Carlos Santana & Wayne Shorter|
Live at Montreux
3 1/2 stars out of 5
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
When uber Latin/rock guitarist Carlos Santana met up with veteran sax man Wayne Shorter in 1987, Santana joked, “Let’s start a rumor we’re putting a band together.” A year later the rumor became reality when Shorter and accomplished jazz pianist/arranger/composer Patrice Rushen joined the Santana Band for a 26-city tour of the U.S. and Europe.
That Santana and Shorter would be friends, much less bandmates, seems unlikely. That their music would mesh together without many distressingly painful notes seems even less likely. But the Latin jazz fusion on “Live at the 1988 Montreux Jazz Festival” is an unlikely hybrid that translates into an enjoyable way to spend a few hours in front of the TV.
The Santana/Shorter pairing had it’s genesis in Santana’s 1974 album, “Barboletta,” which featured jazz saxophonist Jules Broussard in the band alongside fellow jazzbos Airto Moreira, Flora Purim and Leon Patillo. Broussard’s tenor sax stoked the heavy fires of “Give and Take” and “Aspirations” and revitalized a band that had been crippled by the loss of founding keyboardist Gregg Rolie and stagnated by Carlos Santana’s obsession with spiritualism.
The unflappable Santana’s playing on “Montreux” is economical, concise and gratifying. At times Shorter looks bewildered (could be his natural state), and displays all the stage presence of a geriatric zombie, pacing the stage from side to side avoiding eye contact with both the band and the audience as he plays. As a result, Wayne’s performance comes up, well, shorter than Carlos’. The former leader of Weather Report occasionally plays as if he’s disinterested, but when he gets inspired, Shorter shows how good he can be. The most pleasant surprise is Rushen. The diminutive classically trained pianist plays big. She’s a keyboard version of Vishnu who never fails to come up with an innovative, dazzling solo. (For those of you who are wondering about the inside joke, Vishnu, the Indian Supreme Being, had four arms.) There’s none of the hesitancy in her playing that occasionally freezes Shorter. (Rushen, who had a pop hit in 1982 with “Forget Me Nots,” would go on to become music director for the Grammy and Emmy Awards, the People’s Choice Awards and The Midnight Hour Show).
The Santana Band, comprised of experienced sessionmen, is well equipped to handle the heat of the Montreux spotlight. Drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler doesn’t crack the kit with original drummer Michael Shrieve’s voracity, but he can keep a steady, thudding beat, and is inexhaustible. Original percussionist Jose “Chepito” Areas sports the biggest Afro of the 80s (and there are flecks of grey in it), but he can still bang the timbales with
the speed of a Benny Hanna chef chopping up dinner. Armando Peraza, one of the most revered Afro-Cuban percussionists in music, seems to be living off his legendary status, playing in spurts. He doesn’t have Reebop Kwaku Baah’s speed and isn’t even as emphatic a player as the man he replaced, (Michael Carrabello), but perhaps his slow motion hand action is due to his advanced age. Alphonso Johnson is an improvement over the sometimes invisible Dave Brown, and while Chester Thompson can’t make his Hammond Organ sound like a lethal weapon the way original keyboard player Rolie did, he has an obvious rapport with Santana and shares the sandbox well with Rushen.
The concert is divided evenly between the dominant soloists. When the band steps into a Santana composition the percussion and guitar dominate; when Shorter plugs in, the music takes on a decidedly free-flowing, more oblique tone. Shorter’s “Shhh” is one of the exceptions to the rule. On “Shhh” Shorter hooks into his own muse, blowing with the focused solitude of a jazz man standing on a fire escape on a summer night.
“Incident at Neshabur” could have benefited from Rolie’s all encompassing, throaty Hammond playing, but Thompson’s speedy solo stays within the lines, maintaining the melody. Carlos still grimaces a lot as if it hurts to bend the strings when he plays (well, maybe it does) and he can still sustain a bell tone on the guitar that lasts longer than FDR’s presidency. When Shorter tries to intercede, his sax squawks in rebellion as if to say, “Not on this song you don’t.” His lack of feel for the song nearly turns ‘Incident” into an accident, as he launches into a pointless soliloquy that sounds suspiciously like Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” When Shorter bows out and Santana returns to restore order, its one happy incident.
