When Carlos Santana recently reunited members of his original band for a new album and short tour, it was more than a trip down memory lane. The band's members say it was a rekindling of a spiritual connection among a group of musicians who crafted a sound that proved to be not only hugely popular, but was also a pioneering cultural mashup.
The music geek in me has always wondered what inspired Santana's blend of Afro-Carribean rhythms and rock. Turns out part of it had a lot to do with the hippie ethos of mid 1960's San Francisco — specifically, communal living. Drummer Michael Shrieve says the band moved in to a house together.
"I remember when I moved in with the guys in the band, it was really fascinating to me because everybody had their own records," Shrieve says. Music was going all the time, but everybody was sharing.
From Miles Davis to Eddie Palmieri to John Coltrane to Buddy Guy to Ray Barretto, when the mix of sounds being heard in the house combined with the, let's call it, recreational activities of that time and place, pretty soon musical styles morphed. Carlos Santana himself says, "I was getting more and more fascinated with how to cross pollinate B.B. King with Tito Puente."
With that in mind, let's pull apart a song from the 1970 album Abraxas that has been on the Santana set list for over 45 years: "Black Magic Woman." (The first thing to know about the song: It's actually a cover of a Fleetwood Mac tune, written in 1968 by guitarist Peter Green.)
Original Santana keyboardist Gregg Rolie brought the song to the band, and came up with that iconic Hammond organ riff that kicks things off. Carlos Santana then added his influences from his musical home base of jazz and blues. Michael Shrieve grooved along with the congas and timbales using some licks he'd copped from an obscure B.B. King album. The climax of the song switches gears — and composers — with a double-time jam on "Gypsy Queen," a piece by a Hungarian jazz guitarist named Gábor Szabó who was living and recording in the US.
Michael Shrieve says that ultimately, the key to his contribution to the Santana sound was a 'less is more' kind of thing.
"I just tried to stay out of the way, to tell you the truth, with all the rhythm that was going on," Shrieve says. "Rather than try to be something that I wasn't, I tried to be supportive ... and make the rhythm more like a tapestry."
For Carlos Santana's part, he says the band's music has always had a spiritual quality.
"This Santana band, from the beginning, was about altering consciousness like Coltrane," he says. "To me, that's when my heart and my soul opened up to, like, 'Wow, this is a different sound than just guitars, congas and amplifiers.'"