The Art of Latin Fusion Solos

Carlos Santana is a fourth-generation musician who started listening to the blues of B.B. King and John Lee Hooker in the mid 50’s. In 1955 Santana began playing guitar in nightclubs. In the Sixties, forming his own band, Carlos Santana pioneered an innovative fusion of rock, fiery Afro-Latin polyrhythm, and low-key vocals. The band evolved in San Francisco’s Latin district from jam sessions. Though the soft-spoken Santana felt uncomfortable as leader, he lent his name to the group because the local musicians’ union required a designated leader for each band.

At the same time Santana was forming, Bill Graham staged the first of several concerts at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. This first concert featured B.B King, Jefferson Airplane, and The Who. Santana’s 1968 debut at San Francisco’s Fillmore West received a standing ovation; his local popularity led to a spot for Santana at Woodstock, where they stopped the show. The instrumental Soul Sacrifice, featuring Michael Shrieve’s drum solo, is one of the high points of the Woodstock soundtrack album.  The first time I heard this song; I just sat down and listened. The intense use of congas and strong simple bass lines were unlike anything I had ever heard before. I listened to Santana albums every time I could find them; the simple chord arrangements, blues overtones, and infectious percussion were hard to ignore.

Santana’s overwhelming success at Woodstock lead to a deal with Columbia and their debut Album “Santana”. The album’s song Evil Ways was a Top 10 single in early 1970. Abraxas (Black Magic Woman and Oye Como Va), released later that year; these songs were the signature songs that I remember and identify with the classic approach that Carlos took for music. His chord changes were often simple 1-4 exchanges with a brief bridge that hovered in the neighborhood of the 5 chord. Easy to play, they quickly became a part of my regular play list.

In 1972 Carlos Santana created a live fusion jazz album outside the band. Though dismissed by critics because of the strong jazz influences, it, too, sold well. This live fusion album Love, Devotion, Surrender (1972) found the guitarist playing with a wide range of jazz musicians including John McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, Billy Cobham, Stanley Clarke, and Larry Young. The infusion of techniques from the jazz community introduced me to new ways to exploit the use of long leads with ample space between phrases and strong percussive rhythms. Later I noted my syncopated rhythm guitar playing, especially when I was improvising chord changes, were drawn from Santana. In the late seventies, his jazz-fusion album, Oneness featured fusion musicians and former Miles Davis sidemen including Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, and Weather Report reedman Wayne Shorter.   The Weather Report was a band outside of my normal listening circle, yet these jazz players were able to connect with the rock players who had common threads of subdued vocals, improvised leads, and strong rhythms (bass and drums).  Through their connections, I learned how to fuse rock and jazz into a funky, syncopated, emotional music. Many people comment that they hear hints of Santana in my music.

I realized a long time ago that instrumental music speaks a lot more clearly than English, Spanish, Yiddish, Swahili, any other language. Pure melody goes outside time. – Carlos Santana.

I have been accused of being a very simplistic, very lyrical player, and that’s okay. That just comes from the blues, which is my background. But every day you wake up and transcend. You can’t ever rest on your laurels. – Carlos Santana.