DVD Review: Santana & McLaughlin – Invitation to Illumination – Live at Montreux 2011

DVD Review: Santana & McLaughlin: Invitation to Illumination – Live at Montreux 2011
Eagle Rock Entertainment
All Access Review: A-

Santana & McLaughlin - Invitation to
Illumination - Live at Montreux 2011
John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana are two peas in a pod. Musically adventurous and perpetually thirsty in their lifelong quests for spirituality, the two guitar shamans were similarly drawn to the teachings of guru Sri Chinmoy in the early 1970s, and after the original Santana band disbanded after the difficult birth of Caravanserai, an album that confounded Santana fans, the two threw themselves into the making of the paradigm-shifting 1973 jazz-rock fusion record Love Devotion Surrender, which made even less sense to Santana followers and some critics.

To McLaughlin and Santana, however, their uniquely innovative creation was perfectly understandable, a melting pot of revolutionary ideas both harmonious and chaotic. In that respect, it took its cues from humanity and life itself, as Love Devotion Surrender paid homage to heroes like John Coltrane and Miles Davis and served as a beautifully disordered prayer – expressing deep hope and faith in a higher power and mankind’s capacity for goodness, while acknowledging the continuing fight for justice and peace requires an army of patient and persistent non-violent soldiers. 

And somehow, all of these notions are communicated throughout Love Devotion Surrender to anyone willing to listen for them. In 2011, with Claude Nobs serving as matchmaker, the two men joined up onstage at Nobs’ Montreux Jazz Festival to do something they’d never done – that is, co-headline a concert together. The effervescent “Invitation to Illumination – Live at Montreux 2011” documents that dazzling, once-in-a-lifetime performance in sumptuous color and sound, as Santana and the one-time Davis sideman McLaughlin, with help from members of both their bands, dust the cobwebs off Love Devotion Surrender and re-imagine four of its five tracks in a live setting, including their warm and reverential reading of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and various and sundry pieces from their back catalogs. The audience may not have always understand the language they were speaking, but those who were there surely appreciated its complex and creative nature.

And what they get is a transcendent, almost religious experience, where the fluid, melodic playing of Santana and the almost subversive, exceedingly progressive virtuosity of McLaughlin reach for and run to higher ground – as they do in that LP’s “The Creator has a Master Plan,” a gently flowing mélange of congas, shakers and other percussive elements, soft piano rain and intricate guitar negotiations. Taking great delight in watching each other launch into flights of daring, high-wire six-string machinations, they go bushwhacking through the thorny thicket and building drama of “The Life Divine,” Love Devotion Surrender’s remake of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” in the search for light and open spaces to roam freely about. For Coltrane’s “Naima” and “Lotus Land Op 47, No. 1,” the pair go acoustic, alternating on tricky, labyrinthine leads and then exploring Flamenco flavors on the latter with great finesse and smiles on their faces.

A somewhat flabby and uncertain medley of “Peace on Earth/A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall/Stairway to Heaven/Our Prayer/SOCC” offers a tribute to the likes of Dylan and Led Zeppelin and sees Santana and McLaughlin reeling off interesting and clever leads in a joyful and playful manner. None of it, however, prepares the uninitiated for the strange and wonderful free-form jazz anarchy of “Vuelto Abajo” and “Vashkar,” where Santana exits and lets McLaughlin, fiery drum engine Cindy Blackman and the rest of these sonic explorers go off on their own crazy adventures through these works from Tony Williams’ Lifetime, each one taking a separate, inaccessible and seemingly incongruous route to coalesce at a safe house of insurgent, kinetic energy.

The bluesy cooking of “Downstairs” grounds McLaughlin and Santana, while “Let Us go into the House of the Lord” finds them basking in the luminous glow of a heavenly, meditative worship, but that’s as comfortable as they get. “Venus/Upper Egypt” is all frenzied jazz action, and they bring out, in stark relief, the industrious funk grooves of “Black Satin,” off Davis’ 1972 On the Corner release, almost drowning it in puddles of sweat, as McLaughlin interjects alien shapes and figures here and there that are not only accepted, but encouraged.

Professionally shot to capture the triumphant and celebratory mood of the show, while also making sure to pay undivided attention to the skilled and imaginative playing of all the actors – not just the two main characters – “Invitation to Illumination – Live at Montreux 2011,” with its diverse and unpredictable set list, only adds to the revered legacies of both artists. As he told the attendees, all Santana and company wanted to do was touch their hearts that night. Cynics might scoff, but there is precious little of that going on these days, and what Santana and McLaughlin were able to accomplish at Montreux suggests they might want to do this more often.
– Peter Lindblad

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