass. You immediately notice that the overall sound is much more natural and close than the Latin rock-oriented production on their previous albums.

The album continues without a break into Waves Within, a perfect tune to introduce a critical ingredient in the making of the album, and that is bass player Doug Rauch.

Rauch moved to the Bay Area from New York on the invitation of Michael Shrieve, and played with the band The Loading Zone and with guitarist Gábor Szabó, where he met keyboardist Tom Coster. Both of them were recruited to the band within a few months, but while Coster joined at the tail end of the recording, Doug Rauch had a major impact on the music that was committed to tape during the recording sessions for the album. Shrieve: “Doug’s joining us also had to do with the fact that Carlos was getting into John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and so was Doug. He was really, really good at playing odd time signatures like that band did, and he utilized his thumb technique doing this as well. When we went into the studio to record Caravanserai, Doug brought in the song Waves Within, which was in 9/4, I believe. That song is an example of where Doug was going.” Adding a comment about his technique, Shrieve recalled: “Doug had a really unique way of playing. He was one of the first to play with the thumb and popping technique that was later made famous by Larry Graham and Stanley Clarke, and I think that Doug should be credited as the first to really develop that technique into a comprehensive playing style.” Sadly Rauch, who continued with Santana for a couple years during their increasing ventures into jazz, passed away in 1979 from a drug overdose. He was only 28, a great loss to the music world.

Doug Rauch

Doug Rauch

The next track, Look Up (To See What’s Coming Down), is another showcase of Doug Rauch’s excellent funky bass guitar groove. Santana on Rauch: “You can hear what he brought to All the Love of the Universe and Look Up (to See What’s Coming Down) – when we heard those tracks, we realized how much we needed Dougie.” Also notable on this track is Shrieve’s mastery of the hi-hat and the timbales solo by Jose Chepito Areas.

12 minutes pass from the start of the album before we hear the first vocals, with Gregg Rolie singing Just in Time to See the Sun, the track that most resembles the style of the previous three albums.

The next tune is the last to be recorded for the album in May 1972, and is one of its highlights, Song of the Wind. This is a tour de force of guitar work by Carlos Santana and Neal Schon, one of the latter’s last great efforts for the band. One after another the two dish out solo phrases that could supply 10 songs on any other album.

Carlos Santana recalled Gregg Rolie’s modest contribution to this tune in his memoir: “To this day I listen to Song of  the Wind and break down inside hearing Gregg’s playing on that one – no solo, just a simple supportive organ part that is not flashy or anything but supremely important to that song.”

Gregg Rolie

Gregg Rolie

Michael Shrieve recalls a different episode related to this song: “They both played beautifully and they were very happy putting their parts. Traditionally, the way it works, is that you get what they call the basic tracks, which is always the drums and the bass and that’s that. Then, you don’t need to do any drums. But the guitar players or the singer or somebody could punch in and keep making their solo better. And at the end of the evening, in the studio they recorded such beautiful stuff that I thought: ‘Wow, I should have played with them’. And I was determined to do that. But you can’t do that. Back in those days it was too difficult to do that without Pro-Tools, without computers. If you mess up the basic tracks, if you re-record the drums and mess it up, you can ruin the whole track and keep doing it over and over on the drum set. So, I said to the engineer after everybody left: ‘I am going to work on this all night long. I am going to practice the way I want to play it with what they have done now Carlos Santana and Neal Schon. So, be here tomorrow early and let’s do it’. I didn’t tell any in the band. The engineer was still frightened, because if I mess it up they would probably blame him for it. They should blame me. He said: ‘Please Michael, don’t do this’. I just said: ‘Be here early tomorrow. I will tell you at what time.’ I worked all night long and I came back and I said: ‘Roll the tape’ and I did it. I was able to perform that song with what they had worked on after the basic track is done. And it turned out great.”

