After 36 releases, 10 Grammy awards, and 100 million albums sold over a 40-year career, I’ll assume I’m safe in invoking that classic opening line: “My next guest needs no introduction…” And I’m sure that I’m only one of countless guitarists that has cited Mr. Carlos Santana as a major influence on their playing – for me he’s always been number one.* However, it is more than his music that has touched my life, it is his Being… as a spiritual warrior, which not only flows through his fingers, but through his words, his actions, and his Soul to promote love, understanding, and unity in the world.
The brand new album, Shape Shifter, pays tribute to Native Americans. In the words of Carlos Santana: “I have consciously created a CD to honor the first people of the land.” He goes on to say: “I dedicated this album to them because I think it’s important with where we are in 2012, since the world is supposed to end, and they know more than anyone about the shifts in perception. But as Bob Marley said, ‘It’s the beginning, not the end.’ We have computers and satellites, but we’re not as connected to Mother Nature as they are. We’re always fighting with her.” And while the album has a strong focus on honoring the Native Americans, true to character, he takes a more expansive and inclusive perspective: “As you know, the people in New Zealand collectively agreed to give an apology to the Aborigines in Australia, and for me, whatever we do here in America to honor the American Indians, the Chinese, African-Americans and everybody else is a big step.” He cites President Obama’s signing of the 2009 Native American Apology Resolution and says, “I encourage any and all countries (that have not as yet done so) to acknowledge the first people of their land, and make this a collective global effort.”
In addition to its theme, one of the most interesting things about the album is that with the exception of one track, it is an all-instrumental CD. This is a fact that is sure to surprise and delight fans of his fiery fret-work. Unlike many of his recordings since 1999, there are no pop star vocalists or high profile special guests. Just an abundance of the inspired guitar playing that Carlos is so famous for. It’s also something he wanted to give his fans who have been desiring it – which brings to mind the all-instrumental album Frank Zappa released in 1981, which he humorously titled, “Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar.” According to Carlos, “This is the perfect time to give people something they’ve been asking for a long time: ‘we just want to hear Carlos play his guitar’.” While there are no lyrics, it was his idea to “create instrumental music where the melody becomes a universal language. It’s more a collection of stories than songs,” says Santana. “Songs require intros, choruses, bridges, endings. On this record, it was more about ‘close your eyes and play.’ They’re still songs, but they’re not directed at radio. I was just being true to what I felt.”
The title track, which opens the CD does unfold like a story with it’s earthy and atmospheric intro of Native American elements such as rattles, drumming, chanting, the cry of an eagle, etc. The piece also begins and ends with Carlos playing nylon string acoustic-electric guitar, which actually finds its way into a number of tracks on the CD. However, those wanting to hear him soar on electric guitar don’t have to wait long as he lets it rip with an extended solo midway through the song. One of the tunes that best captures the classic Santana sound, that so many know and love, is the third track, “Nomad,” which is a pedal-to-the-metal rocker that features some spirited call and response between Carlos on lead guitar and Chester Thompson on organ. All of which is propelled by a driving beat from powerhouse drummer Dennis Chambers that reminded me a bit of “Jingo” from the first Santana album – the tune which brought the house down at Woodstock and helped catapult Carlos and the band to rock stardom. More incendiary electric guitar follows on the next track entitled “Metatron” which takes its title from the Archangel Metatron in the Bible. The feel of the song is appropriately exalted with rich keyboard orchestrations adding to the vibe. In fact, synthesizer and keyboards figure prominently on the album in general.
I appreciated the fact that the signature Santana lead guitar sound (which I love) is used judiciously throughout the CD, and that he takes a softer approach on a number of songs and allowing the album to breath and have a balance of yin and yang. Some the tracks have a more laid back ambience that would be right at home on smooth jazz radio. It is indeed, a well-rounded album with something for fans of his many facets. I particularly liked one of the slower tunes entitled “Spark Of The Divine,” which opened with tinkling chimes, harp glissandos, and soulful guitar that recalled the 1974 release Illuminations, which was a collaboration by Carlos and Alice Coltrane – a spiritually-based meditative excursion that was a forerunner of new age music. The Latin energy is strong on a pair of tunes, “Macumba In Budapest” and “Mr. Szabo” – a tribute to the Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó, one of Carlos Santana’s early idols. Long-time Santana percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo along with bassist Benny Rietveld do what they do best on these lively tunes.
Samba-inspired sparks fly on “Eres La Luz,” the one vocal tune on the album, which is sung part in English and part in Spanish. The last two songs on the CD feature a special guest appearance by Carlos’ son Salvador Santana on keyboards. Salvador is an extremely impressive musician in his own right and has been making a name for himself with his own band. The closing track, “Ah, Sweet Dancer,” is a touching and emotionally evocative ballad that highlights the melodic interplay between the father and son musicians.
The music on Shape Shifter represents a collection of Carlos’ instrumental tunes that have been germinating since the late 90’s, waiting for the right moment to bloom. He has paid particular attention to the sequencing of the songs of the CD, which gives the album a wonderful ebb and flow and makes it feel like a body of work. As a huge fan of Carlos Santana I am equally excited by the music on this latest release as I am by the spirit and the inspiration behind it. Carlos says it best: “We are one family – and Shape Shifter is basically the same concept of honoring that the blood that flows through your veins in your family is holy and sacred and we are all one family.”