Springing from the tail end of the psychedelic rock scene in San Francisco during the late '60s, Santana has invented itself several times over and changed its personnel as many times in the process. The band progressed from its origins as a psychedelic Latin-jazz fusion band into much jazzier realms at the end of the '70s and pop rock in the '80s, only to come back full circle to its Latin roots at the end of the '90s. A musical group with such a multi-faceted history is sure to make for an interesting compilation album. However, in many cases (this band being no exception), the brilliant moments are equal in number to the not-so-brilliant ones. The Essential Santana is proof positive that truly talented musicians can often produce truly mediocre music.
This chronologically organized two-CD compilation begins wonderfully, with all the songs that garnered Santana its well-deserved renown as one of the best rock and roll bands of its time. The material from the end of the '60s and early '70s comprises the superior portion of this release. Songs like "Jingo", "Black Magic Woman", and the classic reworking of Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" have retained their appeal after so many years, being perfect examples of Santana's incredible ability to distill its influences into innovative, highly energetic and downright fiery rock music. The intense Latin flavor compounded with African percussion, electric guitars, organs and bilingual vocals evoke seaside scenes of sudoriferous dancing by the wild flicker of blazing fires. This same intensity is brought to subsequent tracks, from the frenetic drums, guitars and whistles of "Toussaint L'Overture" to the traditional Cuban refrains, jazz piano and trumpet of "Guajira".
The last five tracks on disc one find the band gearing up for its late '70s schlock. "Love, Devotion and Surrender" features some synthesizer work (which will be most prominent in many songs on disc two) along with rather insipid lyrics. "Mirage" dips right into disco beats and lounge vocals. "Carnaval" begins with a chorus in Spanish and meshes into "Let the Children Play", the chorus having switched over to English, which brings to mind songs from the musical Hair. The last track, "Jugando", is an entirely instrumental ditty that serves as the right-hand triptych to the previous two songs and which features effective combinations of drums and electric guitar, making this the only track worth listening to after the live recording "In a Silent Way".
Disc two will only be appealing to serious Santana fans or completists. "She's Not There", a cover of the Zombies' 1964 hit, is mindless fun but doesn't hold a candle to earlier songs. The incline has steeped and it's mostly downhill from here. There is some good guitar work on "Dance Sister Dance" but not enough that warrants an attentive ear. The Classics IV cover, "Stormy", ineffectively attempts to set rhythm and blues singing to what is at this point only mildly Latin music. "Well All Right", a cover of the Buddy Holly classic, is fairly amusing and catchy but only if it happened to be on the car radio would sitting through it be suggested. Subsequent tracks are only more disappointing.
"Aquamarine" displays a muzak version of Santana's original incarnation; one almost expects one of the Gibb brothers to plunge into a falsetto at any moment. "Winning" is, again, fairly entertaining as far as this type of pop music goes but is completely unrecognizable as a Santana composition. The latter is the first track from that most notorious of decades, responsible for suckering once-great rock bands into producing radio-ready fluff: the '80s. It was a musically shameful time that saw Steve Winwood, formerly of seminal rock groups Blind Faith and Traffic, singing "Higher Love" and Jefferson Airplane, now Starship, belting out "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now". High production and pop gloss was the downfall of many talented artists in this decade and Santana was no exception. "Hold On", makes it a bit clearer how teenage prodigy guitarist Neal Schon could have left Santana to help form pop-rock ballad band and roller rink favorite Journey. Apparently Carlos Santana had synth pop urges inside him all along. All it took was the '80s to bring them so tragically to fruit. "Hold On", "Nowhere to Run", and "Say It Again" are prime examples of overproduction and lowered standards of taste.
Not until "Blues for Salvador", which earned Carlos Santana (at this point recording as a solo artist with a backup band) his first Grammy Award, does the music get somewhat more back on track. This melancholy blues instrumental with its subtle, synthesized arrangements as background for Carlos' skill on the electric guitar manages to effectively convey an evocative mood and is reminiscent of Eric Clapton's compositions for the film Rush. "The Healer" is a collaboration between Carlos and John Lee Hooker and is the last track on this compilation. It is very listenable but not extraordinarily compelling. Hooker's blues sound, his voice most prominently, does not mingle well with the synthesized and arranged instrumentals provided by Carlos Santana. They are both best in their bare bones incarnations.
Any mid-range Santana fan would do best to get Santana's Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1974), which highlights the best material this band ever produced. There is no need to burden oneself with the rest of its oeuvre. Again, The Essential Santana is only essential for fanatics, not the average listener.
"The Essential Santana" ends with a song from 1989 and gives the impression that the band was never able to escape the clutches of mediocrity. This would be misleading as there is redemption for Santana, which comes in the form of a 1999 album entitled Supernatural. While the wildly successful album was indeed a step in the right direction, it, too, suffered from overproduction. With pop stars ranging from matchbox 20's Rob Thomas to Wyclef Jean making guest appearances, it is clear the record label, as well as Santana, was fishing for Grammys. This album's actual value lies not in the awards it received nor the quality of the content, which was actually quite pedestrian compared to the early material. Rather it signals a return to form, specifically a fusion of traditional Afro-Latin rhythms with contemporary rock and roll stylings, setting the stage for Carlos Santana's ardent electric guitar. The hope is that future efforts dig further yet into past sensibilities and produce albums with an updated sound but which recall the primitive urgency of Santana's early days.