The supernatural comeback of Carlos Santana


Obscure for many years after his 1960s and 1970s fame, guitarist Carlos Santana ignited the music world in 2000 when he won nine Grammies for Supernatural. His latest album, Divine Light, continues the trend with a heady mix of musical genres, writes Stuart Nicholson

At the 42nd Annual Grammy Awards held in February 2000, Carlos Santana swept the board when Supernatural picked up nine Grammies. It was a remarkable success for the 53-year-old guitarist, composer and bandleader whose career began back in the 1960s. Written off by the record industry - "Seven record companies told me I was too old and were not interested in me because I was not relevant any more to today's music" - it was his 36th album, and a long overdue recognition of his creative and experimental approach to rock.

In his acceptance speech, amid the glitz and glitter and popping flashbulbs, Santana thanked friends and business associates who had contributed to his success and made a point of acknowledging his debt to the jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane. It was a significant moment, as the jazz quotient in Santana's musical personality has long gone unrecognised, both in and out of the hermetically sealed worlds of rock and jazz.

With the current release of Divine Light (Columbia/Legacy), combining tracks from two classic Santana albums from the early 1970s, imaginatively remixed by Bill Laswell, Coltrane's spirit was writ large on the music.

Santana is now on a one-year sabbatical with his family: "I'm in the middle of fulfilling a promise to my children and my wife that I would not do anything for a year. My son is getting ready to go to college, therefore this is my last year with my family intact. So no Santana, just daily husband!"

He has time to look back over a career that began in the early 1960s scuffling for work in blues bands in Tijuana and San Francisco.

After a bumpy beginning, the Santana Blues Band was formed in San Francisco in 1966, débuting at Fillmore West in 1968 as Santana. The following year they were the musical highlight of the Woodstock festival, where they stopped the show.

Immediately signed by Columbia Records boss Clive Davis, Santana's innovative fusion of rock, fiery Afro-Latin polyrhythms and blues - showcasing his lyrical, yet powerfully intense guitar-playing - literally exploded onto the rock scene with Abraxis, Santana and Santana III, which sold in their millions. But in 1972 he began striking out in jazzier directions.

It was a reflection of the strong jazz influences that had begun to surface in his playing after encountering the guitar-playing of jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo during his early days with the Santana Blues Band. Then he was barely fresh out of high school and strongly influenced by blues player B. B. King.

"I went to a friend of mine [Gregg Rolie, his keyboard player] to hear this album [El Chico by Chico Hamilton] with Gabor Szabo on guitar, Chico Hamilton [on drums], Ron Carter [on bass] and Victor Pantoja on percussion.

"That was one of the most important days in my life because it actually took me out of B. B. King's galaxy. I started realising there is another way to play. I had never heard anybody play the guitar with just congas and timbales and bass, and this was like, 'Oh My God! This is different.' " It was hearing Szabor playing songs like Conquistadores and El Moors against the Latin percussion of Willie Bobo and Victor Pantoja that sowed the seed of what became the famous Santana Latin rock sound. Perhaps the most endur- ing legacy of Szabo's influence on Santana was his com-position, Gypsy Queen, a staple of Santana's repertoire to this day.

Around the same time,, Santana's drummer Michael Shrieve introduced him to the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Santana was soon hooked on their sophisticated jazz sounds, and their influence began surfacing in his playing - Davis's lyrical use of space, Coltrane's approach to playing over static harmonies. Santana quickly adapted these to the classic Latin montuno, a feature of his Latin rock compositions. On the album Fillmore - The Last Days, released in 1972, Santana even plays the classic Miles track, In A Silent Way.

Yet Santana's love of Miles Davis's music was not initially reciprocated by the Prince of Darkness. "He was checking out Santana and Jimi Hendrix because there is a place for finding your direction. At first Miles resisted \our music\ because he had an attitude towards rock 'n' roll," recalls Santana.

