Ever since Supernatural gave Santana a new commercial presence more than a decade ago, the landmark Latin-rock ensemble has existed — at least on record — as a high-profile karaoke band playing second fiddle to a rotating lineup of guest singers.
That was fine for Supernatural, but the formula soon became as tired as the material, leaving the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers — not to mention its namesake guitarist — in creative limbo. Sure, Carlos Santana loved to preach the spiritual musical gospel of John Coltrane and Miles Davis in interviews. But on record, his band's music had turned to cosmic schlock.
Shape Shifter, Santana's best album in nearly 25 years (and its 36th album overall), is a modest triumph because it gives a gag order to the guest list. Aside from Eres La Luz — led by the Latin verses of vocalists Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, a robust mambo-flavored groove and the yang of acoustic and electric guitar breaks to Mr. Carlos' yin — the entire album is instrumental.
First things first. Those hoping for a return to the potent Latin-jazz fusion sound of early Santana classics Abraxas and Caravanserai should probably bypass Shape Shifter. There are subtle echoes of those formidable works in Mr. Szabo, an ode to Hungarian jazz guitarist whose Gypsy Queen instrumental has remained a performance staple in the Santana repertoire since Abraxas was released in 1970. It sails discreetly on a cushion of congas with a decidedly Spanish guitar melody (and a subsequent acoustic solo) leading the breezy charge. There also is a touch of Santana's vintage Jingo beat behind the electric groove of Nomad. Mostly, though, Shape Shifter operates from a slicker base.
Undercutting much of the album are numerous keyboard backdrops that give the music a purposely — if not slightly overwrought — celestial feel.
Ultimately, your acceptance of Shape Shifter will depend on your tolerance of these New Age accents. Most of the time, Santana uses these ideas strictly as orchestration. After all, when your guitar sound is this commanding, why yield to anything else?
Indicative of this sleek approach is Macumba in Budapest, which surrounds another summery acoustic lead before the tune transforms into an absorbing rhumba that gives longtime percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo room to move. Also engaging is a cover of Touré Kunda's Dom, in which electric guitar moves from muted lyricism to a more uninhibited war cry over a march-like processional of synths and the meaty support of drummer Dennis Chambers.
So Shape Shifter is not a nostalgia ride. But it is a welcome reminder of what power and ingenuity one of the world's most celebrated guitarists can exhibit once he tells his troupe of star singers to button their lips.
Walter Tunis, Contributing Music Critic