Summing up the way he's approached his nearly 40-year recording career, Carlos Santana likes to quote the late Miles Davis.
"Miles would say that you're born with a curse and a blessing -- a curse to change and a blessing to be able to do it," the guitarist and bandleader recalls.
"I embrace the fact that you can do [i]this[/i] so you can also do [i]that[/i], which is what makes it a challenge and a joy every time I step forward to make some new music."
That philosophy has resulted in one of the most varied and fascinating careers rock 'n' roll has ever produced. With his Latin heritage at the core of his sound, the Mexican-born Santana has enjoyed mainstream rock hits such as "Evil Ways," "Oye Como Va," "Smooth" and "The Game of Love" as well as more esoteric explorations with collaborators like John McLaughlin and Alice Coltrane. He's released three dozen albums, won 10 Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
And Santana takes a great deal of pride in the fact that he continues to branch out and experiment, sometimes in the face of commercial conventional wisdom.
"Man, for me the best is still ahead," predicts Santana, 60, who has three children with wife Deborah, whom he's in the process of divorcing after 34 years of marriage. "Most people, once they go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it's over. But I feel like we're just starting.
"Everything I've done so far has prepared me to bring the music to a new level. We call ourselves architects of a new dawn; there's people like Sting and Prince and Michael Jackson and myself. We do things that people's don't necessarily need to know, but we do it anyway with...no borders."
Santana's latest release, 2007's "Ultimate Santana," shows that he's been able to do all that and sell records, too. While the 18-song set is hardly a comprehensive review of his musical life, it does offer a credible overview of where his creativity had collided with the pop mainstream, sampling from Santana's original golden era (1969-71) and from the hit-making path he's been on since the multi-platinum 1999 smash "Supernatural," the first of three albums on which Santana worked with younger hitmakers such as matchbox twenty's Rob Thomas, Dave Matthews, Jennifer Lopez, Nickelback's Chad Kroeger and others.
The album also features three new songs, including the original version of the Grammy-winning "The Game of Love" with Tina Turner singing.
Some Santana devotees have lamented the direction of these particular albums -- the brainchild of Arista Records chief Clive Davis, who signed Santana to his first contract, with Columbia Records, in the late '60s. They feel they've subsumed the instrumental virtues and virtuosity of the guitarist and his tight, accomplished band in favor of glitzy marquee value.
The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson even calls it "the Santana route" in which "you oversaturate your album with guests to look current, whether that guest fits you or not. You run the risk of losing yourself in all those guests."
But Santana defends that course, saying he considers them as creatively valid as anything else he's done since he debuted on "The Live Adventures of Al Kooper and Michael Bloomfield" in 1969.
"Look," he explains, "somebody wakes up, they write an incredible song and they go, 'I'm gonna take this to Carlos,' that's enough to just pinch my heart. God, I'm so grateful. They could've just kept the song to themselves.
"So whether it's Chad Kroeger or Rob Thomas or Dave Matthews, I'm just very grateful, man, that people wake up and they have me in mind to share their song with me."
Santana's relationship with Kroeger is one of the more interesting on the three albums -- which also include 2002's "Shaman" and 2005's "All That I Am." Kroeger co-wrote and sang on the "Shaman" version of the song "Why Don't You and I." But when it was released as a single, which reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it was sung by Alex Brand of the Call after Kroeger's label refused permission for him to appear on a single.
"Sometimes record companies or lawyers or accountants or whatever...I don't necessarily need to make anyone a victim or a villain, yet sometimes people get in the way of artists," notes Santana. That, however, made "Into the Night," the first single from "Ultimate Santana," something of a make-good.
"When I first heard it, it sounded like such an anthem," Santana says, "talking about how each person individually is struggling between good and evil, right and wrong. When I heard the chorus and I heard the lyrics, I said, 'Oh yeah, this is it,' so I called my brother Chad and I think him."
Kroeger says the feeling is mutual.
"We actually hung out with each other, which was different from ('Why Don't You and I'), when I just sent the song over," Kroeger says. "We flew down to San Francisco and had Carlos play all his guitar parts on it and his guys came in...and it turned out just amazing. We're all really proud of it."
Resurrecting the Turner version of the Top 5 "The Game of Love," meanwhile, also pleased Santana. Turner's vocal was removed from the track and replaced with Michelle Branch's when she announced a retirement and would not be available to help promote the song. But no one told Santana or Turner, who the guitarist says was miffed by the slight.
"I tried for years to send her flowers and apologize and let her know it had nothing to do with a decision I'd made, but she wouldn't have it," he remembers. "I kept persisting. I lighted some candles and chanted...and to my surprise she said yes for this one, so I'm very grateful."
And, he adds, "my gratitude extends to Michelle Branch; she did a great job and we got a Grammy and it's all very good -- and now we get to have our cake and eat it, too. People get to hear Tina's interpretation as well."
If Santana has his way, fans will be hearing him make another musical shift in the near future. His next planned project is called "The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost," a trilogy he's working on with modernist producer Bill Laswell that will be built around a trio of Santana, his regular keyboardist Chester Thompson and Narada Michael Walden on drums, with a variety of guests singers and instrumentalists including jazz vanguards such as Wayne Shorter, Pharoah Sanders and Kenny Garrett.
Santana says it will be "very Spanish...with other colors." It might not have the hit single potential his last three albums, but he claims that's not a great concern.
"See, I'm not wired to think like an accountant or a lawyer or a promoter," Santana explains. "I'm just wired to transmit a certain frequency, a resonance and a vibration that can give you a jolt. I don't need to write anything in stone, an 'I don't do windows' kind of thing.
"It helps me not to allow anyone to define me as 'just another Mexican blues player"...I'd rather be a musician that can go to Japan or Africa or Jerusalem or the Apache reservation and be able to complement whoever they put in front me. So I consciously don't like people to box me in or to define me -- and I fight them when they try."
Santana and the Derek Trucks Band perform at 7 p.m. Friday (April 18) at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $79.50 and $49.50. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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