By Chris M. Junior
There’s passion and purpose behind every note and every solo that guitarist Carlos Santana plays.
The same can be said about every word and every sentence Santana speaks whenever he’s talking about music, especially his own.
The Grammy-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is a virtual sound-bite machine when discussing his latest album for the Arista label, “Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time.”
The hard-hitting version of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” he and his band recorded with rapper Nas, Santana says, will “shock your modesty.” As for the rendition of The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” (featuring Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek and Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington), Santana describes it as “the trippiest song on the album. It’s almost like you took some LSD and you’re somewhere in the Grand Canyon.”
Like “Supernatural,” the hit-filled Santana comeback album from 1999, “Guitar Heaven” is stacked with guest singers, among them Chris Cornell, Scott Weiland and Rob Thomas. As a matter of fact, Carlos Santana has a long history of collaborating with famous artists — and not just from the rock and pop scenes. He’s also worked with Willie Nelson, Herbie Hancock, John Lee Hooker and George Clinton, to name a few, and he would like to add a few more musicians to his impressive list in the future.
“I’m not afraid to share music with someone,” Santana says. “I’m not afraid because I’m not there to compete or compare. This is not NASCAR or the World Cup. This is music, and music is about complementing.”
Fresh from a European tour that concluded in late October, Santana had plenty to say about “Guitar Heaven,” his band’s residency at The Joint in Las Vegas (billed as Supernatural Santana: A Trip Through the Hits and taking place in January, April and May), longtime friend/music industry heavyweight Clive Davis and other subjects.
How do you and your band benefit — mentally, physically and creatively — from playing a series of concert dates at the same venue instead of having to travel from city to city?
Carlos Santana: That’s a great question. It allows us to be more present in the moment, to make everything more spontaneous and genuine.
When you go from hotel to hotel, from city to city, you tend to lose sight of last night’s concert. As musicians, when you travel that much, last night’s concert seems like it was 10 years ago. [But being] in Las Vegas, it’s an extension, so overnight you can say, “In this particular song, this goes on too long, or this doesn’t start right.”
I turn fear into something positive. Like most hippies, I was afraid to be in a place doing the same thing because I thought I was going to be like a hamster, going around and not getting anywhere. That was the hippie negative thing. But then I said, “Wait a minute: Nat King Cole did it, and Frank Sinatra did it.”
For example, when you hear Nat King Cole sing “Mona Lisa” or Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” those songs have to sound every day like it’s the first time they sang it. It has to be like your first French kiss: It has to be genuine, it has to be virgin and it has to be honest, true and sincere.
Your residency at The Joint resumes on Jan. 5, 2011. What can fans expect to be the same or different this time around in terms of stage production, song selection and song sequence?
CS: We’re going to change the song sequence. What they can expect is to be transported to a place of wonderment. Santana doesn’t need Cirque du Soleil, with all due respect to my sisters and brothers in Cirque du Soleil. To me, the music sends you to a place, like The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” or Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” or John Coltrane or Bob Marley.
Music should transport you to a place of wonderment, you know? The reason my band is different from most bands is I don’t know any other band that would play [Coltrane’s] “A Love Supreme” and [my group’s 1970 hit] “Evil Ways” back to back in Las Vegas. It’s just not going to happen.
One thing that Santana has over most bands is we’re like the [2010 World Series champion] Giants of San Francisco. We don’t have a Barry Bonds, we don’t have a Willie Mays — we don’t have a bunch of superstars. We have a collective team that when you hear us, with all due respect to Sting, Prince and Eric Clapton, you gotta watch out because my whole band is going to score, and that’s the difference. Most bands have one superstar, and everybody else is like a curtain in the background. I don’t function like that — never have, never will. So when my band plays, it’s all coming at you, like tigers, lions and panthers are all growling and attacking.
Of all the songs on the “Guitar Heaven” album, the arrangement of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is among the most inventive. Talk about the process of recording it as a sultry ballad with India.Arie and Yo-Yo Ma.
CS: That comes from listening to Wes Montgomery playing Beatles songs. Wes would start with chamber music [starts humming], and all of a sudden they stop and go, “Yesterday …” So he would present a little prelude, and I learned that from Wes, so my idea was to start a little chamber thing with Yo-Yo Ma. It’s all about vision: Yo-Yo Ma, India.Arie, George Harrison, Santana. Hey, that’s a nice combination (laughs).
I had fun with “Whole Lotta Love,” “Sunshine of Your Love” — all of it. The most sensuous song is the one with Gavin Rossdale, which is “Bang a Gong.” That song is just pure sex.
“Riders on the Storm” features Ray Manzarek and his unmistakable organ, and you have Joe Cocker singing “Little Wing.” When you’re working with your contemporaries, what are you thinking and feeling? Do you guys do a lot of reminiscing, or do you just get right down to business?
CS: Both. I talked to Joe Cocker, and he said to me very sweetly, “Can you believe this, Carlos? We’ve been doing this since ’67.” And I said to Joe, “Joe, we used to be charcoal, and now we’re diamonds.” And he started laughing and said, “Diamonds — I like that.”
What’s the most vivid memory you have from playing the original Woodstock festival?
CS: Probably Sly Stone at two o’clock in the morning, just really taking over — more than Jimi Hendrix or anyone else. It was really powerful.
I remember the energy was ultra-ultra. Of course, Jimi was incredible, but because he was the star headliner, he didn’t get the bulk of the crowd. That’s why I don’t like to close anything. I always fight with either Sting or Prince, like, “I ain’t closing. I’m in the middle or in the beginning, but I ain’t closing.” Not because I’m afraid to close — it’s because people are tired by that time.
You’ve always been very complimentary about Clive Davis and what he’s done for you and your career. What makes him different from other music industry executives you’ve dealt with?
CS: He’s a visionary. He’s not an impresario. We don’t take chances; we’re not gambling. We go for grace. There’s a lot of chance and fortune, and there’s fool’s gold [out there] — and I can say that because I work in Las Vegas (laughs). I’m into grace, man. A guy’s grace is not chance.
How has your relationship with Clive changed and developed over 40-plus years?
CS: More trust. We don’t take each other for granted, and we don’t B.S. each other. We just get right down to what we need to do.
A lot of good musicians have been part of Santana through the years. Aside from musical ability, what are the other must-have qualities in order for someone to be a member of your band?
CS: The first one is to be present. I don’t want that far-away look, like you’re somewhere else, [because if you have it] then I’ll send you somewhere else. You need to hear everything that happens onstage and be able to complement the bass, the drums and the keyboards by learning to get out of your own way and just find your part. If you don’t feel anything or hear anything, then shut up and get off the stage. If you do hear something, then do it with supreme conviction — not arrogance, but supreme conviction.
And never walk like you’re tired or you’re old or you’re bored. First, I’ll give you the stink eye, then I’ll fire you. I don’t want people around me who walk around lifeless.
I want to be around people who are very vibrant, very willing and very vast in their vocabulary. I don’t want to be around a guy who has a Ph.D. in one thing and then he can’t play anything else. I’d rather be around musicians who their Ph.D. is life, and all the colors. Here it is: Ben & Jerry’s, Häagen-Dazs and Baskin-Robbins — all the flavors. That’s Santana.
Looking ahead, who else would you like to collaborate with on a recording project?
CS: Definitely Sting, Prince, Andrea Bocelli — and many women.
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