An interview with Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana is without doubt one of the finest guitarists modern music has to offer. From his explosive appearance on the Woodstock stage fifty years ago, in 1968, through his work with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and the legendary blues duo of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, Santana has remained a unique, instantly recognisable figure in both the blues and world music camps.
Words by Iain Patience
Now, with a new band behind him and an ambition and optimism that he believes is leading him back to his ‘blues roots,’ he is about to hit the road with a promise of Santana at his very best, a bluesman with a purpose and a genuine desire to take the music world by the scruff of its neck and deliver a promise that he believes will push him straight back into the spotlight where many would agree he clearly belongs.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to forget his truly seminal release, ‘Abraxis,’ in 1970, with his astonishing take on Peter Greene’s wonderful, ‘Black Magic Woman,’ an album and track that sure-footedly assured his place on the global blues stage. This was an album and track that remains one of the finest blues cuts ever recorded. Santana has, and had, a totally new, refreshing, zinging sound that we’d never heard before. A guy always prepared to experiment and move the music on, he switched guitar brands, from Gibson to PRS, to achieve an even cleaner sound, a feeling and vibe that still has a haunting, ethereal feel coupled to a remarkable clarity that has stood the test of time and remains a trademark, making him instantly recognisable from the off.
All too often we speak of ‘unique’ players and musicians although in truth these guys are few and far between: with Carlos Santana, the title is more than merited. Speaking with the man himself back home on the US West Coast, Senor Santana is engaging, entertaining and excited by the prospect of his forthcoming European tour, his first trip across the Pond in many years.
I begin by asking if he’s bringing his own, current band over or plans a pick-up support outfit. He immediately confirms that it’s too important to leave the tour to chance of any kind: “Hey, I’m coming with the band. We’re all fired up, looking forward to it now. We’re a real hi-energy crew, with my wife Cindy Blackman Santana on drums, as usual. This is the best band I’ve worked with. We all know what we want, how to get there and how to keep it all really moving,” He says with a smile.
We chat generally about the music, his love for it all and how he got started on the road to fame and fortune. Santana is forthright and disarming, responding with a humility and self-deprecatory quip: “Well, I can’t rightly say why or how I sort of made it. I picked up some guitar stuff way, way back as a kid. And I just kept at it, plugging away. I found I enjoyed playing, performance for friends and the like. I guess it started that way. It sort-of grew out of that. I started out using Gibson guitars, great guitars and I loved them. Then I met and became friends with Peter Reid Smith of PRS guitars. I just love that sound. There’s no unnecessary complications with them, just a pure sound and great, clean tone. I’ve stayed loyal to them, and they’ve been loyal to me with Peter being a real good friend.”
Looking back over his remarkable career and his at times surprising musical influences, Santana singles out many of the leading jazz guys for mention: “I played with Miles Davis, a wonderful time, truly inspiring; and of course Wayne Shorter,” he adds, before turning towards his own rock and blues contemporaries to recall the music of another few favourites: “ Then there was Jimi Hendrix, of course, always sensational, original; and Stevie Ray Vaughn, another one-of-a-kind guy, and Bob Marley was always there too. And there’s those African rhythms……”
However, when pushed, he admits that he considers the now legendary jazz-blues-rock fusion master John McLaughlin to be his personal favourite musician: “John can do it all, he’s unique. There’s nobody can touch him, in my opinion. John’s the greatest guitar player ever. It’s like he puts his heart in a blender.”