There are only a select few musicians who were present at the iconic Woodstock festival back in 1969 that are still around to tell the tale. One such artist is Carlos Santana, the Latin-American virtuoso who has spent the last 50 years as one of the world’s most celebrated guitarists. With his band in tow, he went on to dominate the late 60s and early 70s with a trio of albums that are seen as classics of the psychedelic/ Chicano rock sub-genres. That version of the group went their separate ways at the start of the 70s, and the Santana band evolved throughout the years. It’s only now, some 40-plus years after their final recording, Santana III, in which the surviving members of the “classic” line-up have reconvened for the long- awaited Santana IV.
“We met at my rehearsal space in Las Vegas,” says Santana, when talking about playing with the musicians from his early days for the first time in decades. “It was just myself, Gregg [Rolie, keyboardist], Michael [Carabello, percussion], Michael [Shrieve, drums], Neal [Schon, guitar] and [percussionist] Karl Perazzo. When Neal arrived, we were already jamming. It felt right from the first note. We just came to have fun, and that was the vibe throughout the entire recording process. It was joyous to look into everyone’s eyes and see the passion and willingness. There are things in life that are just natural, and playing with this amazing group of musicians is one of them. We all fell right into the groove. Everyone had ideas and big ears, so it was all seamless.”
The concept for Santana IV was formulated some three years ago, when Carlos was approached by Schon and asked if he would be interested in the two recording and playing together again for old time’s sake. The story goes that Santana was up for it, on one condition: If Schon was coming back he was to bring the classic Santana line-up with him. From there, it was an on-and-off recording process that saw the album pieced together over the course of two years. “We all brought something to each song,” says Carlos on the writing process. “We all had some songs and ideas we had been developing and brought them into the project. Some worked immediately, others were just organic jams. Some were jams that we rearranged and added lyrics too that became incredible pieces or music. We all had our spices and ingredients to add to the stew. If someone had an idea we just went with it. It was very open.”
Joining the classic line-up of Santana in the recording of Santana IV were two key members from the modern-day inception of the group: the aforementioned Karl Perazzo and bassist Benny Rietveld, both of whom have been playing as a part of Santana since 1991. Despite the combination of members from different eras, Carlos ensured that their contributions to Santana IV were as vital as those of the classic-era members. “Benny and Karl brought a ferocious energy to this project,” he enthuses. They brought their own musical ideas and songs. Karl’s vocals are just incredible on ‘Yambu and Caminando,’ and his playing is sublime. Benny knows how to get inside the note. He and I wrote ‘Sueños’ together. I love what both bring to the table. They’re as big a part of this band as everyone else.”
Another special guest – and, indeed, the album’s sole guest vocalist – was Ronnie Isley of The Isley Brothers. Santana himself is quick to sing the praises of the man, who performs lead vocals on two tracks from Santana IV. “Ronnie Isley and the Isley Brothers are more important to me than the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge combined,” he says. “Their version of ‘Twist & Shout’ is part of the DNA of this country. When we completed ‘Freedom in Your Mind’ and ‘Love Makes the World Go Round’, I was hearing Ronnie. I asked the band if they were open to the collaboration, and they were. From there, it blossomed organically. I had been in touch with Ronnie for over a year after he came to see us backstage at one of our shows. I love his spirit!”
Although a bulk of the music of Santana is instrumental, the bandleader believes that there is something within the composition and the execution of each wordless song that manages to convey the story more than lyrics ever could. He points to ‘Samba Pa Ti’, a track from Santana’s 1970 LP Abraxas, as an example of this. “It’s a poem that came to me while watching a guy on the street, staggering around in the alleyway trying to play saxophone in the alley outside of my window,” Santana recalls. “He couldn’t make up his mind on whether he wanted to play his sax or take a drink from a bottle. He went to play, and then grabbed the bottle instead. I thought, ‘Man, this could be me.’ The verse, melody and music just came to me at once. I grabbed a pen and wrote the song. The process is different for every song, but there is always a story in the melodies. I am always telling a story when I play. It is part of conveying something real, honest, true and sincere in every note. That is what the music of Santana is about.”
Santana IV is out now via Cooking Vinyl Australia. For more details, head to santana.com.