Carlos Santana is no stranger to instrumental albums. He's been recording them for over 35 years dating back to Love Devotion Surrender, his 1973 collaboration with John McLaughlin. On Shape Shifter, his new album and the first released on his own label, Starfaith Records, the guitarist mixes electric and nylon guitars to create an ode to Native Americans, the first settlers in America.
There are eagle calls, chants and a sense of drama and majesty created by Santana's soaring and fiery guitar lines. There is a tribute to legendary guitarist Gabor Szabo called "Mr. Szabo," a ballad titled "Angelica Faith" that calls to mind his playing on "Samba Pa Ti" and "Europa" as well as piano-filled songs featuring his son Salvador "Canela" and "Ah Sweet Dancer" and even moments when Carlos rips it up on a track called "Dom."
UG: Is Shape Shifter sort of the opposite side of the scale musically from the Guitar Heaven album?
Santana: Yeah. I made a conscious decision in '73 not to do songs with intros and verses and choruses and bridges and another chorus to go through radio. I went to stories, soundtracks and that kind of music. I did that from '73 until '99 when I got together with Clive [Davis] again and we decided to go back where we started in Abraxas and start some doing some songs again. I'm very grateful and I'm not complaining. To be almost 65 and to be in a place where I can do something with Andrea Bocelli or Lady Gaga and great musicians and great artists. It's a great blessing. However the other part of me wanted to do something else and I have done instrumental songs that were not necessarily songs but more like stories. So from 1997 to 2007 I recorded all those songs in-between studio sessions with other artists. I just put it together and my heart told me, It's time to put this one out.
One of the main focuses of Shape Shifter was the nylon string guitar. Where did that come from?
I'm a child of B.B. King like a lot of people like Michael Bloomfield and Peter Green. He had me for a long time until I discovered Gabor Szabo, Bola Sete, Paco DeLucia and Manito Zaplata and Segovia and I went in that direction. I still love the chairman of the board B.B. King but I learned that I could playbecause of Los Indios TabajarasI could play acoustic nylon since I'm a Mexican and Mexicans play acoustic a lot. So it didn't become that difficult.
Your tribute to Gabor Szabo was Mr. Szabo. What made his music so special?
His sound first of all is he's a Hungarian gypsy but this Hungarian gypsy loved New York, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. So it's not just Hungarian gypsy music from Budapest but now he's got a jazz vocabulary like Wes Montgomery but he's staying true to Ravi Shankar and the way Ravi Shankar is always playing two strings simultaneously. Gabor Szabo was really, really close to me and I was close to him. He stayed at my house many, many times and I would pick him up after a concert on Broadway in San Francisco and he'd come over and sleep at my house many, many, many times. He played for me in the middle of the night or for himself and so I learned very closely why I love him and why he feels and he creates the way he creates.
Did Gabor hear what you did on Abraxas when you connected his Gypsy Queen to the end of Black Magic Woman?
Yes, he started laughing. He goes, Wow, you guys did something totally different. You guys really cranked it up. I said, Well I can't play like you. I gotta play it like me, man.
Other than those opening notes you use from the original Gypsy Queen, your interpretation really doesn't sound anything like Gabor Szabo's version.
Well you know like I said we have our own fingerprints. If I tried to play like Robbie Krieger who I really love from the Doors, [it wouldn't sound right.] They're my favorite band out of all the bands. I love everybodyLed Zeppelin, Cream and Jimi Hendrixbut I love the Doors probably the most and it's because the sound they created by just drums, keyboards and guitar is very mystical to me. And I tell you why I love emI love em because they create this mystery environment that has two things I love the most: John Coltrane and John Lee Hooker. That's what the Doors is: John Coltrane and John Lee Hooker with some phenomenal lyrics by Jim Morrison.
Did you play shows back in the day with the Doors?
No, I wish I had. We're thinking of doing something in the near future with John Densmore and everybody else. They know I love em; every interview I do, I tell them that I love em.
Dennis Chambers and Benny Rietveld, the drummer and bass player on Shape Shifter, are amazing players. Could you compare them to your first rhythm section of Michael Shrieve and David Brown?
No, you can't because Michael Shrieve and David Brown, Chepito, Michael Carabello and Gregg Rolie is a different imprint of emotional [feelings] and symmetry. It's like Paul McCartney doesn't sound the same with the big drummer he's got right now as opposed to Ringo. So we respect both of em. I really, really like Day Tripper and what Ringo did in there; it's very simple and really powerful. You can tell they were listening to Motown and John Coltrane as well because those guys were LSD before they legalized it. It was legal so we were all learning to ummm, step out of the security blanket. The brain has its own safety valve and sometimes when you open it you're able to hear colors and you're able to feel things a lot more than people normally do when you don't do that. This is why people who take ayahuasca, peyote, mescaline or anything like that or even just smoking a joint, it uh, gives you a different vista. There it isthere's the word: Vis-ta. An aerial view of the situation and it's like going Monte El Pais and you can see on a clear day forever. Otherwise you just see like you're in a closet. I'm not promoting or saying people need to do that. However, if you hear why Jimi Hendrix sounds the way he sounds, well, there's a clue.
Can you give us any clues about your own adventures with LSD? Did you ever record in an altered state?
Well yeah. Woodstock is the prime example.
I meant more about recording in the studio.
Yeah, that too. I don't need to do it anymore because I did it so much now, I can just recall it. They have a thing called required listening and they should have a required experience under supervision. I gotta remind you even Cary Grant under supervision had to do it for himself. There was a saying in the 60syou can't find yourself til you lose yourself.