"Then we would play the Fillmore Thursday, Friday, Saturday; and he would be there every night. And it was like: 'Oh my God! He's here again! Maybe we do have something to say.' "

Santana's first overt use of jazz surfaced on Caravanserai. Released in November 1972, it was nominated for a Grammy and achieved double platinum sales. "I feel really grateful I was able to get away with it without being sued - for playing everybody else's stuff in a different context, you know?" he jokes. "I was playing Szabo Gabor, Grant Green and Freddie Hubbard, but the majority of Sketches of Spain [a key Miles Davis album] went into Waves Within, the second song [on the album]."

Following the success of Caravanserai, Santana plunged deeper into jazz waters with an unequivocal tri-bute to John Coltrane, Love Devotion Surrender, with jazz guitarist John McLaughlin. A series of ecstatic jams on Coltrane and Coltrane-influenced material, the album highlights a superb Love Supreme (included in the new Divine Light reissue), which at the time reawakened interest in Coltrane's original 1964 album and became a chant heard on college campuses across the US.

Santana's odyssey into jazz continued with Welcome, taken from a track on a Coltrane album, Borbolettea, influenced by the Brazilian jazz of Chick Corea's acoustic Return to Forever, and Lotus, recorded live in Japan in 1973, which actually presages the sound of Miles Davis's 1975 Agharta period.

"At that point I was deep into not playing pop," says Santana. "I was basically listening to the Miles Davis album On the Corner, Wayne Shorter and Weather Report, and we were starting to become a mirror of the things we were watching or absorbing. We were not afraid to go in there, Michael Shrieve especially. I needed to pursue that direction completely - some people start something and drop it. We wanted to complete that path. And I think we did."

Santana's music existed in several zones simultaneously, whether it was rock, Latin rock-jazz, Latin jazz-rock or simply jazz-rock. He created a climate where the audience of millions he commanded could move without apparent disjunction between rock and jazz-rock. It was a bridge that enabled Miles Davis to open for him, playing avant-garde jazz-rock, in the early 1970s.

It is not exaggerating to say that jazz-rock history might have been quite different without Santana. Along with Jimi Hendrix, he played an important role in shaping Miles Davis's aesthetic towards rock and jazz. But more than that, Santana's great popularity, with his jazz-influenced playing, made elbow room in the rock arena for the jazz-rock phenomenon of the early 1970s to evolve and develop. Yet Santana will always be found in the rock section of record stores.

Generic categories tend to be an after-the-fact rationalisation to define music in its market, used by the music industry to organise the sales process. In fact, Santana moved effortlessly between genres, between rock and jazz-rock and Latin - and even jazz, when in 1988 he recorded Swing of Delight with the 1965-1968 Miles Davis group (sans leader) of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.

Subsequently, jazz has never been far away from Santana's world, whether it be the chant Never Go Back to Georgia (taken from Dizzy Gillespie's Manteca) on Oye Como Va; his appearances on McCoy Tyner's 1982 album, Looking Out; Weather Report's This Is This from 1986; his on-stage jam with Miles Davis at an Amnesty International concert on June 15th, 1986, or his famous 1988 tour with Wayne Shorter. On his 1992 album Milagro, he again played with Davis and also with John Coltrane, courtesy of sampling.

Santana sees no incongruity in a rock star loving and paying tribute to jazz in his music - for him, music is universal.

"Moving people is what it is all about. I don't play music to get on the radio or compete with this or that. I play music to hopefully dismantle anger and fear. The key is to make people laugh, cry and dance at the same time."

For the present, he sees a wonderful irony in the fact that he is now signed to the Arista label run by Clive Davis. It is the same Clive Davis who, as head of Columbia records, told him Caravanserai would destroy his career.

"It's just how life works, man," he says. "The person who said I was committing 'career suicide' was Mr Clive Davis, who is the same person who believed in me when seven record companies turned me down - and we did Supernatural together." To date, Supernatural has sold 21 million copies worldwide.

  • Supernatural is released by Arista, Divine Light by Columbia Legacy.
  • Stuart Nicholson is the author of Jazz-Rock: A History (Cannongate).