Caravanserai Is Another ’70s Gem Hitting the Big 50

Santana’s fourth studio album marked a radical departure from successful Latin rock formula

Today, on October 11, 1972, Santana released their fourth studio album Caravanserai. While it’s a gem and did pretty well at the time, looking at it from today’s perspective, one has to say Carlos Santana made a gutsy decision to abandon a Latin rock formula that had generated three high-selling and high-charting albums and various hit singles, such as Evil Ways, Black Magic Woman, Oye Cómo Va and Everybody’s Everything. Most of all, it was bloody good music! But many great artists don’t rest on their laurels.

According to an AllMusic review of the album, Carlos Santana was “obviously very hip to jazz fusion”. It’s also fair to say that with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, jazz fusion had emerged as a new music genre that was getting some attention. But Columbia Records president Clive Davis wasn’t convinced. Reportedly, he called Caravanserai “career suicide” after his first listening to the album, which is largely instrumental and blends jazz, rock and Latin. An October 2018 post on The Music Aficionado blog does a terrific job telling the story behind Caravanserai in great detail. This post informs part of my review.

Apparently, Santana drummer and jazz lover Michael Shrieve who also co-produced Caravanserai had a major influence on Carlos Santana. He introduced him to artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Shrieve and Santana were also inspired by other artists like Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Alice Coltrane and Weather Report. The Music Aficionado quotes Carlos: “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.”

Another important influence that helped shape the sound of Caravanserai were changes in the Santana band. By the time they went into the studio to start work on the album, Michael Carabello (percussion) and David Brown (bass) had been replaced by James Mingo Lewis and Dough Rauch, respectively. Gregg Rolie (organ, piano, vocals) and Neal Schon (guitar) were on the album, but by the end of the recording sessions, they also had left. Subsequently, together with members of Steve Miller Band and Frumious Bandersnatch, Rolie and Schon co-founded backing band Golden Gate Rhythm Section, the group that became Journey.

I’d say let’s take a look at some tunes. One of my favorite tracks on Side one is Look Up (To See What’s Coming Down), co-written by Rauch, Rolie and Santana. To me, the standout here is Dough Rauch’s funky bass playing. Carlos Santana: “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”. The Music Aficionado also quotes Shrieve saying Rauch was one of the first bassists “to play with the thumb and popping technique that was later made famous by Larry Graham [Sly and the Family StoneCMM] and Stanley Clarke [Return to ForeverCMM].”

Another gem on Side A I’d like to highlight is Song of the Wind. The beautiful instrumental, credited to Rolie, Santana and Schon, for the most part, is a guitar duet between Santana and Schon where they each trade beautiful melodic solos. Citing Santana’s memoir, The Music Aficionado quotes him on Rolie’s contribution: “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.”

Closing out Side one is the great All the Love of the Universe. Co-written by Santana and Schon, it’s one of the album’s three tracks with vocals. Vocals are provided by Santana, Mingo Lewis and Rico Reyes. The song is another showcase of Rauch’s outstanding bass playing.

On to Side two and Stone Flower. The tune was written as an instrumental by Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim. Santana added lyrics written by Shrieve who provided vocals together with Carlos. The Music Aficionado also rightfully calls out the contributions of Tom Rutley (acoustic bass) and Wendy Haas (electric piano).

The last tune I’d like to highlight is the closer Every Step of the Way. Clocking in at just over 9 minutes, the instrumental is the longest track on Caravanserai. According to The Music Aficionado, it’s Carlos Santana’s favorite tune on the album. Quoting Carlos from his biography The Universal Tone: “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 [Hancock’s 10th album released in May 1972 – CMM]. The song also reminds me of Shrieve because he wrote it and because of how we played together.”

Here’s a Spotify link to the album:

Caravanserai performed surprisingly well. In the U.S., it climbed to no. 8 on the Billboard 200. In the UK, it reached no. 6, notably matching its predecessor Santana III. Caravanserai did best in The Netherlands where it peaked at no. 3. Elsewhere, it climbed no. 10 in Norway and no. 16 in Australia. In addition, the album also became a solid seller, reaching Platinum certification in the U.S. and Gold in each Canada and France. Caravanserai was also voted no. 609 in the third edition of Colin Larkin’s All Time Top 1000 Albums, published in 2000.

Long before I heard this album for the first time, I had listened to and really come to dig Santana’s first three records. Undoubtedly, Caravanserai is very different from the classic Santana sound. As such, the album was an acquired taste, which got better every time I listened to it. If you are where I was initially, I’d say give it a few more spins. You might come to love it as well!

Sources: Wikipedia; AllMusic; The Music Aficionado blog; YouTube; Spotify

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7 thoughts on “Caravanserai Is Another ’70s Gem Hitting the Big 50”

  1. I don’t know a bunch about Santana other than the hits mostly. This sounds wonderful and it did well in the charts but I can see why Clive Davis said that initially but it’s great.
    I do like Dough Rauch’s bass playing…that is awesome. I have to admire him for taking a chance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My intro to Santana was a greatest hits compilation my sister had at the time, which covered the first three albums. While I was only 8 or 9 at the time, I loved these songs from the get-go.

      Caravanserai was a pretty radical departure. Given the music is much less accessible, I was surprised how well it did in the charts. I have to assume part of it was goodwill from the previous three albums.

      As noted in the post, it definitely took me a while to embrace Caravanserai. While I generally admire artists who are not afraid to get into new/other things, I still prefer the classic Santana sound.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I heard what was on the radio mostly and those early hits. I like this stuff a lot. I like hearing this type of music when I’m doing something….like the Allman Brothers live album.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s kind of tricky for my age group to respect Santana, because that duets album Supernatural turned up when I was around 20 and made him look pretty cheesy – although I actually kind of like ‘Smooth’.

    I liked the samples you posted though, so it’s probably something I should dig into – not sure if I’d enjoy this or the early Latin stuff more.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve always liked “Smooth” as pretty catchy tune. That said, as I just commented to Max, my favorite Santana music continues to be the classic sound from the first three albums. I also dig Santana IV from April 2016, for which Carlos reunited with members of the classic Santana band to record an album that pretty much reflects the classic sound.

      Caravanserai , which essentially is jazz fusion with a Latin vibe, is a great album. That said, I find the music much less accessible than Santana’s classic stuff, so it took me a while to appreciate it. The same is true for jazz fusion overall.

      Liked by 1 person

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