There are hit albums, delivering chart-topping singles and immediate notoriety. There are breakthrough albums, of more lasting impact, able to launch and solidify careers. Then there are albums that have proven to be classics: iconic and genre-defining, earning a permanent place in our hearts and minds and halls of fame. So indelible are they that the mere mention of the title brings the album cover to our mind’s eye; we can hear one track fading out as the next begins.
In a multiple-choice world, Abraxas, Santana’s second album, is most definitely “all of the above.” Upon its release on Sept. 23, 1970, it was a popular smash, yielding two Top 20 hits and instantly becoming a staple of FM rock radio — and later album-rock and classic-rock programming. It’s been certified, celebrated and inducted by the Library of Congress, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Museum and other institutions preserving our musical heritage. It is singled out as the birth cry of Latin Rock, the entry point through which the seductive pulse of Afro-Cuban music — the signature clavé rhythm, the congas — became a part of rock vocabulary. After Abraxas hit, as Carlos Santana remembers, “The next thing you know, the Rolling Stones got congas. Sly’s got congas. Miles has congas, you know?”
Say Abraxas: Straightaway we visualize the erotic, Afrofuturist take on the Annunciation scene that graces its cover: a nude, reclining Black beauty being visited by a similarly unclad, well-proportioned angel, legs wrapped around a conga. (The image was realized by the German-born painter Mati Klarwein, who also did the cover art for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.) Now hear those smooth segues that open the album — “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts” to “Black Magic Woman” to “Gypsy Queen” to “Oye Como Va” — all in inevitable order. Next to side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, that could be as close to a perfect sequence of music as any rock album has ever achieved.
What made Santana work so magically well as a band also provided Abraxas its power and precision: the blending of varying musical passions among the diverse membership of the classic Santana lineup.
Mexican-born Carlos Santana’s stinging, compressed guitar sound may have been born of the electric blues like so many other rockers of the day, but his playing was on another level, in his tone, his sustain and those on-the-money string bends and solo breaks. Gregg Rolie’s rough-hewn vocals and rich, screaming organ chords came out of his garage-band experience, providing much of the group’s rock authenticity. Bassist David Brown’s preference for R&B and funk supplied a solid, in-the-pocket bottom. Michael Shrieve’s lithe, propulsive feel was clearly jazz-influenced; Elvin Jones, the drummer in John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet, was his earliest hero. His bubbling accents dovetailed with the Latin instrumentation — José “Chepito” Areas and Michael Carabello on Latin percussion — that added definition and spice to Santana’s sound, so unusual for any rock band at the time.
On Abraxas, no element seemed out of place or overwhelmed another. Even the album’s nine tracks — eclectic in style and flavor — felt in balance, refracting the San Francisco scene they came from. Abraxas had atmospheric, psychedelic constructions like the opening tune; Latin-fueled jams like “Se a Cabo”; a folkloric, percussion-and-chant number, “El Nicoya”; and high-energy rockers like “Mother’s Daughter” and “Hope You’re Feeling Better” (both Rolie originals).
There isn’t a sleeper on the list, yet four tracks stand out, the jewels in the Abraxas crown. There’s the expansive version of Peter Green’s “Black Magic Woman,” a blues the British guitarist had forged in the deep electric style of Chicago bluesman Otis Rush. Carlos adored Rush, as well as jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo, who was then often playing in San Francisco and channeling Indian music and modes. Santana took Green’s original, amplified its Latin feel, sutured it to Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen,” and sprinkled guitar statements up front, in between and at the end.
“Oye Como Va” [“Listen how it goes…”] is a 1962 Tito Puente original, a cha-cha-chá Carlos caught one night on the radio, immediately hearing how it could work in a rock context. Despite initial resistance from other bandmembers, he prevailed, preserving the original Spanish lyric and creating — much as George Harrison did with Indian music — another portal through which rock fans could escape the often limiting provincialism of Western popular music.
“Samba Pa Ti” is a Carlos original, an evocative ballad unspooling its heart in a languid samba feel; Carlos considers it his first recording to truly reveal his musical identity. “Incident at Neshabur” is a sectional jam typical of Santana’s jazz leanings and listening habits, running through different moods and time signatures. Bay Area pianist Alberto Gianquinto co-wrote and performs on it, and Carlos admits Frankensteining the track with ideas from Freddie Hubbard, Willie Bobo, even a TV commercial.
In the studio, Santana had been working to find the best possible blend for a while, trying to capture the right balance of their loose, onstage energy and tighter song structures, in addition to an accurate representation of their individual sounds. In early 1969, signed to Columbia Records, they had assembled in Los Angeles but were displeased with the resulting sessions. The recordings that became their eponymous debut album were a vast improvement, and introduced them to the world. Yet things were still not right.