collaboration: love, devotion, surrender
carlos santana's latest big-selling duets with name-brand guest vocalists have me thinking about collaboration. i've long admired mr. santana as a guitarist, especially his rare combination of attention to detail and joy in playing. i saw both traits in action while privy to a st. paul sound check long ago: he'd stand, play a note, cock his head, look serious, step 2" left, play a note, smile broadly, mark the spot, step 2" left... beautiful. nevertheless, he hasn't always chosen the best sidepersons or collaborators.
i'm sure the new duets are fine, but i can't imagine mr. santana will ever find a better collaborator than mahavishnu john mclaughlin. sometimes i dig out their joint love, devotion, surrender when i'm feeling a little empty or alone. i remember it as a source of comfort in adolescence -- listening with a close friend whose mother was dying and whose father was just gone. i suppose my friend was santana to my mahavishnu john. today, i don't know whether i'm moved by the emotional content of the music or the emotional memory of the music. in either case, i still hear two artists at the top of their game, each opening up a vein and taking a chance.
i found lds in a $3.49 cut-out bin, back when i was mainlining noisemakers such as rust-period neil young and, later, those sons-of-youngs j. mascis of dinosaur jr., sonic youth's thurston moore, and husker du's bob mould. while they didn't move me viscerally like the feedback gods above, i wasn't too thick to appreciate quieter players such as local boys steve tibbets and leo kottke; i also recall being mesmerized by an un-electric and un-amplified orchestra hall performance by nonagenarian andres segovia. i still love all this guitaristry, but somehow i return to love, devotion, surrender far more often. probably because it is a beautiful collaboration.
technically, the two guitarists complemented one another wonderfully -- santana's warm, melodic runs washing over and through mclaughlin's forceful staccato phrasing. or, on some songs, it is precisely the opposite. the two were clearly vibing during the sessions and picking up and dropping one another's styles. in my opinion, these are the two essential ingredients of any great collaboration: complementary skills and enough like-mindedness to vibe together to produce something beautiful or transcendent. the rest of the band was right with them as well -- vets from miles' fusion stage and the mahavishnu orchestra, such as the great billy cobham and jan hammer (?!) on drums and larry young on organ.
of course, the songs are terrific. the touchstone opener is coltrane's a love supreme, followed by his naima. next, mclaughlin's the life divine seems completely real but technically impossible. it leaves me thinking i couldn't have heard what i just thought i heard (no way. No Way!). the attacking pickwork is absurd on this, and on the following jam, let us go into the house of the lord. i don't have the imagery to do it justice, but the dueling arpeggios remind me of muscular birds moving at the speed of light between earth and sky (i warned you i didn't have the imagery. maybe they sound more like ligers, or two chickens with large talons.). finally, lds closes with meditation, a quiet but stirring denouement.
at 15, i was spooked and put-off by the overt religiosity of the album -- the fold-out picture showed sri chinmoy with our two shoeless guitar demigods literally at his feet. i mocked their gullibility, their short hair, and (most of all) their white sweaters (white sweaters?). plus, the vocals were nothing more than repetitious chants -- almost an afterthought. even then, however, i connected with the playful religious ecstasy in lengthy jams such as let us go into the house of the lord. don't get me wrong -- they both shred throughout. nevertheless, the fun and joy of the sessions bring a smile. these were jams with a higher purpose. at the time, i dismissed the words and pictures as half-baked hippie idealism (only i didn't say "idealism") and dust-of-the-grand-wazoo cosmik debris. here's an excerpt from sri chinmoy's liner notes:
each moment we are given ample opportunity to love mankind. and if we really love mankind, then we have the feeling of wanting to offer devoted service to mankind...
each moment we see right in front of us a barrier between one human being and another -- an adamantine wall between two people. we cannot communicate properly, wholeheartedly and soulfully. why? because we are wanting in love...we can break asunder this adamantine wall on the strength of our soulful love.
i know, i know -- i talk exactly like this these days. what seemed impossibly cheesy to me at 15, i've somehow embraced over time. i blame madison, wisconsin and nick lowe's what's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding? for simultaneously demystifying such sentiments and softening my attitude toward those making them. whether it was religious ecstasy, human connection, or just some spectacularly kind bud, mclaughlin and santana tore down this adamantine wall on love, devotion, surrender.
from what i remember of durkheim's elementary forms, religious rituals are all about worshipping the human connection in social life. during moments of collective effervescence we reaffirm shared sentiments and create new ideals. i suppose that santana and mclaughlin were up to something similar, surrendering themselves to one another and their shared conception of god and divine love. that's the soul of collaboration: tear down the walls, make something beautiful, and shred as one. the matching white sweaters are just a bonus.