If you ever needed a living exemplar of the adage that age is just a number, look no further than music legend Carlos Santana. He may have celebrated his 69th birthday on July 20, but the native of Jalisco, Mexico, possesses the creative restlessness of a musician five decades his junior.
Not only has he reunited with four core members of the original Santana band (Gregg Rolie, Neal Schon, Michael Carabello, Michael Shrieve) and come away with a new recording (“Santana IV”), but plans are afoot to record an entire record with Ronald Isley as well as a three-CD homage to John Coltrane that will find the guitarist hitting the studio with his drummer wife Cindy Blackmon, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. It’s a drive that he credits to a higher power.
“I credit something I call spiritual velocity. What it means is that your intentionality is going to attract Ronnie Isley and you’re going to call him [about collaborating] and he’s going to say yes,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I’m going to call Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and take a chance to put a group together called Mega Nova instead of Super Nova and take a chance that they’ll say OK, this is great — let’s do it. So, that’s what spiritual velocity means — it’s for you and for me. If you’re doing something from the center of your heart, it’s not chance or luck. It’s spiritual velocity.”
Whether you call it kismet or happenstance, one of the more exciting developments was getting the Santana, Rolie, Schon, Carabello and Shrieve quintet together in the studio. (The group will be augmented by current Santana percussionist Karl Perazzo and bassist Benny Rietveld when it plays shows.) The quintet are back together for the first time since 1973, and Santana is quick to credit the endearing persistence of Schon, who was only 15 when he joined the band before making his recording debut at the age of 17 on 1971’s “Santana III.” The band’s namesake was touched by Schon’s sincerity in wanting to collaborate again.
“Everywhere that I went for a year and a half, [Neal would] just show up like a guided missile,” Santana said. “I couldn’t shake him. I’d go to the restaurant, and he’d be there. I’d go to the shopping mall, and he’d be there. And he was just so sweet, gracious and very persistent in a positive way that was also gentle. He’d tell me how much he wanted to play with me and that every time he plays with me, something else happens.”
“I told him I was very honored and very grateful because it was just so endearing the way he put ego or anything else aside and wound up reaching out to my heart about how much he wanted to play with me and that we needed to do something together,” he said. “So, I said OK. At first, I think he wanted to do something with other guitar players, but I told him I wasn’t feeling that. I didn’t want to play with any other guitar players. So, I suggested we call Gregg Rolie, Michael Shrieve, Mike Carabello and the rest of the original band and see if we’re ready to do that.”
For Schon’s part, he readily acknowledges the enthusiasm he had for working with his mentor and band leader again. It was spurred by a simple motivation.
“You know what, Carlos and I have always had such great chemistry together, as well as him and I playing with the original members,” said Schon, who went on to have huge success as a key member of Journey after leaving Santana, in a separate phone interview. “Just as guitarists playing together, I always feel like when I do something with Carlos, we fit well together because our styles sort of enhance one another, rather than detract from one another. You can clearly tell when he’s playing and you can clearly tell when I’m playing.
“But I think this record even shows more signs of him and I being more so connected than the earlier stuff I did when I was very young with him,” Schon said. “We’re both actually playing at the same time and making one giant guitar voice. There are a few songs on the record, such as the track ‘Forgiveness,’ which closes the record. Him and I, you know, that’s like one take from top to bottom and just him and I listening to one another as we were playing it. The coolest thing about the record was we didn’t really have to talk about it or work at it to make it come together. We just kind of went in the studio and played.”
And while it may have taken more than four decades for these former band members to get back together, enough time had passed for any past grievances to have faded into the past. It’s a change Santana noticed and credits with the positive end result of “Santana IV” and how well things went during the band’s first live set earlier this year at the Las Vegas House of Blues.
“It was very delicious. We still have the same intensity as we did back then because we’re all intense people, but we don’t direct our intensity to tear each other apart anymore,” Santana said. “We direct our intensity to validate each other and show how much we appreciate each other, their sound and what it does to my heart, life and everything. We’ve become spiritually mature enough to validate each other graciously and so it makes the music flow in abundance.”
One of the more exciting developments that came out of this flurry of activity was Santana’s chance to work with legendary vocalist Ronald Isley. Not only did he and his wife cut 15 songs with the storied R&B singer that will come out later in the year as “Tower of Peace,” but he roped Isley into singing a pair of songs — “Love Makes the World Go Round” and “Freedom In Your Mind” — for “Santana IV.” When he broached the subject of Isley coming aboard for a pair of songs to Rolie, who normally handles the vocals in Santana, the reaction was instantaneous approval.
“When I asked Gregg Rolie if he’d mind if Ronnie Isley sang two songs on the album, Gregg said, ‘Are you kidding? Just to be in the same room as Ronnie Isley is like everything,” Santana said. “Greg said ‘He did ‘Twist and Shout’ before The Beatles arrived and did it on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show.’’’
As for why it took so long for this classic lineup of the band to reunite, Santana was very sanguine with his response.
“It was just grace the way it happened. I think that everybody needed to grow in a different direction and to experience different things for themselves,” he said in a very matter of fact manner. “We have arrived at validating each other with graciousness at a whole other level with deep appreciation for one another, and that’s the difference.”