Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


Shape Shifter/ Santana

Genre: Rock/ instrumental

Sony Music/ Rs 499

Rating: ****

THE instrumental numbers of guitar god Carlos Santana have their own magic. And over the past 43 years or so, there have been quite a few, even prompting the release of two volumes of ‘Best Instrumentals’ featuring his tunes.

While most fans would remember the classics ‘Samba Pa Ti’, ‘Soul Sacrifice’ and ‘Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile)’, some of Santana’s other instrumental  beauties include ‘I Love You Much Too Much’, ‘Oneness’, ‘Incident at Neshabur’, ‘Singing Winds, Crying Beasts’, ‘Flor d’Luna (Moonflower)’ and ‘Revelations’, besides ‘Trinity’, a wordless version of Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ‘Tere Bin Nahin Lagda’, also featuring Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett and pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph.

Keeping this in mind, Santana’s latest album ‘Shape Shifter’ is targeted primarily at those who adore his instrumental tunes. Of the 13 tracks, only one is an out-and-out vocal number, and another has a short backing vocal passage. While Santana’s guitar plays the dominant role, there are effective contributions from keyboardists Chester Thomson and (son) Salvador Santana, bassist Benny Reitveid, drummer Dennis Chambers, conga player Raul Rekow and percussionist Karl Perazzo, most of whom have accompanied the maestro in recent years.

Dedicated to the spirit of the Native American Indian, ‘Shape Shifter’ draws influences from rock, jazz, Latin American and Cuban forms like bossa nova, rumba and salsa, and even European classical, Spanish flamenco and Hungarian folk melodies. And though some of the riffs and song structures remind one of older Santana tunes, there’s a fair amount of verve, variety and virtuosity here.

Of the tunes, the title track has a nylon guitar and back-up vocal intro, but shifts smoothly into spitfire guitars and keyboards. ‘Dom’ has a haunting orchestral start, and wonderfully constructed staccato guitar notes. ‘Nomad’ pumps up the tempo with its frenzied jazz-rock guitar-keyboard interaction, but is too typical Santana and will be liked by those wanting to play air guitar.

‘Never The Same Again’ starts off with a short flamenco stretch, before a moody guitar riff takes over. ‘Spark of the Divine’ is a charming minute-long filler. It’s a nice composition, but sounds more like an introduction to a longer piece, and thus incomplete.

Two tunes with Hungarian influences are truly impressive. ‘Macumba in Budapest’ blends an Afro-Brazlian percussion line with a peppy European melody. But the most distinct and striking piece of the album is ‘Mr Zsabo’, dedicated to Hungarian guitarist Gabor Zsabo. Using classical guitar lines and smart Latin American rhythms, it has a lilt which makes one want to listen repeatedly.

The other highlight is ‘Canela’, named after a Brazilian town. Though it starts off in typical Santana guitar fashion, it moves from one sphere to another, with Salvador Santana coming up with marvellous keyboard passages. In fact, Salvador plays a tight piano on the final song ‘Ah. Sweet Dancer’, and definitely shows enormous talent, which should carry the Santana legacy forward.

Among the songs with more familiar strains, ‘Metatron’ has a hangover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Is Your Love in Vain?’, and ‘In the Light of a New Day’ has an orchestral theme reminiscent of the Beatles’ ‘If I Fell’. ‘Angelica Faith’, dedicated to Santana’s daughter, has vague similarities to ‘Europa’, but what differentiates it is the innovative use of keyboard counter-melodies as a contrast to the wonderful guitar lines.

The only purely vocal piece, ‘Eres La Luz’, featuring singers Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay, may have been fine for a regular Santana album, but seems a bit out of place here. One doesn’t understand the need for placing this in the middle of all the instrumental beauties — if it had to be included, it should have been placed at the beginning or end.

Besides being a mostly-instrumental album, what’s welcome about ‘Shape Shifter’ is that for the first time in many years, Santana does not include high-profile guest artistes. His last four albums ‘Supernatural’, ‘Shaman’, ‘All That I Am’ and the cover version collection ‘Guitar Heaven’ were filled with guest appearances, and after the first effort, the concept was getting stale.

Though ‘Supernatural’ and ‘Shaman’ had their musical highs, they seemed more like marketing gimmicks to cater to the younger crowd. For those who’ve grown up on Santana, the true magic lies in older albums like the self-titled debut, ‘Abraxas’ and ‘Zebop!’ The more refined ear would favour his jazz-rock experiments in ‘Caravanserai’ and his collaborations with jazz guitarist John McLaughlin in ‘Love Devotion Surrender’ and pianist-harpist Alice Coltrane in ‘Illuminations’.

For that category of old-time loyalists, ‘Shape Shifter’ seems to be the best album in 20 years, after the 1992 release ‘Milagro’. Yes, one can always nitpick and point out similarities with older tunes, and crib about Santana’s tendency to overuse his signature sound. But then, in the recent past, this is the closest one can come to vintage Santana. The fact that it’s mostly instrumental just adds to the charm.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

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