CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Cindy Blackman Santana: This Drummer Got Some

On her first album as a leader in 10 years, she shows off her drumming and vocal skills

Cindy Blackman Santana
Cindy Blackman Santana (photo: ©Jimmy Bruch)

When James Brown famously yelled, “Give the drummer some,” it was a recognition of sorts that drummers deserved a moment in the spotlight. Cindy Blackman Santana, however, has never been content to wait for her moment; she took it, thundering away with unrelenting fire as both a band member and leader. She’s still doing so on her newest recording, titled—yes—Give the Drummer Some. Three years in the making, it’s essentially a double album with 17 tunes.

“I wanted to do something that wasn’t boxed [genre-wise] and I couldn’t tell the story I wanted to with just eight tracks,” Blackman Santana explains. Another factor: It’s been a while since she put out an album as a leader—her previous one was 2010’s Another Lifetime, a tribute to one of her main influences, Tony Williams. For its follow-up, she’s gathered a batch of mostly up-tempo fusion, rock, R&B, and funk songs peppered with social, ecological, humanistic, and political calls to arms. Most significant of all is that the bandleader sings on 11 of them.

Another drummer and producer had a little something to do with this. As Blackman Santana recounts, “Narada Michael Walden heard ‘I Remember,’ which I wrote and sang on the Isley Brothers/Santana album Power of Peace [from 2017]. He wanted to produce me and I was like, ‘No, man, you can’t produce me, I’m not a singer.’ [But] with Narada [at his Tarpan Studios] it just happened in a beautiful and organic way.”   

Blackman Santana and Walden have known each other for about 20 years. They first met backstage at a San Francisco concert during her 18-year tenure with rocker Lenny Kravitz. Since her 2010 marriage to guitar superstar Carlos Santana, Walden’s good friend and fellow Bay Area resident, they’ve become close; in fact, she and Carlos are godparents to Walden and his wife Katie’s year-and-a-half-old son.

Out of their collaboration, songs such as a rocking Kravitz-ish version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and jolting dance grooves emerged. Walden handled arrangements and inserted keyboard and synth touches. Blackman Santana laid down drum tracks initially and overdubbed her singing afterward; she says doing both at the same time wouldn’t work sonically, and she wasn’t used to combining the roles. More flavor and support came from her husband, whose unique playing style is very evident.  

The involvement of semi-retired guitar icon John McLaughlin, whose fusion work with Santana and Walden is legendary, was a surprise. “John is one of my heroes,” Blackman Santana comments excitedly. “He played with Tony Williams’ Lifetime, which is one of my all-time favorite bands ever. [Bassist] Matt Garrison and I were in the studio during the first sessions [in Las Vegas’ Studio at the Palms]. I started thinking maybe John might play on a song with us, since he’s played with Matt before.”

Blackman Santana and Garrison picked a song that would eventually be titled “We Came to Play.” They sent it to McLaughlin and he responded positively. “I was floored and didn’t expect him to say yes,” Blackman Santana remembers. “A couple of months later he reached out to me saying, ‘Cindy, I want to play on something else on your record.’ The next day I was in my drum room experimenting with some James Brown beats and came up with a groove that became ‘Superbad.’ [Narada] and I agreed that we had to send John that because he’s superbad too. He said yes and luckily for us, we got John McLaughlin on two tracks!”

The drummer remembers first meeting the Mahavishnu Orchestra leader in Ireland, when her band opened for the all-star Five Peace Band consisting of McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and Vinnie Colaiuta. Later, when she was playing with her husband’s band at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2011, McLaughlin joined them. “We took a break from the Santana stuff,” she recalls, “and with David Mathews on organ, Benny Rietveld on bass, and myself, we played a mini-set of Lifetime music. I had been playing those songs, but to play them with John was a whole other deal! Afterwards, he said, ‘I hadn’t played that music since 1969/1970 with Tony.’”

Additionally, guitarists Vernon Reid (Living Colour) and Kirk Hammett (Metallica) are on several of the album’s more hard-rocking tracks. Blackman Santana and Reid go back to her early years in New York and worked together on the 2012 Spectrum Road tribute to Williams that included John Medeski on organ and the late Lifetime/Cream bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce. She and Hammett first met in Europe during a tour with Kravitz; her husband and office staff suggested she contact him for the new album. “I got some of the heaviest-hitting guitar players on the planet,” Blackman Santana says proudly, “and I’m happy because I love guitar.”

“Miles Away,” an atmospheric homage to Miles Davis featuring trumpeter Bill Ortiz, brings another important—and sad—connection to mind. “It would have been supreme to have Wallace [Roney] play on it,” Blackman Santana says of the track, though she adds that she “was very happy with Bill Ortiz and he sounded beautiful. Wallace [who died in April of COVID-19] left too soon. We came to New York, raised each other and lived together for 11 years. He had a huge impact on me, but we weren’t in touch for a long time, because of an uncomfortable breakup. Towards the end of his time here we had some nice communications, and I have some messages from him I will cherish forever that are about music and life.”

Give the Drummer Some can’t be called primarily a jazz album, but Blackman Santana says, “I will always be a jazz musician and that’s never too far away. There is a jazz trio track, ‘Velocity’ with Matt on bass and Neal Evans on electric piano. There were others I wanted to do but couldn’t fit in, such as duets with Buster Williams and Ron Carter. I hope people will embrace the record and the concept. We’re delivering fun, joy, creativity, intelligence, and messages.”

Chris J. Walker

Chris J. Walker is a music journalist based in Los Angeles who has covered the jazz and blues scene all over Southern California, and throughout the rest of California, as much as possible for over 25 years. He, however, is not totally relegated to jazz and blues, and occasionally reviews folk, rock, R&B, funk and world music events as well.