Maybe it’s apocryphal, but the genesis of this much-talked-about but little-seen concert is said to stem from a conversation in which Santana asked Shorter’s permission to start a rumour that the two legends were going to form a band together. That dynamic speaks volumes: the earnestly jazz-loving rocker respectfully currying favour with one of jazz’s greatest and most esteemed living practitioners, a bona-fide saxophone legend who cut his teeth in Art Blakey’s hard-bop hot-house before going on to energise Miles Davis’ classic mid-’60s quartet, and then co-found the quintessential ’70s funk-fusion super group, Weather Report. What’s more, it’s a relationship that translates directly onto the screen.
Sure, Santana’s leading the band, making the announcements, seems to be calling the shots, but as soon as Shorter raises his horn to his lips, all eyes are on him; you can pretty much feel the admiration and awe oozing out of the rest of the band. And it’s unsurprising. Shorter is a heavy dude. It’s not just his history: he prowls the stage with a kind of heavy-lidded menace, raking rough and insistent solos out of his soul. There’s no doubting his authenticity.
It has to be said, too, that Santana’s not exactly a flimsy pop star. Almost 20 years after setting the stage on fire at Woodstock, this film finds him still a master of the incendiary guitar solo, with a yearning, deeply spiritual tone that remains unmistakably his own while there’s something hugely reassuring and entertaining about his ability to enter into a private world of ecstatic bliss – lips pursed, eyes screwed tight, head thrown back in Dionysian abandon – at the drop of a plectrum, literally seconds into any solo he takes. Bring these two musical firebrands together and you should probably be able to expect fireworks.
All of which makes the reality of this show just a tiny bit disappointing. Now, don’t get me wrong, it has its moments. “Incident at Neshabur” is prime Santana, little diminished since first revealed on 1969’s Abraxas. And “Elegant People” is one of Shorter’s most enduring compositions — an epic funk masterpiece here benefiting from the agile bass of Alphonso Johnson — the very same bassist who first nailed the slippery changes when the tune appeared on Weather Report’s 1976 album Black Market. Moreover, there’s some astonishing musicianship throughout the entire show: Patrice Rushen contributes some lengthy, dizzying piano solos and almost every tune is enlivened by the percussive barrage of Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler on drum kit, Jose Chepitos Areas on timbales and the conga playing of the legendary Armando Peraza – a musician whose first American gigs were with Charlie Parker in ’50s New York and whom Santana rightly summarises in a brief interview as playing percussion “on a Coltrane level.”
And yet, there’s one major thing wrong with the whole affair: it’s got the ’80s written all over it. I’m not just talking about the superficial crimes against fashion: Santana’s leather pants and Shorter’s baggy pastel linen suit with sleeves hitched to the forearm – the two of them coming across like the jazz world’s very own Crocket and Tubbs; or Patrice Rushen’s preposterous Latoya Jackson meets the Bangles get-up; or even Jose Chepitos Areas almost unbelievable mega-afro, a voluminous hair-hat that seems to move almost completely independently of the rest of his body like a disobedient dog sitting on top of his head. No, these little peccadilloes are rather amusing in their own way.
I’m talking about something far more damaging bequeathed to us by that most plastic of decades: I’m talking about the effect on the music itself. Almost every tune is in some way ruined by a soulless, artificial synth-preset – lashings of plastic strings or unconvincing horn stabs that turn what could have been gritty jams into saccharine drive-time, coffee-table radio fodder, slickly over-produced, so-tight-it squeaks pastel niceties. To hear these stellar musicians cranking out such sanitised fare, dragged down by the whimsy of historical accident, is almost enough to make a grown man cry.
In a just and loving universe, this gig would have taken place 20 years earlier when these guys were allowed to sweat. Instead, we get this sojourn in a tasteless wilderness. It’s probably best to just put it behind us and move on to something more nourishing – like, I don’t know, Poptarts, or something.