Producer: Carlos Santana
The Carlos Santana we know and love has returned. After eleven years of selling out and facing the slings and arrows of guitarists and fans the world over, Santana seems to be done having contemporary pop artists appear on his albums. Though seemingly unfazed by accusations of a damaged reputation and him no longer being a creative force in music, Carlos shuts up the whiners with Shape Shifter. With a core group of superb musicians and himself in the producer’s chair, Santana returns to his artistic and spiritual center, creating the type of music that has made him an idiosyncratic guitar legend.
Santana’s thirty-sixth album is dedicated to the Native American people. This mostly instrumental album is thirteen-songs of Carlos doing what he does best – playing soaring, emotional, Latin rock guitar. Although his signature tone and style dominates throughout, many would argue that the compositions are basically simple vamps that allow Santana to wail. But soulful guitar playing over simple chord changes is what Santana does best. Criticizing him for this would be like criticizing B.B. King for sounding bluesy.
Glorious guitar tones, signature phrasing, and fiery guitar improvisation abound on Shape Shifter. He uses a large variety of electric and acoustic guitar tones to elevate well-conceived compositions. The title track conjures up Native American spirits with traditional tribal chanting, along with some serious heavy rock drumming. Santana’s tonal palette is broad as he picks and chooses a variety of sonic textures, sometimes within the same composition as on “Dom.”
Santana’s soulful guitar playing is backed throughout by a core group of heavy-duty players: Chester Thompson on keyboards, Benny Rietveld on bass, and the prodigious Dennis Chambers on drums. They get an assist from Raul Rekow on congas and Karl Perazzo on percussion on “Macumba In Budapest.” The sole vocal contribution gets an even stronger Latin treatment on “Eres La Luna,” with excellent vocals by Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay.
Carlos gets down to business on “Nomad” and rocks out with some great trademark playing, trading burning solos with Chester Thompson. It’s the stand out track on the record. Overall Shape Shifter is a ballad heavy affair but that’s a good thing. Santana’s song choices play to his musical and virtuosic strengths. He mines the deep heartfelt notes as opposed to the shallow ones. His expressively articulate approach on “Angelica Faith”, “In The Light Of A New Day”, and “Canela” (with his son Salvador on keys), really serve to illustrate what Santana is all about: Soulfully thoughtful spirituality.
Shape Shifter doesn’t break any new ground and won’t retain the fans that came late to the party to hear duets with contemporary pop artists, but old school followers will appreciate Santana’s return to a style of music that made him a guitar icon. Like many famous artists of his generation, fans come to hear what made them fall in love with him in the first place. Those seeking musical innovation should look elsewhere.