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Santana IV Records S4007
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****

Sound Quality
***

Overall Enjoyment
***1/2

It’s tough being a fan of Carlos Santana. He is indisputably one of the great guitarists of the classic-rock era, but his recordings with the various iterations of his band have been wildly erratic. The original lineup of his eponymous band split up after three very good records, and some of the music that followed, such as Caravanserai (1972) and Welcome (1973), was up to the standard set by that original group. Other releases, such as Inner Secrets (1978) and Zebop! (1981), fell short.

Much of the music Carlos Santana has done since the hugely successful Supernatural (1999) has put him in the odd position of being a sideman on his own records. He was still potent and creative in concert, but in the studio he seemed to be his own hired gun. When Santana announced that he and his original band were working on a new album, it sounded like an opportunity for him to reassert his mastery of the guitar.

Santana IV

Released 45 years after III (1971), this fourth album by the original Santana begins with “Yambu.” The track announces the return of Santana -- band and guitarist -- with a tough, dense sound. Gregg Rolie’s Hammond B3 is reassuring and familiar, but this is a much older band than the one that made those first three records. These seven musicians now have behind them nearly half a century of playing and touring -- the freshness and discovery of youth have been replaced with the confidence of experience. This time around, the excitement comes from a band returning to its roots and showing what it has learned.

“Anywhere You Want to Go” nods to “Oye Cómo Va,” and composer Rolie fires off an assured solo against Michael Shrieve’s solid drumming and Michael Carabello’s colorful percussion. Guitarist Neal Schon, who joined the band for III, is flashy but inventive here. When Santana enters for his solo, he sounds liberated and charged up, passionate and smart -- his playing restores him to his rightful place in the guitar pantheon.

Inevitably, Santana’s IV invites comparisons to earlier efforts. “Fillmore East” and “Forgiveness” have their roots in the atmospheric jazz of Caravanserai, the last album Schon appeared on before he and Rolie left to form Journey. “Love Makes the World Go Round” and “Freedom in Your Mind,” both featuring guest vocalist Ronnie Isley, bring back memories of “Everybody’s Everything,” from III, and the Latin soul tunes from later albums, such as Amigos (1976).

Santana IV

IV never sounds stodgy or nostalgic, but it’s a definite return to the kind of music Santana made before he let fame and occasional bad judgment compromise his music. The explosive “Caminando” gives the band’s style of Latin rock a new sheen, while “Blues Magic”/“Echizo” and “Sueños” offer some variety by slowing things down. At a length of 75:25, the album could have been leaner -- but after so long apart, this is a band with a lot to say. A little less compression would have given the music more room to breathe, but the sound is big, and it grabs you.

Shape Shifter (2012) was Santana’s attempt to remind people that he is, after all, an innovative guitarist, but the album’s production style lacked subtlety -- he seemed to be trying too hard. On IV he sounds relaxed, with the confidence of a man who has nothing to prove. He can just play. With the help of these six veteran musicians, Carlos Santana sounds like himself again.

. . . Joseph Taylor
josepht@soundstagenetwork.com