Journey Guitarist

Neal Schon in the 1970s with Journey

The first side of the original LP closes with All the Love of the Universe, maybe Gregg Rolie’s finest moment on this album with a great organ solo. If you were in doubt about Carlos Santana’s quest for spirituality at that time (and ever since for that matter), a quick glance at the lyrics reveals a good amount:

New thoughts

Will purify my mind

And clean my body

New lives

Will fall together like an endless story

All the love of the universe

Will be shared by all that’s living

Santana’s discovery of Eastern philosophy was evident by the quote he chose to put inside the album cover, from the book Metaphysical Meditations by Paramahansa Yogananda:

The Body melts into the universe

The universe melts into the soundless voice

The sound melts into the all-shining light

And the light enters the bosom of infinite joy

Carlos Santana 1972

As great as the first side of Caravanserai is, the second side includes the true gems. Brazilian music was also on the menu in the list of albums that Shrieve and Santana were listening to. They were also influenced by Airto Moreira, the Brazilian percussionist who played with Miles Davis the previous year. Santana: “It was Shrieve who said ‘let’s check out Jobim’ and we decided to record Stone Flower and write lyrics for it.” Shrieve: “Stone Flower was written by Antonio Carlos Jobim as an instrumental, and I wrote the lyrics on acid. Carlos and I sang the song.”

The track also features great contributions from Tom Rutley on acoustic bass and Wendy Haas on electric piano, and a rare sharing of vocals by Santana and Shrieve. Santana has a nice solo here, on which he said: “I was thinking Nature Boy, Love on a Two-Way Street. Gábor Szabó licks. They’re all on that album. People would tell me later, ‘Whoa – that was a great solo on Stone Flower.’ I’d say ‘Thank you, man’ and be thinking ‘I hope nobody busts me for it!'”

The next track, La Fuente Del Ritmo, is a great opportunity to introduce more musicians who played on this album, some of them will continue to make critical contributions to the band for a good number of years. James Mingo Lewis wrote the tune and plays the syncopated piano vamp, or montuno as it is known in Cuban music. He first played with Carlos Santana in the concert with Buddy Miles in Hawaii in January of 1972, released later as Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles! Live! Lewis brought to the band not only his excellent chops on percussion, but also an ability to orchestrate great rhythm tracks. Lewis stayed with the band during that critical jazz rock period and into the album Love Devotion Surrender, the collaborative Santana and John McLaughlin‘s Mahavishnu Orchestra album recorded later in 1972.

Jose Chepito Areas also shines on La Fuente Del Ritmo and throughout the album on the timbales. The energy the fuses into the music with these drums is not unique when you listen regularly to Cuban or afro Latin music, but in the context of Santana and the energy that exists already with rock instruments, it becomes a whole new experience.

Tom Coster plays the wonderful electric piano solo here. In an interview he talked about how he got to know Santana when he played with Gábor Szabó: “Carlos always showed up at the El Matador gigs. In fact, he was usually the first one there. I always got to the gig early so we chatted until Gabor showed up. Carlos loved the band and he also mentioned how much he loved my playing. He was inspired by the band and asked if we could get together and record. Gabor was in L.A. at the time so he flew out to San Francisco and we prepared to go to where ever Carlos suggested recording. Unfortunately, Carlos was talked out of it by his associates and it never happened. It was a very political time for Santana. The band was about to change and new people were about to join and change the direction into a more jazzy sound. This new band eventually included both Doug Rauch and myself.” Coster stayed with Santana throughout his jazz rock period and a little after. In 1976 he demonstrated his composer skills by writing the instrumental hit Europa, a staple in Santana’s live dates ever since.

And last, but certainly not least, the legendary Armando Peraza plays bongos on La Fuente Del Ritmo, his sole contribution to the album, as he was just joining the band proper around that time. Peraza belonged to a different generation, having arrived in New York in 1949, immersing himself in the jazz scene and playing with the likes of Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich. He later moved to the west coast and played with the best of jazz musicians there, including Dave Brubeck and Cal Tjader. He was 47 when he joined Santana, bringing a level of professionalism and maturity that was much needed. He later wrote and co-wrote 16 songs for Santana, including my favorite on the Amigos album, the afro Cuban tune Gitano, on which he also sings. Santana had the utmost admiration and respect for Peraza: “For me, Armando Peraza was the most important person to come into Santana that year – maybe any year.”

