Santana Shape Shifts Back To Relevance

Have guitar, will play sideman for pop stars.

The sticker plastered to Shape Shifter proclaims this is the Santana album 20 years in the making. Actually, it’s the first album in 13 years where the guitarist doesn’t just seem like a sideman on his own records. Nobody was more deserving of a career-reviving success story than Mexican-born Santana who was rewarded after years of falling sales and critical disinterest by the nobody-saw-it-coming success of Supernatural (Arista, 1998) which sold a whopping 15 million copies and won 11 Grammys.

Unfortunately, Santana would spend the most of the next two decades chasing further Supernatural sales, by following Arista Records executive Clive Davis’ formula of pairing the 64-year-old guitarist with younger, of-the-moment chart-toppers, no matter how ill-matched the pairing, reducing the band to token appearances or sidelined completely. All the while, Santana insisted in interviews how much he loved jazz and the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, whom he toured with in 1988.

After Guitar Heaven (Arista, 2010) failed to reach gold record sales, Santana has now rewarded the patience of the faithful fan with an honest-to-goodness Santana album. Shape Shifter is an album of instrumentals played by his regular band with Carlos’ son, Salvador playing piano.

Shape Shifter is infused with an energy and furious guitar solos and Carlos sounds like he’s having a lot of fun, but it is not jazz. For all his professed love of the genre, Santana isn’t a jazz guitarist. What he is is a rock guitarist who plays on jazz albums, as he did when he stepped in for Shorter on This Is This (Columbia, 1985) the last Weather Report record.

A few of the songs on Shape Shifter are little more than loose jams. “Dom” begins nicely with Chester Thompson‘s keyboards, but doesn’t build, instead just meanders to its conclusion. “Metatron” is an introduction for a song that seems incomplete.

“Never the Same Again” is more successful, as Carlos opens with a nylon-string acoustic guitar intro before switching over to electric for a gliding solo. The album is pretty, but most of the songs are built around Santana’s guitar and Thompson’s keyboards. Percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo aren’t given much to do until “Macumba In Budapest,” which is a quintessential Santana jam. “Mr. Szabo” is a nod of Carlos’ hat to Gabor Szabo, while the lone vocal track, “Eres La Luz” gives Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay an opportunity to strut their stuff.

Shape Shifter may not be a full-fledged return to the classic Santana sound, but it is the first recording in over a decade that harkens back to the band’s glory days and is a welcome respite from Santana “the pop star.”   This isn’t a full-fledged return to rock royalty, but damn, it’s nice to have a genuine Santana album after a decade’s worth of increasingly worthless music.

Track Listing: Shape Shifter; Dom; Nomad; Metatron; Angelica Faith; Never the Same Again; In the Light of A New Day; Spark of the Divine; Macumba in Budapest; Mr. Szabo; Eres La Luz; Canela; Ah, Sweet Dancer.

Personnel: Carlos Santana: guitars; Chester Thompson: keyboards; Benny Rietveld: bass; Dennis Chambers: drums; Raul Rekow: percussion; Karl Perazzo: percussion; Andy Vargas: vocals; Tony Lindsay: vocals; Salvador Santana: piano (7, 12, 13).

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz

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Jazz should soar, not bore.

Jessica Williams flies high, but under the radar.

The best thing about jazz is it opens your ears to musicians you might otherwise miss.  The worst thing about jazz is when a musician plays it so safe it almost puts you to sleep.

JESSICA WILLIAMS TRIO/FREEDOM TRANE (Origin Records)

It is no coincidence that pianist Jessica Williams draws inspiration and energy from saxophonist John Coltrane, another iconoclast whose dogged pursuit of his individalistic muse stood in defiance of trends, customs, critics, and marketplace concerns. Like Coltrane, Williams prides herself in being relentlessly faithful to her own standards of how to play and how to market her music. While that enables her to be a fiercely independent talent, it has also made her an underrated one.

