Carlos Santana’s guitar style has been one of those instantly identifiable sounds on the musical horizon for close to four decades. Cross-generational listeners with access to a pop-radio dial are familiar with his thick tone and soaring sustain on Latin-cum-rock-cum-blues riffing, spiced with jazz and folded into songs whose vocalists are generally outshined and rendered faceless by the signature Santana touch on guitar.
It’s understandable, but also a bit strange, that the guitar hero-centric Tone Center label would cull guitarists from the jazz, rock and in-between worlds for a Santana tribute project. The music is well-meaning enough, anchored in the solid rhythm tracks as laid down by drummer Dave Weckl, bassist Abe Laboriel, percussionist/vocalist Luis Conte and rhythm guitarist/project producer Jeff Richman. Guest guitarists do best to find a happy middle ground between their own style and the Santana sound, but we keep waiting for the Man himself to show up. Something seems wrong with the picture.
One interesting upshot is the natural parsing of genres: Santana is nothing if not appealing to guitarists across styles. Vinnie Moore kicks things off in a heavy-metallurgical mode, but clean-toned country wizard Albert Lee brings his own logical sweetness and trip-skipping 16th notes to “Samba Pa Ti.” From jazz quarters, we hear Mike Stern on “Oye Como Va”—with its vocal section cross-graded to 7/4—and Pat Martino on “Flor D’Luna (Moonflower)”—whose clean, sustain-free work is among the album’s highlights.
And the award for most Carlos-like playing goes to Coco Montoya on “Jungle Strut.” But Eric Johnson and Robben Ford make their personalized voices sing, tipping the hat to the album’s subject while embracing the subtleties of guitar lingo of their own devising.