And we come to the crown jewel of Caravanserai, the epic album closer Every Step of the Way. Carlos Santana and Michael Shrieve spent a lot of time listening to the recorded tracks before they came up with the right sequence of tunes for the album. These were the times when you could start an album with almost a minute of crickets and solo sax and close it with a nine minute instrumental. And what an instrumental that is. This is Carlos Santana’s favorite tune on the album and I share his opinion. In his biography The Universal Tone Santana says of the tune: “For two reasons my favorite song on Caravanserai is Every Step of the Way – first because it sounds like what we really loved back then: Herbie Hancock’s Crossings. The song also reminds me of Shrieve because he wrote it and because of how we played together.” Indeed the gifted drummer weaved a track for the ages here. It starts as something out of a late-60s Miles Davis track, a band jam that in a Miles Davis record could last a whole side of an LP, but here shifts to something different after three minutes. What ensues is one of Santana’s greatest instrumental achievements. There is a great congas solo by James Mingo Lewis, an even greater flute solo by Hadley Caliman and a fine orchestral arrangement by Tom Harrell. I remember listening to this album as an LP, and when the needle lifted off the vinyl at the end of the second side (it was a semi-automatic turntable) I truly had the feeling that I experienced something unique, and not just musically.

Santana 1972a

Santana 1972

It is remarkable how the band was able to produce such an amazing album, doing so when so many changes were happening to them while making it. At the end of the recording sessions Gregg Rolie and Neal Schon also departed the band. They were uncertain about the direction the band was taking with this album, and when the album completed and Santana was looking for even farther exploration into jazz and spirituality, it was time to take a different Journey (ha!). Neal Schon: “Santana were breaking up left and right. David was gone, Carabello was gone, there were all kinds of new members and that’s the way the sound started to change. It wasn’t really Santana any longer and Carlos wanted to take a particular direction whereas everybody had different opinions about which way it should go. So as we didn’t agree with him, we had to go.” Gregg Rolie: “I stayed in Santana until 1972. We just had differences, both musical and personal ones. Maybe it was ‘too much, too soon.’ I always put it this way: We played with passion, and we broke up with passion. There were differences with regards to the musical direction of the band. I liked the exploration on the album Caravanserai, but I didn’t want to make it a mainstay of what we did. I also didn’t want to lose the relationship we had developed with our audience. I couldn’t see throwing that away for this new musical direction. So like most bands, we fell apart. But when I look at it now, I realize that if we hadn’t been the people we were at that time, that music probably would never have happened. So it’s okay.”

Santana 1971

Santana 1971

The band was signed to Columbia Records, one of the major labels of the time, who loved the popularity of the band and was looking forward to their fourth album. You can only imagine the shock that hit the label’s executives when they first heard what came out of the studio. When label head Clive Davis listened to it, he told Santana and Shrieve, who are both listed as producers of the album: “This is a career suicide. Clearly there’s not one single within a thousand miles of this album. There’s nothing here to take to radio and get a hit with. It feels like you’re turning your backs on yourselves. The jazz stuff is great, but there’s already a Miles Davis. There’s already a Weather Report. Why don’t you just be Santana?” But like Schon and Rolie already figured out, Santana was already far away from other people’s perception of Santana. Indeed there was no single forthcoming, but the album did pretty well, likely riding the high of the band’s success with the previous albums. It reached no 8 on Billboard’s Top 200 LPs list in December 1972. That same week Yes reached no. 5 with Close to the Edge and the list topper was Seventh Sojourn by the Moody Blues. Those were the days.

Billboard Dec 9 1972 Top 200 LPs

Billboard top 200 LPs, December  1972

Summarizing his experience in making the album, Michael Shrieve said: “We thought it was appealing, to the ear and to the soul. It made me feel good inside. There is a certain purity in the music that is seemed had to be recognized that would touch people if they really listened to it.” I’ll hand the closing comment to Carlos Santana: “Shrieve was there to complete the journey that became Caravanserai. He was in my corner and I was in his – we helped each other complete it. More than any Santana album, Caravanserai was meant to be a full album experience, with one track connected to the next – a body of work like What’s Going On or A Love Supreme.” Mission accomplished.

Caravanserai gatefold

Two excellent books are recommended for farther reading:

Soul Sacrifice – The Santana Story, by Simon Leng

and Carlos Santana’s autobiography The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light


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10 replies »

  1. Great post. I agree that this was Santana’s greatest moment. I had this album in the 1970s and it still sounds fresh, energetic and soulful. More Jazz Fusion reviews?

  2. Nice !! Well written. Thank you. I think most people probably prefer Caravanseri; I like Borboletta more. it is a very beautiful album, especially the last 3 songs or so, obvious tape splices and all……. (Promise of a Fisherman..SWEEEEET !!). Would you do a blog about BORBOLETTA ? Thanks !!

  3. I fully agree. Their best. It takes guts to depart from a successful line and explore uncertain territory, but it worked, and the ‘full album experience’ beats any money-making single or commercial charts-seeking album hands down.

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