For listeners of a certain, shall we say, vintage, Carlos Santana will forever be associated with classic rockers such as "Black Magic Woman," "Evil Ways" and "Oye Como Va," staples of the prodigiously talented guitarist's hippie-period songbook. Operating out of San Francisco, Santana and his band gamely commingled Latin rhythms with the psychedelic era's penchant for meandering tunes and longwinded jams -- and were generously rewarded for their efforts.
Indeed, though known far and wide as a virtuoso musician and fount of air-guitar inspiration, Santana has been a reliable chart performer, too, one with a willingness to extend his brand -- as the marketers like to say -- to score a direct hit.
It's for that reason that a newer generation of listeners knows Santana as that cool-looking old guy who plays guitar in the video for "Smooth," a smash from 2002 that featured Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas on vocals and close-ups. And these days, Santana is likely known to millions more as the barefoot gentleman who shared the spotlight with deadly dull cutie-pie Michelle Branch during this National Football League season's kickoff high jinks.
The pop-rocker that Santana played with Branch -- "I'm Feeling You" -- appears on the guitarist's ambitiously titled new album, "All That I Am," but it's just one of the disc's many tag-team efforts. After a pair of freedom-rock throwbacks ("Hermes," "Fuego"), Santana swings open the studio doors and ushers in a guest list that might make Diddy jealous.
Metallica's Kirk Hammett trades solos with the San man on "Trinity," a minor-key instrumental, while on "Just Feel Better," Aerosmith's Steven Tyler transforms a generic rock ballad into a memorable one thanks to a knack for vying with Santana's outsize riffage and more than holding his own. (Give Michelle Branch three decades in a band with Joe Perry and one suspects she could do the same.)
Elsewhere, erstwhile American idol Bo Bice takes a bland turn on "Brown Skin Girl," a shuffling, jazz-inflected tune, while Mary J. Blige and OutKast's Big Boi turn up on "My Man."
Contrived? Well, sure. "All That I Am" is a marketer's dream, a Whitman's Sampler of styles seemingly designed to please all of Santana's target demographics while staking out a bit of new territory along the way.
Funny thing is, though, it mostly works. Only the force-fed hip-hop of "My Man" feels completely inorganic, and Santana seals the deal by closing the disc with two of its strongest tracks.
Both "I Don't Wanna Lose Your Love" and "Da Tu Amor" find him conjuring up his old black magic without sounding, well, old. The latter is a smooth, horn-juiced slab of jazz-rock, while the former finds Santana lacing vintage ax work through a snaky toe-tapper written and served up by the fine Tex-Mex outfit Los Lonely Boys.
The Boys' track easily takes best-of-disc honors. Indeed, as solid as "All That I Am" mostly is, here's hoping that, next time out, Santana forgoes the cast-of-thousands approach and records an entire album with just these guys. They're clearly kindred spirits.
Carlos Santana opens the gate to an impressive list of guests on his latest.