Unions of legendary guitarists are typically fleeting, like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck’s musical intersection at the Secret Policeman’s Ball or the jam between Clapton, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan and Stevie Ray Vaughan at Alpine Valley, Wisconsin, just before the latter’s death in a helicopter crash, which truly defines “fleeting.” Even studio pairings are usually for one track only, like the celebrity packed albums made by B.B. King.
Rarely do two six-string giants stand toe-to-toe for an entire album. The 1973 release Love Devotion Surrender marked one of those rare full-disc encounters. The album sold a stunning half-million copies following its July release and captured both John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana at the height of their powers, backed by members of their respective bands at the time — the historic line-ups of both Santana and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Intended as a tribute to fellow instrumental genius and spiritual seeker John Coltrane, the album held two Coltrane tunes, two McLaughlin songs and the traditional gospel tune “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord.” Four decades later this material, cut in sessions during October 1972 and March 1973, still stands the test of decades thanks to its interstellar playing.
The album occurred in large part due to the direct inspiration of guru Sri Chinmoy, who both Santana and McLaughlin followed. It also marked a search for musical stability for the two artists. Santana was searching for new directions, with the expanded jams of Santana III now an obvious precursor to 1972’s more jazz oriented Caravanserai. At the same time, the original powerhouse membership of McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra was splintering, even as the group reached the height of its popularity playing defiantly loud, experimental and ambitious music.
To get an earful of how Santana’s and McLaughlin’s playing styles differed and meshed, listen to Love Devotion Surrender’s “A Love Supreme,” one of the set’s Coltrane compositions. Both are playing electric guitar at a superbly high level, trading phrases, with Santana panned hard left and McLaughlin hard right. At the time, Santana had recently switched from the SG he favored at Woodstock and on his earlier albums to Les Paul Standards and Les Paul Customs. With Mahavishnu, McLaughlin was mostly seen with a black Les Paul Custom or his double-neck EDS-1275 blasting through a 100-watt Marshall head.
Another Coltrane track, “Naima,” finds both playing acoustic guitar, a direction that McLaughlin would take much further in his explorations of traditional Indian music with the group Shakti, where he played a specially designed acoustic guitar with a scalloped fretboard and drone strings. “The Life Devine” also borrows from “A Love Supreme” for its theme and gives Santana free reign as he alternates sprays of rippling, serrated notes with long single tones that he bends and holds into feedback, including one that clocks in at more than 30 seconds. McLaughlin’s showcase is “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord,” although some critics have said that his arrangement borrows extensively from organist Lonnie Liston Smith’s, which the latter developed while working with Coltrane disciple Pharoah Sanders. But McLaughlin’s playing is a tour-de-force of ferocity and power, tension and release, with his notes creating an aural psychedelic tapestry that attempts to be nothing less than a sonic portal to the spiritual world.
Although McLaughlin’s fans were used to the kind of musical expansiveness both men etched into Love Devotion Surrender, Santana devotees who’d signed on because of his recordings of tunes like “Evil Ways,” “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va” were left baffled by its intensity and abstraction. Pop music critics also panned the disc. But through the prism of 40 years, Love Devotion Surrender stands on its own as a work of collaborative brilliance and a high point of the formative jazz-rock fusion era.