Your guitar tone on Dom sounded like you rolled off all the treble like Eric Clapton did when he created his woman tone.
I don't know; I don't even remember. All I know is I was trying to get something that sounded sympathetically correct with the song. The song sounds like African/Bob Marley with some Yo Yo Ma in there.
You created a cello-like guitar tone.
Yeah. I love African music and that song came from Toure Kunda, which is one of my favorite African groups. They have words and lyrics but I wanted to sing the whole thing myself and I did.
There are those little solo breaks in the middle of the song. Did you work those out previously?
It comes from the call-and-answer. The first time I noticed there was a way to do that, I noticed there was three ways to do it: call, answer and then there's another one in-between. Gospel people do it all the time; Eric Clapton did it. And on Lady Soul, Aretha Franklin, when she said Be good to me/As I am to you and Clapton was answering Aretha Franklin. So I said, Yeah, that's a interesting way to do it. Because most guitar players before that would only play a solo when they take a solo. But I really learned to master that because of SupernaturalI learned to find the holes and the spaces in-between the singing. It's almost like angels putting their elbow on your shoulder and resting it and going, Yeah, I hear you man, I hear you.
You get pretty rocking on Nomad.
Yeah, I like it; I wanna do more like that.
"I made a conscious decision in '73 not to do songs with intros and verses and choruses and bridges and another chorus to go through radio. I went to stories, soundtracks and that kind of music."
Chester Thompson plays some beautiful B-3 on Nomad, which is a sound you've always used.
It goes back to Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith and Kenny Burrell except we turn it up a lot more. The first Santana album with Gregg Rolie and I we were alwaysI wouldn't call it competingbut we were both feeling out each other. Also when you listen to Robin Trower with Procol Harum when they did Whiter Shade of Pale, people were doing it very naturally and/or Vanilla Fudge. There's something about electric guitar and Hammond organ that really complement each other. The best one for me was Tony Williams, Larry Young and John McLaughlin; there's nothing higher, more powerful or more intelligent than that.
The ballad Angelica Faith has that same feel as Samba Pa Ti and Europa. Would you agree?
Absolutely. This is why I feel really grateful I'm in a position to do an instrumental album. CT [Chester Thompson] started playing basically his part and then I came and just plugged in and did my part and we just split the song because he put the foundation and I put the melodies. So I asked him how he felt and he goes, Oh, I feel really good if it would go 50/50 so we split it 50/50 right down the line.
Are you a different player than the guitarist who was on Samba Pa Ti and Europea?
I would like to believe there's the same awkward innocence about it. Not naïve or stupid; naïve is OK. What's really important for most musicians to understand is it's OK to learn all the chords and all the books and all the everything but it's important to put em away and then play like you don't know how to play. Because that makes it happen and otherwise you sound very, very, very cold, calculated and mechanical and that turns people off. It only turns male aggressive guys that like music really fast and loud. The girls go, Ehh, turn that shit off. Play something I can make love to, man. I can't make love to that. Because some music sounds like you go see a guy flexing muscles at the gym and some music sounds like you're giving somebody a very endearing, delicious hug and that's how it's supposed to sound and feel.
What was it like working with Eric Bazilian from the Hooters as the producer?
We were just beginning to get into the Supernatural thing and he's probably the first producer we invited. He heard me play and I start4d playing and he took it home and in the computer he added and put it all together. So what he brings is a knowledge of technology and he has a lot of feel and feeling and I look forward to doing something again with him in the future. But he basically just said, Play and I said, OK. And then he went home and put it together.
Your son, Salvador, plays piano on a couple of songs: Canela and Ah Sweet Dancer. He didn't want to play guitar like his father?
No, he didn't. He naturally felt more comfortable with the keyboards and drums; he's a drummer and plays keyboards. He grabs a guitar when I'm not looking and he's really good at it but that's not something he wanted to do for outer consumption.
"To be almost 65 and to be in a place where I can do something with Andrea Bocelli or Lady Gaga and great musicians and great artists. It's a great blessing."
Were you comfortable recording those songs with Salvador? Did you have to coach him in any way?
No, I don't go there with him. I think he knows more than I do when he needs to do that and if he needs to do that. For me recording with my son would be the same thing for you making sure that when you open the door it doesn't slam on the fingers of the baby. He has that for me and I have that for him. I think the main chemistry my son and I have is we know how to confer and defer with ourselves inwardly and then we do that with each other. Because we honor each other and we wouldn't compete with each other. He's a very sentient person. Salvador is a very, very different person in the sense that he's the kind of guy that would chew words really, really carefully a lot before he spit em out and give em to anyone whether it was a compliment or correction or anything. He's a very thoughtful person; not like me. I just say what I feel like, Hey man, don't do that shit. But he taught me a lot; he taught me another way to encourage and inspire people than to slam em. I grew up the old way so he basically taught me more kindness and generosity.
Salvador also tours with your band?
Yes, but he's playing today in San Francisco. So I feel really, really grateful that he's on his own and he's got his own path and charting his own course and I welcome that.
With Salvador playing piano and Chester Thompson playing B-3 you've created a bit of that Procol Harum sound.
Yep. He listened a lot of course to Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett but his favorite is Monk.
Is that right?
Yeah, his favorite is Thelonious Monk.
Shape Shifter has taken a while to put together. Was it worth the wait for you?
Yes, I feel really, really grateful. Nothing's forced and nothing is with conflict; everything is right on time. Thank you so much. I think that's the time we have. Best to your family.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"My son taught me another way to encourage and inspire people than to slam em. I grew up the old way so he basically taught me more kindness and generosity."