In view of Carlos Santana’s Grammy heist with Supernatural (1999), it’s not surprising that his former label (Columbia) should have scurried to put out this second “best of” collection. After all, there’s a new generation of fans who heard Santana for the first time on his guest-enhanced debut for Arista and who are, no doubt, keen to discover the Chicano guitarist’s previous work. While 1998’s platinum-selling The Best of Santana featured a slightly greater number of Santana’s better-known tracks, this second installment still provides an adequate introduction to the performer who exploded onto the national music scene 32 years ago with a blistering set at Woodstock.
Carlos Santana’s tenure with Columbia lasted from 1969 until 1990. However, like The Best of Santana, the present compilation focuses on songs released during the first two years of his band’s stint with that label. Nine of the 14 tracks originally appeared on Santana (1969), Abraxas (1970) and Santana III (1971), the trio of albums recorded by what many consider the “classic” Santana line-up—featuring core members Gregg Rolie (keyboards/vocals), David Brown (bass), Mike Shrieve (drums), José “Chepito” Areas and Mike Carabello (percussion) and Carlos Santana (guitar/vocals).
The heavy reliance of this compilation on those early releases adds weight to arguments that Carlos Santana recorded his strongest material with that incarnation of his group. Indeed, the blueprint for the famously eclectic sound that Santana has developed over the years is found on those first three albums, with their revolutionary concoction of Afro-Latino rhythms, jazz, blues and rock. The common denominator of that sound, of course, has always been Carlos Santana’s perfectly integrated guitar wizardry that never lapses into noodling or cock-rock pyrotechnics. Not so much an ax-man as a craftsman, Santana is an understated guitar hero who, through a magical use of effects like sustain, works a sonic alchemy that bleeds individual notes into one another to produce smooth, almost liquid tones.
Taken from the first and second albums respectively, tracks such as “Persuasion” and “Hope You’re Feeling Better” vouch for Santana’s credentials on the harder end of the rock spectrum—the former with its driving beat and squalls of Hammond organ and the latter with its heavy throbbing psychedelic groove. Also from the debut album, “You Just Don’t Care” slows the pace down and declares more explicitly the blues orientation of the group. (After all, the outfit was originally called the Santana Blues Band.)
Recent converts who are particularly interested in the blending of Latin rhythms and rock will find ample evidence of Santana’s pioneering marriage of those elements on the present CD. Drawn from Abraxas, “Se acabó” and “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” are two of the stand-outs in that regard. The original version of the latter—a double-header of songs by Peter Green and Gabor Szabo—appeared on The Best of Santana. Here, listeners are treated to a marvelous live rendition recorded in 1970 (originally released on 1988’s Viva Santana!). This is the sound of vintage Santana, the band effortlessly moving from a soulful groove to pounding Latin beats over which Carlos Santana lays down one of his trademark solos. Other highlights in a similar vein are “Toussaint L’Overture” [sic] and “Guajira”, both of which appeared on Santana III. Featuring Rico Reyes on vocals and Mario Ochoa on piano, “Guajira” is a distant relative of tracks on Supernatural like “Corazón Espinado” and “Smooth”.
One of Santana’s first forays into jazz is showcased on “Incident at Neshabur”, an instrumental from the band’s second album that’s memorable for—among other things—Alberto Gianquinto’s stellar piano playing and the band’s masterful negotiation of the changing time signatures. The jazz-blues fusion component of the Santana equation would be played out more fully on the band’s output throughout the ‘70s, and it’s best represented on this collection by another instrumental—“Europa (Earth’s Cry, Heaven’s Smile)” from the 1977 live album Moonflower. Much like another classic, “Samba Pa’ Tí”, this number features Carlos Santana’s playing at its most evocative and breathtaking. Here he makes his instrument gently weep, holding notes for seemingly impossible durations without for an instant turning the song into a vehicle for facile guitar showmanship. (The studio version of “Europa” from the 1976 release Amigos also appeared on Columbia’s 1998 compilation.)
Apart from “Europa”, the bulk of the post-1971 material on this collection comprises middling-quality covers from Inner Secrets (1978), all of which pale in comparison with the earlier work. But while The Classic IV’s “Stormy” amounts to little more than unremarkable jazz-rock, and Buddy Holly’s “Well All Right” is average radio-friendly classic rock, The Four Tops’ “One Chain (Don’t Make No Prison)” unfortunately finds Santana languishing in one of the deeper circles of the disco inferno. However, the 1990 instrumental, “Peace On Earth…Mother Earth…Third Stone from the Sun”, fairs a little better as Santana pays homage—on the first and third sections of this medley—to two of his major musical coordinates, John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix.
Granted, this is a satisfactory Santana primer, but the material might have been better selected. Instead of including a pair of—admittedly phenomenal—live versions of tracks already present on the 1998 collection and instead of throwing in mediocre cuts from Inner Secrets, room could have been made for other, superior cuts particularly from Santana’s ‘70s output. Albums such as Caravanserai (1972), Borboletta (1974), Festival (1977) and Marathon (1979), for instance, contain material that would not sound out of place on a compilation of this kind. But there should be plenty of room on Volume 3, probably coming soon to a record store near you.