50 Years Later: Revisiting Santana’s Culturally Diverse Breakthrough ‘Abraxas’

Issued in late September 1970 (9/22/70), just slightly over a year after Santana’s eponymous debut, Abraxas is the most cohesive yet diverse album any group ever made under that band name. Its fusion of Latin music with rock and blues, seasoned with jazz, consolidated the dual breakthrough the band made through its explosive appearance at the Woodstock Festival, followed shortly thereafter by the release of its first Columbia Records long-player.

As sounds commence in the eerie form of “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” Abraxas offers as much tangible atmosphere as a physical impact. With an almost immutable logic, there’s a readily-identifiable ebb and flow as “Black Magic Woman”/”Gypsy Queen” unfolds and, indeed, the sequence of tracks suggests a cumulative progression of intensity not unlike that of live performance. The transition that occurs as “Oye Come Va” gives way to “Incident At Neshabur” is likewise an object lesson in dynamics, proof positive how the personnel lineup of this Santana band had solidified just before the recording of the latter, then become fine-tuned through the road work to support it.

The positioning of the latter cut is also ideal near the midpoint of the album. Featuring co-composer (with Carlos) Alberto Gianquinto on acoustic piano, it becomes an ideal foil for the two more straight-ahead rock cuts here on which Gregg Rolie’s voice and Hammond organ are so prominent; “Mother’s Daughter” and “Hope You’re Feeling Better” might well dominate the half, in fact, if it were not for the slow delicious sway of “Samba Pa Ti:” when the band shifts gently into double-time, though, the well-practiced ensemble playing that’s so fiery elsewhere here becomes the essence of versatility.

A remastered and expanded version of Abraxas carries a further distinction of being one of the few such archive titles in the Santana discography. In addition to the nine cuts of the album, as originally produced by by Fred Catero and Santana, there are three additional tracks, recorded live at the hallowed Royal Albert Hall in London, that further cement the impression of a band hitting its creative stride. The sound quality of these tracks, unfortunately, is not so rich and deep (or the stereo spectrum so maximized) as on the studio counterparts, but no matter: it’s a measure of the sophomore Santana album’s fundamental brilliance that no additional content is likely to enhance it.

With its cover art a painting by German-French painter Mati Klarwein as engrossing as the music it contained, plus a cryptic title, derived from the Greek language, taken from author Herman Hesse,  Abraxas represented a suitable counterpart to the galvanizing live shows the group was offering at the time. The Tanglewood show in August 1970 is a sterling example, not just because it occurred shortly before the LP came out, but also because Santana was on a bill with Miles Davis, whose Bitches Brew was released in March of this same year and boasted similarly-styled album graphics. Carlos would go on to pay homage to ‘The Man with the Horn’ later in his career (most conspicuously with 1972’s Caravanserai), but in terms of conceiving and executing a recording that stands as an artistic statement full and complete unto itself, the famed guitarist and namesake of this band would never more stylishly emulate the jazz icon than with Abraxas

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