Shorter revives from his slumber during “Elegant People,” blowing with the fervor of a Canadian Goose with its head on the chopping block, and Rushen pulls off a challenging lengthy solo literally with her eyes closed. “Goodness and Mercy” is marred by Thompson’s cheesy Casio backing, but there are plenty of close ups. You can study Carlos at work as he deftly adjusts the volume on his guitar, rolls the pick between his fingers or shifts his whammy bar. It’s surprising how many subtle machinations he goes through during the course of a song – and the fact that he’s sitting, seemingly playing casually, will make you appreciate his technique even more.
Chepito Areas demonstrates there’s still plenty of fire in his sticks during his part of a percussion solo, and Peraza gets the crowd clapping during his short foray. When Chancler gets his inevitable turn, he’s orderly, not showy, whether slapping out a rat-a-tat rhythm on the high hat or kicking the bass drum.
Shorter switches off from his usual tenor sax to soprano sax for “For Those About To Chant” and he’s more expressive and inspired than before, hitting a series of high notes that makes the reed in his sax hum – and he gets a well deserved hand for it. Santana takes off in Wes Montgomery mode, riffing with subtly. “Once It’s Gotcha” is upbeat with the rhythm section locking into a neck-snapping groove. Rushen straps on a portable piano that she manipulates like a guitar (a gimmicky instrument popularized by Gary “Dreamweaver” Wright and Edgar “Frankenstein” Winter). She proves to be the sharpest of the three soloists, going funk for funk with Santana when they square off.
“Mandela,” written by Armado Peraza, has a keyboard backing from Thompson straight out of the soundtrack for the “X-files.” Shrieking on soprano sax, Shorter starts off haphazard and gets more crazed and left field as the tune progresses, but that’s jazz, man.
“Dig Deeper” from Santana’s “Praise” originally featured man-mountain Buddy Miles on vocals and was one of the album’s weaker cuts. As an instrumental it’s toe-tapping and striking. Santana slices and dices the strings with a soul man’s devotion and Shorter blasts his solo, assimilating the band’s groove. One of the encore pieces is Santana’s classic instrumental samba “Europa.” It’s as vibrant as the studio version, a melodic milestone with lucid solos from Santana.
The DVD is interspersed with interviews with Santana, Shorter and the festival’s founder, Claude Nobs. Santana gushes over Peraza’s style (“There are no prisoners”) and Areas’ contrasting talent (“He has the gift for perpetual time”). A discombobulated Shorter attempts to explain his composition “Sanctuary,” then the interview neatly cuts away to the band playing it. “Sanctuary” is space jazz, with Shorter doing his Coltrane thing, airing it out. Santana plays off of Chancler’s heart-attack pace, getting in some inventive Jeff Beck-like runs. “Sanctuary” gets a bit chaotic, but that’s jazz, man.
There’s no faulting the length of the concert. It’s a mind-numbing 124 minutes, and be forewarned, there are no vocals, a big negatory in my book. The photography is crisp, although some of the protracted shots are questionable. There are a lot of shots of Patrice Rushen’s hands, which is understandable, she’s a keyboard player, but what you wind up missing are the cues she gives Shorter or her communication with the rest of the band. Same goes for Thompson – we see the back of his head when he and Santana duet on “Goodness and Mercy” and “El Salvador’ but miss the eye contact between the two of them. Shorter gets caught off guard by the camera more often than anyone else, cradling his sax or just standing off to the side sweating bullets, looking gun shy, or smiling timidly when he bleats out a bad note. The shots of Chancler are exceptional, you’re close enough to be one of his cymbals, and you get enough of Peraza’s interactions with Santana to balance out the rest of the DVDs awkward moments.
This edition of The Santana Band doesn’t have the ability to blow you away the way the original band did, but they inspire fish-out-of-water Shorter to give a good account of himself. And Carlos? He rarely gives a bad performance. The neat trick here is with “Live in Montreux” you get to hear it and see it. Plus you get to marvel at the biggest Afro this side of the 80s.