On her solo piano outings, such as The Art of the Piano (Origin Records, 2009), Williams’ playing is engaging while remaining serious and cerebral. Augmented on Freedom Trane by bassist Dave Captein and drummer Mel Brown, Williams shows off her ability to swing. Never loosing her impeccable sense of taste, Williams is downright frisky and playful on Coltrane and Sonny Rollins’ “Paul’s Pal” and, on the title track, she’s bopping and grooving hard with Brown’s timekeeping, which is right in the pocket. It’s the sort of tune that demands another listen just as soon as it’s over.

As a soloist in the trio format, Williams is simply incandescent and the musicians synchronize like a well-tuned machine. Freedom Trane is a homage to Coltrane’s seminal A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965), but Williams’ goal is not to emulate what Trane, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones did in 1964, but to expand upon it. “Prayer and Meditation,” one of four Williams originals, fits comfortably with a lovingly rendered interpretation of Coltrane’s “Naima,” where the Steinway ‘B’ gently caresses like a warm touch. The lush and verdant “Welcome” closes out this super session.

Williams reveals in the liner notes how Coltrane speaks to her as she writes:

John speaks through his horn: “no road is an easy one, but they all go back to God.” God, for me, is us, all of us and everything; it’s the sea and the sky and the stars. We are star-stuff, we are one vibration in a standing wave, and it doesn’t matter if it’s called God or Allah or Aum or Chi or Orgone. It’s gravity and light-years and galaxies colliding and little kittens kittening and bodily love and that chill you get when you listen to great music or see a great painting or hear the sounds of the forest.

Maybe not everything Williams says scans completely, but it’s possible to hear her making her way on a spiritual journey, and Freedom Trane provides that special sort of chill that comes from hearing great music—and this is most definitely great music, made by a great (and sadly underrated artist). This is a high quality and highly recommended performance by Williams, a consummate musician of astonishing grace, passion and skill.

MICHAEL LINGTON/PURE (Trippin’ n’ Rhythm Records)

Here is a disclaimer: Michael Lington plays alto and tenor saxophone, and the saxophone is the dominant instrument of the smooth jazz genre, every bit as much the electric guitar is the dominant instrument of rock ‘n’ roll. This means Lington is trying to stand out in an extremely crowded field.

So what is it about Lington that makes him distinctive and unique compared to Eric Marienthal, Euge Groove, Marion Meadows, Kim Waters, Jeff Kashiwa, Boney James, Dave Koz, Mindi Abair or Walter Beasley? Nothing much, and that is an observation, not a criticism. Lington does not distinguish himself from the pack because he plays it right down the middle.

Everything that’s expected in this sort of instrumental pop music is in abundance on Pure. The playing is professional, the collective sound matters more than the individual solos, the production is slick, clean and polished to a sheen, and with only one tune clocking in over five minutes in length, nothing lasts long enough to become particularly annoying—or involving.

An example of how safe as milk Lington plays it is his throwaway take on Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” It’s a perfectly okay version, but what made the original distinctive was the point where Withers holds a note for a jaw-dropping 18 seconds. The saxophone gives Lington the power to approximate the human voice, but does he try to blow and hold a note like Withers? He does not—as if going for the same soaring grandeur Withers achieved might tamper with the relentless smooth groove.

When Lington allows himself to jam he’s pretty good at it. Jeff Golub‘s guitar jumpstarts “Playtime,” and the middle section of Pure gets on the good foot from there until the energy flags at the end. If you’re going to tackle a classic like Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun” you had better be willing to step your game up and Lington does overcoming a wobbly vocal from ’90s blue-eyed soul belter Michael Bolton. Bolton’s upper register has pretty much gone A.W.O.L, but Lington’s sax fills in the patches.

The musicians surrounding Lington are uniformly good and the guest appearances from Golub, Lee Ritenour, Jonathan Butler and Brian Culbertson, among others, stay within the lines of the overall production. Lington makes no obvious missteps in the choice of cover tunes, and the originals make for perfectly satisfactory listening even if nothing memorable ever happens.

Lington knows what his audience wants and Pure delivers the jazzy, if not the hardcore jazz.

(These reviews originally appeared at All About Jazz.)