It’s not how he plays it, it’s what he plays. He keeps things to a minimum. Like that sustained one note that goes right through you like a journey to the centre of the earth. It’s like how one picture is worth a thousand words. It’s always been about the simplicity of what he sends out- vibes, love, pictures for the mind.
Guess one can say the same thing about any of the great, especially Rock, guitarists, but there’s still only one Carlos Santana because he’s really in his own sphere. Even when going Pop in 1999 to give his career the commercial boost it needed following advice from Arista label chief and the very influential Clive Davis with “Supernatural”, it was that trademark guitar sound which carried a track like the hit “Smooth”.
There are about five other melodies going on in “Smooth” if the guitar part was to be separated. A DJ friend in the UK has taken this guitar part and Remixed it with a salsa rhythm and the Chinese instrument the erhu. It’s fantastic. But various copyright laws will never see it see the light of day.
As for “Supernatural”, it screamed Grammy- a very commercially crafted album to resurrect the career of the guitar icon who had gone in very different directions, band members coming and going, the influence of guru Sri Chinmoy- with Carlos Santana playing with just especially young musicians from that time like Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20 who sang on “Smooth”.
Was it a great album? It was a hugely successful Clive Davis concocted musical cocktail that just had to succeed. And with the worldwide success of “Smooth”, the album was a Grammy whammy.
This wasn’t, however, the Carlos Santana who first captured the imagination of this music fan. That was watching “Woodstock”, the movie, which, let’s face it, romanticised a pretty ramshackled music festival held in the rain and mud at Yasgurs Farm with plenty of naked nubile nymphets dancing in the rain.
In the midst of relatively new artists from the UK like Joe Cocker and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, was Santana. On LSD. How many during there at that time had heard of Santana? Not many. But after their set and the brilliance of “Soul Sacrifice”, an extended celebration of Latino Rock and improvisational music going back to mambo kings and musicians like Mike Bloomfield, a huge influence on the guitarist, Miles Davis, Coke Escovedo and the great veteran percussionist Amando Perazo, someone who my father, a part time musician, knew, most were drained. It was like a marathon sex session.
It was my old man who educated me about Santana. Carlos Santana and the band Santana. Taken off guard by that set at Woodstock and never having heard a guitarist play with all the fire and passion of guitarist Carlos Santana and brilliant young drummer Mike Shrieve, it was my father who explained to me the musical roots of where Santana was coming from- the Blues, Bo Diddley, Peter Green, Miles, mariachi music and the huge influence of Mike Bloomfield.
It was a number of years later when they played in Hong Kong at the old Lee Theatre that my best friend Steve and I who had been drawn into the music of the albums “Abraxas” and, especially, the far more Jazz-influenced “Caravansari” have pretty much a religious experience.
What we were smoking in those days might have had something to do with it, but what Carlos Santana was doing with his guitar and the music that fused a number of musical genres together led by Jazz, Rock and latin rhythms were what made us believers.
Having been won over a couple of years earlier by UK bands like Fleetwood Mac with guitarist Peter Green, the Yardbirds and before tripping the light fantastic when first hearing the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, Santana kickstarted a new and different respect and deeper understanding of music. About how it could be just so much more. More experimental.
Talking to a musician friend earlier this week and lamenting the lack of “newness” in music today and how every so-called “jazz” jam session attended in Hong Kong disintegrates into a tediously long and meandering showcase for self-indulgence, the name Santana came up.
We talked about everything from the album cover for “Abraxas” to his very different musical journeys and Carlos Santana’s work with John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Santana lineup that once included a young guitarist named Neal Schon, below, who eventually formed Journey- and just how much all this became part of pushing musical boundaries.
Santana didn’t always get it right, but he was never lazy. He was always “innovating” up the hill and playing with just about everyone from every aspect of music. Music that hits heart, head and home never is.
It made me revisit all that music by him that’s come before to where Carlos Santana is today.
Other than a new musical home after decades with Columbia and subsidiary label, he’s now elsewhere and as always producing the music that lives inside of him and which we’re so darn fortunate to absorb, enjoy and, somehow, become better people from that experience. And that’s what’s magical about Carlos Santana.
He might not have the “billing” of Rock gods like Hendrix, Clapton and Jimmy Page, but then, Carlos Santana was never only about Rock.
It’s always been about music that cannot be labeled. And shouldn’t. Pure music is always evolving and something personal. It’s equal parts inspiration and perspiration. It’s about keeping it real. And honesty always leads to good places.
Thank you, Carlos Santana. It’s been quite a trip and it’s far from over.
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