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Various Artists: Viva Carlos! (2006)

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Various Artists: Viva Carlos! How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

Guitarist Jeff Richman continues his series of tribute albums with Viva Carlos!, an homage to guitarist Carlos Santana that manages to accomplish what most tributes can't: actually improve on its source.

Santana's tone and style are immediately recognizable, but when compared to the players enlisted here, the Mexican-born guitarist simply doesn't have the vocabulary. He's dabbled in the jazz world through associations with artists like John McLaughlin and Wayne Shorter. There's no question that some of his tunes are tailor-made for more expansive interpretation. But his ability to navigate his own sometimes complex changes has always been limited. His solo approach is more about finding single notes or simple lines that can thread through the changes, and letting his singing tone do the rest. And that ultimately reduces Santana as a guitarist to something of a one-trick pony.

But there's more substance to Santana's music than meets superficial examination, and his writing can be fine grist for more sophisticated exploration—just listen to Viva Carlos!. Vinnie Moore's take on the blistering "Se a Cabo applies a singing tone similar to Santana's. But his far more developed chops and extended techniques take the energy level to places Santana never could. Similarly, Frank Gambale's equally distorted but sharper-edged tone takes "Samba de Sausalito (from the fusion-centric Welcome, Columbia 1973) and, while occasionally referencing Santana's use of repetition, gives it a facelift through sheer boldness and wide-reaching ideas. Richman's take on the bossa ballad "Europa is reverential in tone, but more advanced in execution.

The real surprises here are those who stray far from Santana's tone and apply a more personal aesthetic. Who'd have thought that Pat Martino's clean and dark-hued sound would work so well with "Moonflower, or that Albert Lee—better known in country circles—could take the equally relaxed "Samba Pa Ti and reinvent it, retaining Santana's evocative melody while turning it into something far more subtle?

Credit, as always, has to go to Richman for assembling a band that understands the source material but is able to expand on it. Sometimes it's a simple conceit like the classic "Oye Como Va (featuring Mike Stern), where the familiar melody is reshaped in 7/4. It can also be a matter of applying a more visceral rhythm, as with the powerful shuffle of "Blues for Salvador, which is tailor-made for the blues-centric Robben Ford.

The fact that all the pieces (except 1987's "Blues for Salvador ) come from '70s albums may reveal a not-so-hidden statement. Recent releases like Supernatural (Arista, 1999) may be mega-million sellers, but Santana's real legacy remains with the string of albums he released between 1969 and 1977. Viva Carlos! respects that legacy but reinvents it through rearrangement and employing guitarists who speak with a more advanced language. This music will appeal to fans and, perhaps surprisingly, non-fans alike.

Visit Jeff Richman on the web.

Track Listing: Se a Cabo (featuring Vinnie Moore); Europa (featuring Jeff Richman); Oye Como Va (featuring Mike Stern); Jingo (featuring Eric Gales); Moonflower (featuring Pat Martino); Aqua Marine (featuring Eric Johnson); Samba de Sausalito (featuring Frank Gambale); Blues for Salvador (featuring Robben Ford); Samba Pa Ti (featuring Albert Lee); Jungle Strut (featuring Coco Montoya).

Personnel: Dave Weckl: drums; Abe Laboriel: bass; Peter Wolf: keyboards; Luis Conte: percussion; Jeff Richman: guitar, featured guitar (2); Vinnie Moore: featured guitar (1); Mike Stern: featured guitar (3); Eric Gales: featured guitar (4); Pat Martino: featured guitar (5); Eric Johnson: featured guitar (6); Frank Gambale: featured guitar (7); Robben Ford: featured guitar (8); Albert Lee: featured guitar (9); Coco Montoya: featured guitar (10).

Record Label: Tone Center

Style: Fusion/Progressive Rock


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