We didn't know it back in 1970, but Carlos Santana was an explorer, a musician and band leader always looking for the next terrain to prospect. Over the course of more than two dozen albums, he has nourished his wanderlust, never straying far from his Latin-music roots but venturing far and wide enough to pick up ideas, flavors and influences from other inspirations.
In 1970, a year after his band's breakout appearance at Woodstock helped propel his self-titled debut into the spotlight, they released “Abraxas,” the next of many excursions into the lavish, international world of music.
It was a welcomed change of pace. “Santana” was a free-wheeling and footloose (barefoot at times, really) jam fest and joyride that provided plenty of space for the band to stretch and show off its instrumental/improv prowess. It also introduced what would become Carlos' trademark, in the band's first hit, “Evil Ways”: his way of remodeling a tune plucked from another genre (jazz, in this case) into a classic-rock staple
On the other hand, “Abraxas” feels propelled by a more refined focus and purpose — structure and discipline – that did not sacrifice its predecessor's other virtues: barrages of grooves infused with elements of rock, jazz, blues, psychedelia and Latin music.
“Abraxas” is a trove of ideas distributed among nine tracks that come and go in about 37 minutes, It is at once blissful and enchanting (“Singing Winds/Crying Beasts), bold and gritty (“Incident at Neshabur”), then jaunty and funky (“Hope You're Feeling Better”).
Other highlights include the timeless remake of Peter Green's “Black Magic Woman,” which glides seamlessly into the flawless re-fashioning of Tito Puente's “Oye Como Va,” the band's most divine exercise in jazz conversion.
Jams abound, most memorably on “Samba Pa Ti,” one of Carlos' career-best instrumental moments. Even the closer, the percolating “El Nicoya,” inflicts a lasting jovial spirit, despite its brevity (88 seconds).
Into it all, the band dispenses into its rock foundation traits of Latin, Caribbean and Afro-Cuban music that give its music the inimitable flavors so deeply associated with Santana, the group and solo artist. If this isn't the band's best album—diehards will proclaim that the middling Gregg Rolle vocal numbers prevent that – it surely is its most popular. And for good reason: More than 50 years after its release, “Abraxas” still radiates the artistic vigor and adventurous spirit it issued the day it was born.